I was in a place last week where there was much talk of getting loved up. Which means, in case you hadn't guessed, beaming love onto a person so that they feel wonderful, amazing and fantastic.
And this got me thinking about loving up our writing.
Because much of the time we don't. Instead we critique it, let it be rejected, revise it, rewrite it, delete it, don't finish it, leave it in a drawer (metaphorical or otherwise).
And yes, we do need to be discerning about our writing. All of the above steps are necessary (except for leaving it in a drawer). But shouldn't we be giving our writing a bit of love, too?
Yeah, I know–you're afraid its egotistical to do that. But I'm not talking about the kind of puffed-up, fake love that the ego gives. I'm talking about just loving our writing.
Loving (and honoring) the impulse that makes us rise early or stay up late to throw words at the page.
Loving the times the words are coming so fast that we can barely get them onto the computer.
Loving the times we gaze out the window because the words won't come.
Loving the times in between those two poles (which is what writing most often is for me).
Loving the finished product, be it short story, poem, novel, article or memoir.
Loving it all.
You're at a cocktail party and someone asks you what you do. You say, "I'm a writer." The person's eyes light up and they say, "Oh really? What do you write? Have I read anything of yours?"
Do you think people at cocktail parties get that excited when they are told most other occupations? No, they do not. People get excited to meet writers because writing is hard. And sometimes easy. And wonderful. And an amazing way to spend your time. People get excited to meet writers because what we do is special.
Don't ever forget that.
And now go love your writing up.
You could also leave a comment and tell what you're working on as a way of loving it up!
Keep calm and carry on. The saying is a cliche of the highest order by now, its initial message as positive propaganda during World War II long since co-opted for commercial purposes. But for some reason it popped into my head a few days ago and wouldn't leave.
Maybe because my life has been anything but calm lately and I'm struggling to carry on with my writing. I'm not complaining, mind you. Life is hectic because I went on vacation, I've got obligations to friends, family, and community, and oh yeah, work. All of which I love. But none of which are especially conducive to getting words on the page.
And there's something about the keep calm and carry on message that is, well, calming. It reminds me of another favorite saying, from the late doyenne of knitting, Elizabeth Zimmerman (also a Brit): Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.
We could amend that to Write on with confidence and hope, through all crises, don't you think?
Yeah, but how?
One of the stories that stays with me from the time years ago that I went to a creativity workshop with Julia Cameron was how she wrote during one of the worst times of her life, thus coining her phrase, keep the drama on the page. And she had drama then, yes she did. Her then-husband, Martin Scorsese (yes, thatMartin Scorsese) was cavorting around Europe with Isabella Rossellini and friends were helpfully sending her press clippings about the scandal. (This was, gasp, pre-internet days.) And yet, as I recall, she credited this with one of the most creative periods of her life.
Here are some ideas that I've been drawing upon the last few days as I work myself back into a regular writing schedule.
Start with the breath. In moments of busyness or anxiety, you've become apart from yourself. The fastest way to get centered again is to take a minute to focus on your breathing. Stop, take a breath, and connect with yourself (or whatever source you believe in, if you prefer). Are all the things that are making you frazzled and anxious really that important? Take another breath. Probably they aren't, huh? You are still here and still breathing and all is well.
Make writing a priority. No matter what all else you have on your agenda, make writing your priority, as if its the most important thing in the world, above even the most beloved thing in your life. (Wait, writing is the most beloved thing in your life, right?) Act as if your very life depended on you writing. Because, for your sanity, it does. And sometimes, you just have to set aside everything (yes, everything) else and do it. And when you have this mindset, you will be able to:
Let the world fall away. All those items on your to-do list will still be there waiting for you after you've written. And your life is not going to fall apart if you take a few minutes for yourself. Really, it's not. I am reminded of a TV ad for some kind of chocolate from long ago, which featured the image of a woman happily biting into a piece of candy. In the background, you heard a bell and a child's voice saying, "Hey Mom, phone's ringing." But Mom clearly didn't care–she was savoring her chocolate. And you, too, will be savoring your writing.
Know That You Have Enough. You have enough time, enough money, enough energy and enough focus to do this. The ingrained cultural message we constantly hear is the opposite–that there's not enough time, money or energy for anything. (By thus playing on our fears, they can sell us stuff that will supposedly plug the "not-enough" hole.) So often when I think I don't have enough time, I stop and remember that I do–and voila, things fall into place.
Stop the Negative Self-Talk. I think this is the modern-day heart of the keep calm and carry on message. I don't know about you, but for me, when I'm frazzled, I'm also busy berating myself–because of course, it's all my fault I'm in this situation. (Remember, I'm not enough.) And so taking a minute to listen to the terrible things you are saying to yourself can allow you to stop it. And thus make space to take a breath, calm yourself–and get back to your writing.
Those are some of the things that help me. Nothing earth-shattering, but then the practice of writing is all about the small decisions we make to commit to the page, over and over and over again. What about you? What helps you keep calm and carry on?
For more information on the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon, here's an interesting blog. And, good old Wikipedia has a lot of history on it here.
The word is much like the word discipline in that it elicits yawns and boredom from us. I mean, who ever got excited about the word consistency?
And yet, consistency is how writing gets done.
When you have a consistent writing practice, books get written. Blog posts get written. Essays get written. I was thinking about this today when I was despairing about a lenghty ghostwriting project I've got going. The topic is dense, the information complex. And I'm getting the book written one word at a time. I keep going back to it consistently. I keep putting it on my to-do list. And the chapters are piling up.
So, too, with my latest novel. I keep plugging away at it (actually, that makes it sound like it's not much fun working on it, and the opposite is true–I love it) and with a consistent practice of 1000 words a day, I got 100 pages done from the time I came up with the idea.
Consistency, in my mind, is better than wild late night sprints staying up until all hours working–and then crashing for days. Consistency is the turtle, not the hare.
Here's a consistency story for you:
In November of 2007, I left a comment on a blog about Zen practice. I'd found the blog and "met" its owner through what was then a hot site for bloggers called BlogCatalog. (Many of my initial online friends and blog readers came from this site. This was before Twitter, before Pinterest, before Instagram, and one year after Facebook opened its doors to all comers, not just college students.) The blog's owner, Derek Ayre, a Welshman, emailed me and thanked me for the comment. I emailed back.
A pen-pal friendship across the oceans was born.
At first we wrote every day. Then we wrote every other day. Now we write each other about once a week, though sometimes life gets in the way on either end and it turns out to be weeks before one of us answers the other.
But here's the deal: we always answer each other eventually. Because the pen-pal friendship is important to us. And so we are consistent with it.
(I have a bit of an ulterior motive in mentioning Derek because he's got a guest post coming up here on Tuesday and I wanted to spend more time introducing him than a short bio would allow.)
If, at any point in the past six years that we've been corresponding, one or the other of us became inconsistent, the friendship would have died. But we've been consistent in honoring our email friendship and the result is a connection I treasure.
So, yeah, if you're looking for a good buzz word for 2014, you could do worse than to choose consistency, my friends.
What are you consistent about? Your writing? Something else? Please comment.
I'm reading two books about writing at the moment, and together they are making my head explode. In a good way. It's exploding with ideas.
The first one is called Wonderbook, and it is by Jeff Vandermeer. I'm only at the very beginning of this baby, having just gotten hold of it last week. This book is like no other writing book you've ever seen, I guarantee it. Wonderbook is a lavishly illustrated feast of information, essays, and tips for the writer in all stages of writing a novel. Just go check out the site to see what I mean. It's an amazing book in conception and finished product.
In the opening section, on inspiration, Vandermeer writes about play and how we sometimes (more like often) sneer at it, as if it is beneath us, as if play, at its heart, is not the very essence of creativity. To wit:
"Modern ideals of functionality and the trend toward seamless design in our technology have taken the very human striving for perfection and given us the illusion of having attained it (which, ironically, seems very dehumanizing). In this environment, some writers second-guess their instincts and devalue the sense of play that infuses creative endeavors: "This antique Tiffany lamp must provide light right now, even before I screw in the lightbulb and plug it in, or it's worthless."
Vandermeer goes on to point out that the idea of play thus becomes "immature and frivolous" and we come to think that "all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized and easily summarized."
I think this also has to do with our emphasis on time, or more to the point, the lack thereof. Taking time to play and be creative seems like at time-waster when it doesn't immediately produce a finished piece. This attitude can lead to a reluctance to use prompts or writing exercises, or to do anything that isn't directly related to our WIP.
Which leads me to the second book I'm reading, The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way From Inspiration to Publication, by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada. (Please note, the publisher, New World Library, graciously provided me with a copy of the book for review. I'll be sharing more about it in a future post.) The authors delineate five stages that the writer goes through Dream, Draft, Develop, Refine, Share. Right now I'm reading about the first stage, Dream, in which, "a sticky idea calls you on a quest, and you set out to slay your own dragons."
The authors talk about starting a conversation with yourself, and then take it further to a technique they call Dreaming in Dialogue. (Which I'm not sure is the best name, because whenever I see the word dialogue in a writing book I presume it's talking about the act of writing about conversation between characters.) But, I love, love, love the technique itself and I think it is a fun writing exercise–worthy of taking time to play with.
The idea is to initiate a conversation with your alter ego, as they call it. So, on the page, you actually have a back and forth about your plot (or whatever). So (I made all the following up):
Writer: And then the angel landed right in front of her and she got scared so she ran away.
Alter Ego: Why did she get scared?
Writer: Because angels are scary, with their big wings and the whooshing noise they make as they fly.
Alter Ego: They make a whooshing noise as they fly?
Writer: Yes, and they also sing loudly.
I can see how this technique would be useful in furthering a writer's knowledge of the story he's trying to get on paper. To use it a slightly different way, the authors mention that Harold Robbins, he of the glorious potboiler novels, started each day out with a conversation with his typewriter, who spoke to him as a female. So you can use this technique with yourself, an imaginary person, or an inanimate object.
I know exactly who I'm going to try it out with: a character who resides within in named Passionate Creator. She's the one responsible for all the writing I churn out. She lolls about on a tufted chaise lounge, eating chocolate and sipping wine, and writes and writes and writes. She can't be bothered with anything having to do beyond actually getting words on the page (that would be the job of Layla, Business Lady, who Passionate Creator ordered from a catalog). But man, oh man, is she good at getting the writing done! So we're going to have us a conversation about where the novel is going, she and I.
Ah, our old friend writer's block. It can take so many shapes and sizes, just like fear, which it is, of course, based on. And just as writer's block can take a gazillion different forms, so, too, can its cure. Which is why you should try a variety of strategies if you are hit with writer's block, whether you're procrastinating writing the next scene in your novel or haven't been able to work on your memoir in years. Here's one possible approach.
A friend told me this tip in regards to getting over procrastination and getting things done (clearing out clutter, anyone?) in non-writing arenas of life. But it will work just as well for you (yes, you) with your writing block.
Here's the crux of it: micro action.
All you have to do is commit to one small (tiny, even) action each day. Do that and call it good. Really. Consider it done. You've accomplished your goal.
Here's a non-writing example. I've got an upstairs that has somehow accumulated quite a bit of clutter that I'd like to clean up. But I'm busy. I've got a book launch coming up and I'm doing publicity for that while maintaining this blog and continuing to do client work and teach. And plus, I hate clearing clutter. I get confused and overwhelmed really fast. Like five minutes fast. So here's my micro action: deal with one piece of paper or item per day. That's it. That's all I have to do. The other day I picked up a piece of paper and put it in the recycling bag. And I had met my goal.
I'm not sure what the experts say about why this works, but here's why I think it does: because it gets you used to doing whatever it is you're avoiding. And then you realize it's not the big scary monster you think it is. When you don't do something, it tends to loom large and take on proportions way bigger than reality. The other thing that happens is that you trick yourself into it. That one piece of paper uncovers another that I deal with in the moment and then another and another and before you know it, the shelf is cleaned off.
So let's apply this to writing.
If you're seriously blocked (and really, any block is a serious block because we writers are born to write and when we're not writing life is not good) set yourself a micro action goal of writing one sentence. If you're seriously seriously blocked, maybe your goal will be one word. That's your accomplishment. Write your word or sentence and you are done for the day. Or maybe you'll set the goal to write for one minute. Or five minutes. I'd be willing to bet serious money that eventually–way sooner than you think at this moment–that one sentence will turn into a paragraph, which will then turn into a scene. And you'll be writing again. Because here's the deal: you've established yourself a habit. And once something is habitual, it's not scary anymore. (Unless you're smoking. Or drinking too much. Then it gets frightening.)
Here's a tip–don't become an overachiever, at least when you first start this process. For instance, I'm using this process to re-commit to a regular walking routine after injuring my knee. If I so much as walk out the door I've accomplished my goal. But for me, getting outside (step away from the computer…) is the hardest thing to do, so usually, once I'm walking, I'm quite happy. I noticed last week on a walk that my knee was starting to get a bit tired. And my reaction was to start coercing myself to do more. Telling myself I hadn't gone far enough. Berating myself for being lazy. But then I remembered–I'd already accomplished my goal. And I headed for home. Because of this attitude and my micro goal, I now look forward to walking.
So if you're struggling to make forward motion on a big project, try this micro action technique. And then report back after your novel is on the best-seller list.
Have you ever tried something like this to get yourself going again? What were the results?
**By the way, speaking of book launches, wouldn't you like to celebrate mine with me? Click here for the details.
What, exactly are the essential conditions for writing success you ask?
Here's a hint: only you can figure them out for yourself.
Let me explain a bit about the type of conditions I'm talking about here.
Last month (I guess it's actually last year now) I took an afternoon workshop from a fabulous woman named Janet Connor. In it she told the story of how she went from making an appointment to consult with a bankruptcy attorney to making $12,000 in one month.
Janet figured out the secret to manifestation. And that secret is this, from Thich Nhat Hanh: "When the conditions are sufficient, there is a manifestation." Turns out this is also, in slightly different words, of course, wisdom from Jesus and the Buddha and probably a whole host of other wise figures as well.
Once you get the underlying conditions of your life in order, all else will follow.
Janet's conditions are of a spiritual nature, things like saying her prayers out loud every day. I think it's a wonderful idea to figure out what your spiritual conditions for a fabulous life might be, but our topic here is writing. And I believe the concept of uncovering the conditions that will call forth your best writing (and thus, I also believe, your best self) can be enormously beneficial as we start this new year.
Only you know what your conditions will be, but to give you a little boost, I offer up my own as an example:
–Deep journaling every morning. This is not the same as morning pages, at least to me. Yes, I do them first thing every day and yes they are free-form and uncrafted. But my morning pages tend to devolve into to-do lists and minor rants about what's wrong with my life. My deep journaling is more exploratory, more questioning, more connected to spirit.
–Write at least one hour every day on my own projects. As a writer and a writing teacher, I do a lot of work around writing. I read and comment on manuscripts. I write blog posts and newsletters and guest posts. I create workshops and classes. I love doing all these things, but sometimes my own writing gets pushed aside. And so one of my conditions is to spend at least one hour every day writing, really writing, on my own projects.
–Breathe. Sometimes I become conscious that my breathe has caught in my throat. Yeah, not a good thing for a writer, seeing as how the communication chakra is located in the throat. How can I hope to write freely if I'm not breathing freely?
–Ask for help. When things aren't going well, I need to remember to ask for help. I intended this to be about asking for help from God (or spirit, if the word God makes your nervous, or goddess, or universe, or Allah or your higher self) because that always seems to work. But as I started writing about it, I realized that asking for help can take many forms. Requesting that a trusted friend read a manuscript, or hiring a coach. The idea is to be willing to be humble enough to ask.
Those are my conditions. Now you might be wondering how to go about figuring out yours? Mine have revealed themselves in two ways:
–Through writing. No, duh. For a writer, the best way to discover anything is to write about it.
–Through meditation and prayer. Sometimes I think that my most powerful meditation is actually through the act of writing. But irregardless of that, I still do my best to find time to sit in silence every day.
So, how about you? Does this idea of conditions appeal to you? Do you know what your conditions might be?
***By the way, according to my calculations there are 42 days until my novel is released. I'll post the cover image here as soon as I get it from my editor!
Not only that, we've sailed through what some feared would be the end of the world and many others felt would be the dawning of a new world, with a different consciousness.
There's been quite a bit of darkness along the way. Recent shootings here in the United States have left many of us with a heavy heart. The first thing I thought when I woke this morning was: it's Christmas Eve! And the next thing I thought about was all the families that won't have their children to celebrate with this year.
The other night, my friend Rachel came over for dinner and she and my husband and I did a ritual to mark the passing of the Mayan calendar. We burned what we wanted to release and wrote down and strung up into a prayer flag what we wanted to manifest. And while we were doing all this, we talked about dark and light:
How one doesn't exist without the other.
How it's the darkest time of the year, but as of Saturday, the light is returning.
How some believe that there's lots of light flooding into the planet right now but we aren't quite ready to receive it, so thus there's even more darkness than usual.
How it's all a matter of balance.
I'm left with one overwhelming feeling this season: that we are the light, and we must be the light for each other. That the only way to truly change the world is to change what's within and we do that one person at a time.
And so this holiday season, let's all be the light for each other. Let's practice being kind, and compassionate, and non-judgmental, and open and eager to serve. Choose how you want to be in this world, how you want to show up for yourself and others, and then be that way.
One thing that I am in droves is grateful. Grateful for so much in my life, my writing, my family, my friends. But more to the point here, I'm grateful for you. For those of you who have been reading me forever or you who just landed on the blog recently. I'm deeply grateful for you. My goal is to be a light in the world of writing and creativity and it's my readers who make this possible.
So thank you.
And Merry Christmas–or Happy Holidays, depending on what you celebrate.
And writers write. No matter what, we write. No matter if the world seems like it is going crazy or if we're going nuts within, our job is to write. To pour it all out on the page. To be chroniclers and bear witness.
Sometimes this writing, this flinging words at the page, is beyond us. And no matter how hard we want to do it, we just don't seem to be able to. The words won't come. We can't drag ourselves to the page. We sit at the computer and stare off into space.
But here's the conundrum: when you're a writer, the only thing that makes you feel better–the only thing that makes you feel like yourself again–is to write. So when you're not writing, you feel even worse. Oh, it's a vicious, mean cycle, I tell you. And the only way out is to get started writing again.
So, herewith, I present you with 12 ideas to kick-start your writing. The only thing you have to do is experiment with them and see which one works for you. Promise me you'll do that next time you're stalled and not just sit pretending to write when you're really playing Spider Solitaire. Because one of these ideas will lead you back home again.
1. Switch it up. Write by hand if you're used to doing drafts on the computer, or vice versa. Every time I get stalled on my novel, I switch to writing in a spiral notebook, et voila, the words flow once again. It's magical.
2. Choose a random word from the dictionary. Combine it with another word or use it as a one-word prompt. It works great if it's a word you don't know because then your mind can go in any direction it wants.
3. Use a sentence box. This takes a bit of advance preparation. Cut apart old manuscripts into sentences and put them in a bag or a box, then draw one when you get stuck and use it as a prompt. You can also do this with words and draw several, then string them together.
4. Pick a prompt. The key with prompts is to pick one, any one, without thought or emotional investment. And then just write like crazy. Don't try to stick to the topic of the prompt, just write and see where you end up. I've got tons of prompts on this page.
5. Use the first line of a favorite poem as a prompt.
6. Use the last line of your WIP as a prompt.
7. Re-read your recent work. If this doesn't get you back in the flow, go over notes you've taken. Look through notebooks you've compiled about the work. Maybe something will strike you in a new way.
8. Read a book on writing. Often I don't finish reading writing books because I get so many ideas from them I go to the page and never get back to the book.
9. Draw a card for guidance. You can use a Tarot deck or one of the gazillion types of guidance decks from various authors. I once went to a psychic who used a regular old deck of cards. Have no idea what she saw in them, but the reading was fantastic!
10. Create a ritual. Light a candle, put on some soothing music, drink a glass of water–whatever works for you.
11. Cut out images to inspire you. I describe this in more details in my free Ebook, Jumpstart Your Book With a Vision Board, which you can download to the right.
12. Doodle to get your mind going. I'm a doodler. I doodle when I listen to lectures or in meetings. It doesn't mean I'm not paying attention–to the contrary, it keeps me anchored in the moment. Lately I've been reading about the positive effects of doodling, and I think it's beneficial for writing, too.
Those are some of the ideas that work for me. How about you? Do you have any sure-fire kick-starters that you rely on to get you going again? Leave a comment and share.
Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It's a day when we pause from our normal routines to eat a lot of turkey and be grateful. Accordingly, the Internet is inundated this week with posts about gratitude.
It is not in the least coincidental that my spiritual community has just begun a 21 day gratitude process, which involves writing what we're thankful for in a gratitude journal. It is especially meaningful for us because we've come through a lot in the last year–a conflict that split the congregation this summer, and just a couple of weeks ago, a flood that destroyed the lower level of the church.
Maybe not exactly things you think of to be grateful about.
But the kind of gratitude I'm discovering is what I call radical gratitude, and it involves saying yes to everything in your life, good and bad. It involves realizing that everything that happens to you is designed for your own good, and saying yes to it is a lot easier than resisting it, which is usually my knee-jerk reaction.
This can get tricky, however. You can repeat to yourself "I'm grateful for my bum knee" over and over again and not really believe it. So over the time I've been attempting to apply gratitude to my life, I've developed a bit of a system. Here it is.
1. I say I'm grateful when I truly am grateful. Like for you, my readers. For the fact that my novel will be published on February 12. For my wonderful family. For my amazingly talented friends, online and off. For the fact that I am a creative person. For the gorgeous autumn leaves on the tree in front of my daughter's house. And so on.
2. I bless something when I'm not overtly grateful but want to acknowledge it. For instance, the rejection letter you got from that agent you really wanted to work with. It's hard to honestly be grateful for such a thing. But what you can do is bless it, which acknowledges it and leaves the door open for perhaps being grateful in the future. And it takes away that knee-jerk resistance, as in, "No! Why is this happening to me!" Remember: what you resist, persists.
And that's it. That's really all there is to it. Radical Gratitude. It's the easiest–and the hardest–thing to do in the world.
What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? I'd love to read about it in the comments.
Does not having time to work on my next novel as I finish a big editing job make me happy? No, not at all.
Would I sacrifice the editing job in order to have time to write?
Now that's a thorny question, because its the editing job that is paying the bills this month. Ah, thorny questions. Don't we love them? Yet in the process of pondering and answering these questions, I've come to some conclusions about what makes me happy as a writer, which I offer below.
But before we go there, let me remind you of one thing: the Dalai Lama himself says that the purpose of life is to be happy. Ergo, the goal of being a happy writer is an important spiritual motivation. So quit feeling guilty about it and see if you agree with what it takes to make a writer happy:
Process. Or, to put it another way, writing. Being involved in the actual process of writing is the single most important thing to make a writer happy. Obvious, right? I know, I know. But sometimes we get so engrossed in the peripheal stuff that we forget this. If you need some help writing regularly, I've got seven practices that will help.
Balance. Sitting at the computer and writing all day makes Charlotte a dull girl. And a broke one. I tell myself I'd love nothing better than to write all day, but when the opportunity presents itself, I procrastinate. I need variety–a little of this, a little of that. Working on a huge editing project makes me long for my novel writing. And vice versa. It's all about the balance. There's also the idea that writers need something to write about–as in a life well lived. You've got to do a bit of both, with the trick being not too much of any one thing.
Support. The writer's life can be a lonely one. Something that can help it not be quite so lonely is finding a community of like-minded writers. I wrote about this topic last week, in a post you can read about here. Never underestimate the happiness that connecting with other writers can bring.
Joy. What brings you joy? And why do I ask? Because joy feeds writing. For too long we've believed the opposite, that only angst-ridden writers produced deep work. It's time to put that outdated paradigm to rest. Joy is what gets my creative juices flowing. And having my creative juices flow makes me happy. So what brings you joy? Watching the sunrise through the trees? Taking your dog for a walk? Spending time with your family? Swimming in the ocean? Only you know. And only you can make sure you spend time in doing what's joyful for you.
Rest. A rested writer is a happy writer. An unrested writer is a cranky, anxiety-filled disaster waiting to happen. Don't buy into the old, stupid paradigm of the over-the-top writer staying up all night only to crash for days after. Rest–eight hours of sleep at the least–fuels a consistent writing practice. And that will make you happy.
So, did I get it right? What would you add or subtract? What makes you a happy writer?
**The one thing that makes me happier than anything is writing novels. My Get Your Novel Written Now class starts next week, join me? Read more about it here.