Have You Noticed This Weird Paradox? (A Love Letter)

First of all, Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who are mothers. The best mother’s day I ever had was the one in which I took myself out to a writer’s tea for the day—leaving my young children behind.  Anyway, to the rest of you—Happy Wise Women’s Day. Is that a thing? I thought I saw it somewhere. And I’m quite sure that every single one of my female readers is a wise woman. So happy day.

This week, I’ve been reminded of a weird paradox. I’m seeing in all areas of my life. It’s this: the more you do, the more you can do.  The more energy you expend, the more you have available to you. The more your read, the more you can read. The more you write, the more you can write. The more you knit, the more you can knit.

Okay, you get my drift.

And you might be disagreeing with me, scowling as you read. But hear me out. At first glance this paradox seems to make no sense. It’s backwards, right? There’s only so many hours in the day. How can the solution for getting more of something in your life be to add more of it?

But, it’s a thing, I tell you. I’m noticing it in my knitting. The more often I pick my current project up and work a few stitches, the more I want to. And the more I want to, the more I pick it up and work on, thus actually completing things (something I have difficulty with). So it’s a loop.

It’s been happening in my writing this week, too. I love journaling every morning but sometimes tell myself I don’t have time. I must get my word count in! Work on that rewrite! Write a blog post! Read manuscripts! But lately I’ve been starting my day with journaling again. I’ve also been doing random writing spurts to prompts in my writing notebook. And my writing productivity has increased exponentially. I was meandering along on my rewrite and suddenly I’m obsessed with it. Working on it is all I want to do.

Why does this happen? Here’s my theory: it has to do with passion and momentum and commitment. You allow your passion to have free reign (don’t take me too literally here) and that engenders momentum. And the more momentum you get, the more committed you become.

It’s a bit like being obsessed. And I don’t know about you, but I like this state of being because too often I’m meandering about the opposite way. How to achieve it? A lot if is about allowing. Allowing yourself to pick up the pen, even when you are feeling tired. (Writing is a surprisingly energetic activity, at least as far as your brain is concerned.) Allowing yourself to dive fully into the work. Allowing yourself to steal minutes away from watching TV and write instead. In other words, it’s as choice, my friend. It’s all about commitment.

And once you get obsessed, don’t forget to take some breaks once in awhile, too. In yet another weird paradox, getting too obsessed can lead to burnout and creative breakdown.

What have you gotten obsessed with lately? Leave a comment and tell me.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, which also includes links to cool things I’ve found in my internet travels. To sign up, click here.

Charlotte’s Monthly Round-Up Love Letter

Okay, so I probably should have done this last week, because we are already six days into the month, but I just thought of it. I’m talking about a new feature I’m trying—a monthly round-up of what’s going on in my writing life. Hopefully you will find things of use to you.

Outside my office window, the blossoms on the cherry tree are already fading. I can’t believe it is May! My month in France seems like a distant memory. And it is—I’ve been home nearly a month and a half. I’ve been busy working on my rewrite (see below), organizing my office, teaching, and working with clients. Oh, I also do quite a bit of shepherding of small children. (In case you need catching up, my daughter and her family moved in with us in March.)  It’s like being a parent all over again, only at least this time I can go close the door to my office. (Never mind that my office is the most favorite place of the two miniature humans who now live with me.)

Often sometimes I long for the gentle pace of the days in France, but I feel pretty blessed to have so much going on here.  We’re settling into a good balance. And if all else fails, there is wine. So let’s get to it.

What I Read

Train Your Brain, by Dana Wilde.  This book covers familiar ground—what you think affects your life—but the author writes about the topic in a way that I found convincing and easy to grasp. I’m a total wonk for brain stuff, and she talks about it without getting too science-y for me. Woo-woo warning: the topic lends itself to the woo, can’t be helped, so if this is not your thing, stay away.

A Gentleman in Moscow. I am loving this book. I bought it in hardcover for my husband a year ago Christmas. He read it and loved it but I ignored it. Finally picked it up and it’s so good. Amor Towles writes in an elegant style. He is also very good at dropping you into a scene, and explaining later. Something to emulate.

The Hazelwood, by Melissa Albert. Wasn’t thrilled with this one, though I had high hopes for it. I got confused with all the activity in the other world they enter and thought it went on a bit long. But points for inventiveness.

Digging In, by Loretta Nyhan.  This was a good garden-variety (hahahaha, I crack myself up) women’s fiction novel about a protagonist getting over the death of her husband through gardening. That she pisses off the home owner’s society in the process is a fun bonus.

On My To-Read List

Love and Ruin, by Paula McClain.  This is about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was quite a star in her own right. She was a globe-trotting journalist in a time when that was relatively rare. I’ve always wanted to know more about her.

Willpower Doesn’t Work, by Ben Hardy. I hear this is a great book on productivity, which is a topic dear to my heart. I also recommend his newsletter.

What I’m Loving

My rewrite.  I was having hand-wringing fits about it earlier in this month. But, finally, I’ve reached some momentum on it again. I’m rearranging chapters and man, does that get complicated. My friend Mayanna says I need to get Scrivener for this. But when I’ve used it in the past I’ve ended up so frustrated I ditched it. Your advice?

What I’m Excited About

I never thought I’d want to teach writing. But when I got my MFA, there was a built-in component on teaching. From there I got hired to teach at MTSU in Nashville (distance program) and turns out I love it! I learn so much from my students and also from the process of figuring out how to share what I know.

Debbie (my teaching partner) and I taught a class on motivation yesterday and it was a lot of fun. Tricky topic—one of those ones that sounds so easy but is really quite complex. We’re teaching another half-day workshop here in Portland on May 19th, this one on arc—another tricky topic.

I love these classes because they are very hands-on. We build in lots of time for in-class exercises and discussion, which makes them more fun. And, I submit it is a better way to learn than to listen to one of us lecture on and on.

This is the same format we follow for our France workshops, and we just happen to have a couple openings. You know you want to come study writing (and write) by the shores of the Mediterranean in a charming town. Right?

What I’m Listening To

So, try as I might, I haven’t gotten on the podcast wagon. Because I’m so visual, I don’t process information auditorily well. That makes it hard for me to retain information I hear.

And, I don’t listen to music while writing because it distracts me. So, sorry, no play lists from me. But I do like to listen to music at other times and since we were gifted an Echo from Amazon (which we usually just call the Alexa, since that’s the name you use to get her to do something) we’ve been listening to a ton of it. So far, we’ve not been able to stump her, although my son said he asked her to play Frank Zappa and she didn’t know him. Shocking!

On The Blog

Spring Cleaning Your Writing

Is It Procrastination or Percolation?

The Usefulness of Thinking Small (In Writing and In Life)

Writing Rituals That Work

Write It Imperfectly, Do It Imperfectly

The Ritual is Opening the File (How to Get Your Writing Done)

How About Some Writing Prompts?

On Story Questions and Traveling Home

I’m hoping that May brings a lot more of the same—writing, reading, working with clients—only that more of it will be done outside! What about you? How is your writing going? What have you been reading? I’m always in the market for new titles. Leave a comment and tell me everything.

(This post contains some affiliate links)

Writing Rituals That Work

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how, really, the only writing ritual that works is opening the file and starting to write. There’s no magic mug to drink from, or a systematic routine that will all of a sudden have you flinging words at the page. You just have to do it.

It is so, so easy and yet so, so hard.

We look for a magic ritual in order to make it easier, I think. So that we can believe there is a method to the sometimes-irritating madness of creativity. A way to beckon it to us. A way to make it happen day in and day out without ever a moment of hesitation.

So, sorry, no magic rituals here today.

What I do have, though is something far more valuable–the concept of foundational rituals. Things that aren’t necessarily writing-related, but will help you with it all the same.  Things you probably struggle to find time to add to your schedule and then easily brush aside, thinking they are not that important. But I’m here to tell you that they are! Using foundational rituals can mean the difference between a steady, productive writing practice and a haphazard one.

What are these rituals of which I speak? Really, they can be anything that grounds you, centers you or calms you, especially that overactive brain of yours. (How do I know it is overactive? Because I’ve got a crazy one, too.) Here are some examples:

Meditation. This is my number one foundational ritual. I’ve been meditating regularly for almost three years now. And by regularly, I mean I aim for once a day and usually hit 4 or 5. It’s like exercise–I can tell when I haven’t done it for awhile and need to get back to it. Meditation makes me calmer, less reactive, more centered. And I just about always get a great idea or two during a meditation session.

Journaling. I’m a lifelong journaler. I go through phases of journaling a lot and then slacking off, but I find the times when I’m journaling regularly I’m more productive and have a ton more ideas. No surprise there. Lately I’ve been following Michael Hyatt’s journaling template, with a couple of tweaks to make it suit me better.

Exercise. I know you know this one. I do, too. And yet I still struggle to do it regularly. Next time you’re balking, remember that it is just as good for your writing as your brain and your body. It clears the cobwebs and gives you more energy–exactly what we all need.

Intentional relaxation. By this I mean doing something you love instead of mindlessly perusing the internet or scrolling through photos on your phone. Go for a walk around the block, knit a few rows, leaf through a magazine. Just make sure its a real thing that you enjoy and that will relax you,.

Mindfulness / Breathing. Similar to meditation, though not quite as codified. Try taking a few minutes out of your work day to sit quietly and just breathe. Focus on your breath or what is going on around you. Tune into your senses. What are you seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, touching?

Observation. This is an excellent practice for writers. Put down your phone, close the lid on your computer, and just sit, watching everything that’s going on around you. Make notes in your journal about what you saw–you never know when something might come in handy.

Walking the Labyrinth. My buddy Terry Price is an expert in this and he’s got all kinds of good info on it at his site. Walking the labyrinth can be like a journey into your subconscious brain.  Ask a question before you enter. Every time I’ve walked it, answers have come.

And, in case none of these float your boat, here’s a link to an article in Time magazine that lists 10 things you should do for yourself every day.

Do you have any foundational rituals you use? Please do share in the comments.

 

The Relief of Routine (A Love Letter)

Routine. Since returning home from France a week and a half ago, I’ve struggled with establishing a writing routine. In France, I followed the same routine as I have here at home for many years: wake up, get coffee, sit down to the computer and write.  Okay, I will admit to looking at email while the coffee brews. My excuse is that this allows me to make certain there is nothing pressing to deal with (lame, I know). And yes, I DO GET DISTRACTED from my purpose to write, just like everyone else. But I’m pretty good about eventually getting down to it. After a couple hours at the computer, I eat breakfast, shower, and carry on with my day.

But, in my month-long absence, my daughter and her family moved in, complete with two small boys, one of whom loves nothing more in the world than hanging out with me in my office. And so, all of a sudden, my precious routine was totally disrupted. Jet-lagged and stiff in every muscle in my body after 14 hours on two different planes, I woke early and groggily sat at my computer in the living room. My daughter had organized a sweet office for me in a tiny room upstairs, but I couldn’t quite face setting up there yet.

For several days, I felt unmoored. Unrooted. Adrift in a strange new world, which was chaotic after the calm, focused days in France. I wasn’t getting any writing (or any work of any kind) done. But I was worrying a lot. How would I ever do any writing with all this going on around me? Would I ever return to my rewrite or the novel I wrote 30,000 words on in France? How would I ever accomplish all the things I want to do?

And then, finally, I set up my computer upstairs and the next morning carried a thermos of coffee up with me very early. And got to work. Jumped back into the rewrite. Suddenly, the world opened up again. I felt like myself again. Because I was writing.  The planets had righted themselves and my life was back on a firm foundation.

Because writing is the foundation of my life and if I’m not finding a way to work on it, I’m unbalanced. Yes, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet an hour and a half into my work session, and my grandson appeared in my office. But by then I’d gotten enough work done that I could cheerfully let him play with my colored pens while I dealt with email.

And the only way I got back to it was by returning to my routine. Finding a way to make it work again, which really wasn’t difficult. If I hadn’t had that routine in place I’d probably still be casting about in the dark for a way to get my writing done.

It is easy to think of routine as boring and rote, the province of boring, rote people—certainly not creatives! But, ultimately, it is routine that will save you. Do you have a routine you follow? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment and tell me or head on over to the Facebook group  to talk about it.

By the way, I’ve got room on my coaching roster for one or two clients.  Email me if you want more info and we can set up a time to talk about it.

Don’t Lose Faith in Your Writing (A Love Letter)

This week I read an ominous post on a friend’s Facebook feed. Something to the effect that people were praying for her, but there was no specific information beyond that. I messaged a mutual friend and learned that the worst had happened: my friend had died.

I’m very far away from home, and so there is not much I can do. I’ll likely miss the memorial service, because I’m here in France for a few more weeks. One thing I have been doing, though, is thinking about my friend. A lot. It’s my way of honoring her life.

She was a lovely, creative woman, and I admired her for that. And yet, when I think of her I think of her spinning, in the metaphorical sense. She’d go in one direction, then stop herself. Become convinced that a new direction was the ticket, but then she’d stop herself again, before she even had a chance to make progress. And the thing of it was, if she’d only kept going in the same direction, it would have been awesome. Because she was awesome. I’m just not sure she knew it.

Because she’d no sooner get started on something, then she’d lose faith in it.

I know how easy that is to do, and you probably do, too. Committing to writing, or any other kind of creative project, over the long haul takes courage. It takes energy and focus. I’m not saying that my friend didn’t have any of those qualities. She did. But I think other traits overtook her.

And it is so, so easy for that to happen. I’ve experienced it repeatedly. It’s the voice that says you’re not good enough. Your writing isn’t good enough. Why are you wasting time on this? You’re never going to make it. Look at all those other writers who are so much better than you—why do you even bother? People will laugh at you. Everyone will hate you.

Most of us who write regularly give into these taunting voices briefly and then forge on ahead. But I do know there are many, many people out there who, once they’ve given in to the voices, have a harder time moving on.

I hope you’re not one of them. I hope you’re able to maintain your faith in your writing, to stick with it, to keep at it, no matter what those critical voices say. Because you don’t want to die with the best of your stories still in you.

Please join the Prolific and Prosperous Facebook group for some fun writerly discussion!

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My 2018 Word of the Year

So, every year I choose a word to represent the year. Actually, most years I choose three words.  And usually I write a blog post about my words in December.  Well, December is long gone and I never wrote the blog post.

And that’s because I felt uninspired about choosing a word–or words.  Usually they come to me easily. This year, nothing.  Was it because of the year in politics and current events? It was a tough one, no matter what your political persuasion.  Was it because I have fifty-one projects going and can barely focus on all of them, much less choosing a word? Probably.

But two things happened to finally change this. First, we attended a Burning Bowl service on New Year’s Eve. This is a most wonderful event that I love. You go through a whole process of writing down what you want to let go of and then literally throw it in a huge flame.  There’s something about sitting in a candle-lit sanctuary with hundreds of other people all focusing on intentions that is wonderfully affirming. And while at that service, I read something that has stayed in my mind ever since.

Every moment of every day is a new beginning.

I have so many things I want to accomplish (witness the aforementioned fifty-one projects) and sometimes I get caught up in what I’m not doing. Not taking all the steps. Not eating all the vegetables. Not writing all the words. But if I can remember that every second of every day I can begin again? That is hugely comforting. I don’t have to do all the things at once! And if I fail, in the next moment I can begin again.

The second thing that happened was, funnily enough, in another church service, this one called a White Stone service.  The white stones come from Jerusalem and symbolize freedom–because in biblical times when prisoners were released from jail they were given a stone to remind themselves of freedom.  One thing that happens during this service is that there’s a meditation wherein you get a word.

My word came to me immediately.  Breathe. As in, with every breath, a new beginning. A new chance to begin again. Freedom. I don’t have to do all the things all at once. If I feel like I’m screwing up, I can go back to my breath and remind myself–begin again. The best part of it is that my breath is always, always with me.

So that’s my word and I’m excited to see if I can remember the simple instruction it gives.

Do you have a word–or words–this year? Care to share? Leave a comment!

Don’t listen to writing advice (A love letter)

One day this week, I rose at 5 AM.  I worked for an hour and a half—nailed the organization of a book project—and then drove to my son’s house for emergency babysitting duty at 6:30. By 9 AM that morning I’d knocked a big item off my to-do list, watched George, eaten breakfast and done the crossword, showered and gotten ready for the rest of the day.

I love getting up early. It’s when I get my best writing done, and over the years my brain and body have adjusted to this and cooperate by waking me with the dawn, or before, naturally.  Rising early works for me.  But I’m donesies by dinner—I’ll do no work requiring energetic thought after 7, and by 9 I’ll be dozing in front of the TV.

So if you asked me to advise you on the best schedule for productivity, I would enthusiastically endorse waking early, telling you that by creating time to do what’s most important to you first, you set yourself up for success the whole day.

But consider my friend Robin.  She gets her best work done starting about the time I’m dozing off. By midnight, she’s in full work mode, often staying up until 2 or 3 AM. And I know not to text her first thing in the morning, because she sleeps in until 10 or 11.

If you asked Robin the secret to productivity, she’d tell you to stay up late.

My point, which I’m sure you’re already gotten, is that what works for me may not work for you. This goes for how your schedule your days, how you live your life, and yes, how you write. We are all different, thank God.

There are a ton of experts online and elsewhere who want to tell you how to write and when to do it. I’m one of them!  Many will try to convince you that their way is the only way. But don’t listen to us. You know best what works for you.

And, here’s the caveat to this: you are responsible for figuring out what works best, for following your own path.  And that’s not as easy as it sounds, and its where we “experts” come in. Read what we have to say, absorb it, put our brilliant advice to use and see how it works.

Experts can help light many ways, but only you can figure out what way is best. Knowing yourself is a lifelong pursuit.

Please do feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you’ve taught yourself!

Go With The Flow

This morning when I got up at my usual early hour (made even earlier this week with the time switch), I had plans to work on the rewrite of my novel. Because that’s what I do when I get up early to write. It is my sacred time, devoted only to writing fiction. (Except for those times when I, ahem, devote it to reading blogs and interesting news articles.) It is part of my daily morning routine.

But this morning I awoke and the juicy bits at the top of my brain were for newsletters.  (Which, if you don’t know, I send out every week–I post them here but you can get them right into your inbox by filling out the form to the right.)

So I did what any self-respecting writer would do–I argued with myself. Told myself I HAD TO WORK ON THE NOVEL AND NOTHING ELSE.  But the newsletters wouldn’t let hold of my mind. And when I tried to connect with my novel, nothing was there. It was like a blank wall in my brain.

And so I grudgingly did what my brain was telling me to do.  I ended up knocking out two newsletters (I’ll be out of town next week so I’m setting one up ahead of time) in no time at all.

What would have happened if I hadn’t gone with the flow? Knowing me, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten either the newsletters or the work on the novel done. Instead, in trying to force my brain somewhere it didn’t want to go, I would have ended up not doing either and heading off to my procrastination default of farting around on the internet.

And now, later on in the afternoon, I’m going to steal an hour or so to work on that novel rewrite after all–because I got everything else done. So sometimes it is a good idea to release expectations of what you should be doing. We should ourselves way too much anyway.

What do you should yourself about? Leave a comment!

A love letter about pain

This week.

It couldn’t have been more awful.  The terrible tragedy in Las Vegas, coming on the heels of a month of devastating natural disasters, was almost too much to bear.  People I know and love are suffering from these events. And on top of all that, I have a friend and a family member in the hospital—one dealing with surgery, one with the aftermath of being hit by a car.

My heart weeps.

And yet, on the other hand, things in my personal life are pretty good. I had a wonderful time in France, and got a lot of writing done there.  My agent is excited about my next project and still sending out the first book.  After a month of physical therapy and a cortisone shot, the pain in my body has lessened considerably and I’m walking more again.  I have great clients and fun upcoming teaching gigs. My family is amazing.

How to reconcile all this? How to exist, feeling grateful for what I have and yet heartbroken for the pain in the world?

While in France, I posted photos of all the things: the Mediterranean Sea by day and night, the phallic tower that rises above the water in Collioure, dogs and cats and beautiful old people. And all the while, back home, hurricanes and floods and fires swept the land.  Should I not have posted photos of what I was experiencing in deference to the disasters? Should I have included a disclaimer with everyone, something to the effect that I knew what people were going through and sent them love?

In other words, as I told a friend, I’m asking: what should my response be? How do I live in this world now?

Luckily, that friend was the very wise Patty Bechtold and she told something that really helped. She’d read it years ago, in the work of Robert Johnson. He likened such experiences as standing in the middle of a teeter-totter, with one foot on either side.   Balance. Getting comfortable with the gray area in the middle, even though most of us would much rather like things plain and simple, in black and white.

And maybe we just need to accept that this is how we must live now.

I’ll tell you what helps me live in the gray areas. Two things: creativity and connection.  I found solace in my writing this week. And I also found it in connecting with friends and family.  Maybe these things gave you solace, too. I hope so.

So here’s the only antidote I have to offer to make sense of the gray area: take to the page. Write your pain out. Or focus your energy on your current writing project. And when you are finished, go kiss a child, or a pet, or your spouse.  Call a friend; say hi to a neighbor. Email that aunt you’ve not talked to in a long time.

Creativity and connection. I’m astoundingly grateful for them both.

A love letter about time

I’m writing this to you at 4:30 in the morning, sitting at my desk back home in Portland.  Yes, you read that right: 4:30 AM. Because: jet lag.  I’ve been waking at this hour every day since we returned home from France on Tuesday night. It’s great for getting writing done, but hell for trying to stay up past 9 PM.

And it bears on the topic I want to talk about today: time.

As most of you know, I spent three weeks in the south of France (the less-crowded Lanquedoc region, near Spain) teaching a couple of writing workshops. And time flows differently there.  I actually began writing this letter there, in the Mediterranean town of Collioure, sitting on a terrace surrounded by ancient stone and concrete houses.  A typical day went something like this: writing workshop in the morning, delicious lunch (often three courses, with wine), a petite nap, and then writing.

My desk in Collioure

It doesn’t sound like the best time recipe to get a lot of work done, but I did.  I wrote the first chapter of a new book, worked on the rewrite of my WIP, and took one more spin through the novel my agent is shopping.  All the while feeling relaxed and happy.

How I wish I could replicate that feeling of productive ease here.  I ponder: was it the sea air? Walking several times a day? The wine? (I truly didn’t drink it every day at lunch. But, um, there was plenty of wine every night.)  But here at home, life presses in: appointments, client work, family obligations. Which is why, precisely, going away to write is such a great idea.

And yet, we can’t always do that, can we?

Time is such a slippery beast. It slows to a crawl when you’re waiting for something you want to do or someone you want to see, and it flies by without notice when you’re deeply engrossed in a creative project.  (Which is why the old writing saw, fast is slow and slow is fast is so useful to remember.  If your character is doing something with a slow past, dispense with it quickly.  If something is happening really fast, slow down the action.)  And most often, we end up feeling as if we just don’t have enough time.

In pondering all this, here’s my takeaway. I can’t replicate the atmosphere of a seaside village in France here in Portland, but I can consciously slow myself down. I can approach life with a more relaxed atmosphere and refuse to get caught up in the harried schedules most of us keep. I can say no once in a while (except to grandkids).

And hopefully, my writing productivity will rise in inverse proportion to my relaxed attitude about it.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to join the list, see the form to the right.

And if you’re interested in learning about next year’s writing workshop, head on over to the Let’s Go Write website and join the mailing list there. We’ll have 2018 info ready soon.