This has been a crazy week. Besides the usual round of appointments and teaching commitments (which I love), my daughter had hand surgery after slicing a tendon and a couple of nerves in her thumb. Thus, I’ve been tending small children even more than usual. I know, you’ve probably had a crazy week, too. And even if you haven’t, there’s the constant onslaught of news to contend with.
It’s enough to make you run screaming and vow you’ll never write another work again. (Or paint another picture. Or plant another garden. Or knit another stitch.) Because who can write when life events are making you feel so very un-creative? So distracted and un-focused?
It’s so easy to go into overwhelm and decide it’s just too hard to write. Sure, you have a few minutes here and there to put pen to paper, but what’s the point? What difference do a few paltry minutes make? And so you don’t do it and then you just give up. You forget who you are at your core, and who you want to be, and you just go along the path of least resistance.
But I submit to you that taking those few precious minutes—or longer—is what will save you. And maybe the world, too. Because it is your writing that will ground you and center you and remind you of who you are through the darkest of times.
I adore my grandchildren beyond all reason, but this week as I changed diapers and made mac and cheese and picked up toys and coaxed a three-year-old to take a nap (which went about as well as you might expect), I forgot my creative self. Which I believe is my true self.
Except I picked up my pen and wrote for fifteen minutes every day. And then I remembered. That simple practice brought me back to myself and made it infinitely easier to hobble down the block after a toddler on the loose. And, make no mistake about it, writing is a practice, one that gets easier with every fifteen-minute spring you devote to it. A practice that makes it easier to commit to how you want to show up in the world, whether you observe from the safety of your office or go march to express your opinions. A practice that may some day bloom into a finished novel or memoir or garden or painting or sweater. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. The sheer act of doing it is what’s important. Because that is what will steady you for whatever comes your way.
So no matter what is going on in your life, please don’t give up on your creative practice. You need to, I need you to, and the world does, too.
Here’s reason #5,001 (I’m counting): that writing is a worthwhile activity: it’s good for your brain.
Allow me to digress a bit. I’m teaching myself to crochet. (Head on over to the blog if you want to see a photo of my first finished piece, a scarf heavy enough to qualify as a weighted blanket if it were an afghan). Every time I start a new project, I puzzle over the directions, which read like a foreign language—even to somebody used to deciphering knitting patterns like me. Then I need to Google obscure abbreviations I don’t understand, and often refer to two or three sites to figure out what I’m supposed to do. And finally I usually have to start the project several times before I get it right.
While I’m doing this I swear I can feel all the neurons in my brain firing. Learning something new like this is good for my brain! And if there’s one thing I desire to maintain, it’s my brain. Which is why I do crossword puzzles, read a wide variety of book genres from non-fiction to fiction, and try to get my butt out the door or to my stationary bike to exercise. (Yes, exercise is good for the brain as well as the body.)
But as I loop yarn around my crochet hook and congratulate myself for being a lifelong learner, I keep thinking about writing. The thought occurred to me that it must be an excellent thing for your brain to be engaged in. Because, think about how hard your brain works when you’re trying to figure out how to make a plot work, or what happened in your character’s backstory that created her motivation that powers the story. It’s hard to think up new worlds and create people to populate them. (And I believe that is the reason some struggle to find time to write—they don’t have the necessary brain space to do it, what with the crazy amount of input we get these days.)
So I went to the Google and looked it up. And found this: “challenging your brain activates processes that maintain brain cells and stimulate communication between them.” Boo-yah. But this is even better: a German study observed fiction writers at work and found that their brains showed similarities to people skilled at other complex actions, such as sports.
Sometimes I think we need excuses to take time to write (which is why I maintain that afore-mentioned list). So next time your partner complains about you burying yourself in your writing cave, you can haughtily inform him or her that you are improving your brain. Never mind that you’d much rather be writing than watching Fast and Furious #18 for the thousandth time.
Do leave a comment and tell me how you’ve improved your brain recently.
Note: these love letter are taken from my weekly newsletter. If you’d prefer to have them come right into your inbox, sign up to the right!
(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year. We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)
I have a busy life. (And I’m betting you do, too.) There’s my writing, client appointments, teaching, reading manuscripts, planning workshops, blogging and writing newsletters. And let’s not forget my gloriously time-consuming family, including four grandchildren under five who I want to spend as much time with as possible with while they still think Nonni is cool.
I love all this, every bit of it, even when I’m fretting about getting everything done. But a funny thing often happens to me. People ask me what’s new or what’s been going on and I draw a blank. I know I’ve been doing a million things but I can’t get my brain to land on any single one of them. Does this ever happen to you?
I notice that this happens a lot when I’ve been writing regularly. When people ask me what’s been going on, I start to say, “Well, you know, Bridget just found out that Cade is dating someone young enough to be her child. And she’s tempted to leave the small town he brought her to! But she can’t, because she has to stay to see this job through.” And then I remember—that’s not my life, that’s what’s happening in my book. The one I’m working on every morning.
I’ve finally realized that’s what’s going on in my life—I’m writing. Day in, day out (with the occasional every Saturday, when I can’t seem to focus, off). There’s no drama, because I’m busy working. Nothing to see here. Move along. I’m practicing.
Practicing, as in sitting down to work at my profession every day and practicing, as in working to improve my work in my profession. Because when you have a practice, as in something you do regularly, you get better at it. You just do. You can’t help but improve when you turn your attention to the same thing over and over again.
I’m happiest when I’m practicing. And I suspect I’m not the only one. I used to think that as a creative person, consistency would be boring. That life needed to be exciting so I had something to write about. But quite the opposite is true. Nothing is richer and more fulfilling—and thus more exciting—than having a consistent practice.
I have two consistent practices in my life at the moment: writing and meditation. (I used to be consistent at walking but a pesky knee ailment has sidelined that for the time being.) I feel better when I’m practicing both. (But if I had to choose, I’d go with the writing.) As Mitch, one of my wonderful clients said last weekend, “I start to get edgy if I don’t write for a few days.”
Indeed. Me, too.
Leave a comment and tell me what you practice regularly. I’ll do my best to respond promptly, despite being in France!
There’s a lot of noise in the world at the moment. Political, and societal to be sure. But there’s also all the information we get from the interwebs constantly, all day and even all night long. And much of it is designed to ensnare us—to click onto the website, read the news story, buy the item, support the cause.
It’s the status quo.
And as writers, it is our job to resist.
But wait, you say. You need all that information. You need it in order to have something to write about, you need it to support your WIP (as in research), you need it because you must know what is going on in the world.
Yeah, I hear you. I’m a huge input person. Next to writing, one of the things I love best in the world is gathering information. Set me up with a topic to research, a pile of books, and access to the internet, and I’m a happy woman.
But, there’s a limit to how much I—and you—can take in before it starts to become a detriment. Before it starts to affect our concentration levels, and our focus, to say nothing of our emotions and energy, both physical and mental.
Which is why I say you need to resist its lure.
Because when you do, you gain so much. It is difficult in the moment—I’ve had to tell myself not to click over to the internet numerous times as I’ve been writing this—but what I’ve gotten in return is clarity and focus. And far more enjoyment of the writing process.
And by resisting, you’re claiming your right to be different. To be a person who stands for writing and creativity and art. A person who dares to challenge the status quo. A person who follows her own inner tune.
That’s not always easy in this world, but it is vital. If you are going to do good work, you need to be able to hear your inner voice and you can only do that if you tune out the noise of the world.
So, let’s do it together. Resist the status quo! Turn to the page instead of the latest news story or blog post. And together we will change the world one word at a time.
Leave me a comment about what you’re writing–and resisting.
(FYI, this originally appeared as my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to get it delivered directly to your inbox, just fill out the form to the right.)
I’m going back through the second draft of my WIP novel, checking for places where I have to drop things in. Most of these are little things, like another mention of a physical object that figures in the plot (in this case, a necklace), or pumping up a description that didn’t get fully mounted on the page.
But in one instance, I have a whole chapter to drop in. (Because, um, it features an important character that I failed to show anywhere in the novel. Duh.)
So this means I am writing rough draft material again for the first time in a couple of months. I’ve been rewriting and editing and getting the draft ready for beta readers. (Soon!)
And this morning I found myself laboring over every word.
WTF! I know better than this. A rough draft is just that–the draft of a chapter or story or essay that is in its rough stages. And just because the rest of my novel is almost ready for other eyes, doesn’t mean that this chapter needs to be.
I had to remind myself to just put the words on the page. Let them rip. Write fast. Don’t worry about how “good” the words are once they land. Just get the damned thing written!
And that is my Tuesday tip for you–let the writing of your rough draft stink. Make it awful. Require it to be. Because once you’ve gotten those words on the page, you’ve got treasure with which to work. You can rewrite and revise and edit to your heart’s content. But not yet.
Remember there’s a reason it is called a rough draft and let it be, well…rough.
Because when writing is a slog, it is not so much fun. And why else do we write, if not for fun? Because, honestly, this industry pretty much sucks. The gatekeepers are mean, keeping us away from the citadel, and if we choose to go it alone we have to cultivate the mind of an entrepreneur.
But I digress.
This morning, I finally wrote one thousand words. 1,000 exactly because I stopped as soon as I hit that magic number. (My usual goal for a daily word count is 2,000, but I’ve followed my own advice and lowered my expectations.) And that made me feel good. And I started thinking about the ways I help myself when writing is a slog. Such as:
Admit it. If you are in a not-fun stage with your writing, admit it. Don’t try to sugarcoat it. Fess up. The writing gods and muses love honestly. Once you’ve realized what’s going on, you can deal with it a lot more easily.
Write a word. Just one word. Then another and another. And another. With luck, it will quit being a slog and you will start having fun. But if that doesn’t happen, at least you will have words on the page.
Try a prompt. Oh hey, I just happen to have a prompt book for you right here. Sometimes a prompt is just what you need to start enjoying the work again, because it can take you in all kinds of unexpected places.
Change your routine. If you usually listen to music, don’t. Or vice-versa. If you usually sit in your office, try the kitchen. Or pack things up and hit the coffee shop. Change it up and see if that doesn’t rejuvenate you.
Get your ya-yas out. Go for a walk. Hit the gym. Do some yoga. Come back to the work with a fresh mind. Maybe you’ll have a fresh attitude as well.
Read. Nothing gets me excited about writing like delving into a book. Fiction or non-fiction does it for me. Maybe it will for you, too. (Right now I’m reading Gaining Visibility, by Pamela Hearon, and Lisa Cron’sbook called Story Genius).
Give up. Admit you’re not into writing at the moment and don’t force yourself to do it. But do this whole-heartedly, in a way that you’ll be at peace with. Not in a way that you’ll be torturing yourself with the dreaded words, I should be writing, every few minutes.
What do you do when your writing becomes a slog? I’d love to hear how you put the fun back in it. And remember, one of the best ways to get enthusiastic about writing is to work with a coach. You can read more about that here.
Wherein I talk about what it takes to be a writer, in my humble opinion, anyway. To finish a book project, or even an article or short story. To get the book out in the world, either into the hands of an agent and editor, or publish it yourself, which is a whole other enterprise. To hit the bestseller list. To rinse and repeat, which you’re going to need to do to build a career as a writer. What it takes to accomplish whatever your dream is.
Fresh off teaching a recent workshop in France, I’ve been pondering this. Working with writers, listening to their hopes and frustrations opens my eyes over and over again, because their concerns echo mine in my own writing practice. We are all gloriously different, right? And, at heart, we are also all very much alike. To that end, here are two arenas in which many frustrations lie:
Butt in chair
Let’s look at mindset, otherwise known as the way you think, first. It is easy to groan about this, to hold up your hands and say “Don’t tell me I am what I think!” But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it’s true. If you think you can do it, you will be able to. But if you don’t think you can, you won’t. Sigh. You really do need to master your mindset about your writing.
But here’s a lot of the reason why—because after thinking about it, you need to do it. I know. Duh. But if you’re busy telling yourself that you can’t do it, you won’t. It’ll be too much pressure. You’ll get bored and wander away, take up archery or long-distance swimming or bird-watching. Thoughts wear grooves in your brain and if you keep thinking you can’t, then your brain will believe you. And you won’t take time to write, because, well, you’re convinced you can’t. Or that you’re a bad writer. Or that the odds are stacked against you.
I follow a young woman named Jennifer Blanchard. She is always ranting fervently about mindset and how important it is, how one must write down their goals every day, or at least re-read their goals. Etc., etc. Part of me loves this stuff. Loves it. And part of me—the part that actually has to take the action—rolls my eyes at it. But the thing is, everything she says about mindset is true. You gotta get your brain in the right place to be a writer. And that means doing whatever it takes, be that rereading your goals every day or monitoring those pesky negative thoughts.
Most of all it means you have to believe you can do it. Because if you don’t believe, you won’t make the time for it. You’ll read knitting blogs (like I do when I get blocked), instead. Or you’ll decide the kitchen floor needs mopping. Or the cat’s nails need trimming. And the thing is—you won’t even realize why you’re indulging in these procrastination activities. You’ll convince yourself that it’s because there’s that spot of dirt, right there on the floor where everyone can see it. Or that you absolutely must read that blog because you have to figure out where you went wrong on the sweater you’re knitting. Or that the cat pulled up a thread on your gorgeous slipcover. Like that.
What’s the antidote to this? In truth, a lot of it is in taking action, which I’ll get to in a moment. Because the more you write, the easier it becomes and the easier it becomes, the more you’ll believe you can do it. Yeah, there is definitely an endless loop going on here. But here are a couple other hints about mindset:
Visualization has scientifically been proven to help. Not visualizing the moment you stand at the podium and accept your Nobel Prize for Literature, but visualizing yourself actually sitting at the computer writing. Thinking about how it feels as the words flow and your fingers range across the page.
Here’s an article that gives a good rundown on how to do it, and here’s one from Psychology Today on its benefits.
Meditation and positive thinking. Activities that go hand in hand with visualization are meditation (you knew I was going there) because it quiets the damn monkeys in the brain enough to allow you to think positive thoughts about your writing, and affirmations. Yeah, I know. Dopey. I get it. But you can use them in the most casual of ways, as in when you’re thinking how you just can’t seem to get the scene right instead of berating yourself for being an idiot who can’t write, turn it around and tell yourself you know the story and you can figure out the scene. Just tell yourself that the rest of the day. C’mon, you’re a storyteller, right? So tell yourself a positive story. That’s all an affirmation is, in truth. You’re going to be telling yourself something all day anyway, it might as well be something positive.
As for meditation, just try it. Really. It is ten or fifteen minutes out of your day, and if it helps you become a better writer, isn’t that time well spent? I highly recommend downloading the Insight Timerfor your phone and using it. You can set interval bells so that the fifteen minutes doesn’t seem to stretch to fifteen hours, and there’s all kinds of cool ambient sounds you can meditate to, as well as a selection of guided meditations to try. Plus, it’s like social media for meditators. You can create a profile and interact with others all over the world.
Okay, so, alas, one cannot sit in one’s recliner and meditate and visualize and think positive thoughts all day and become a writer. Would that we could. So I’ll discuss part two of the topic of what it takes in a blog post slated for Wednesday.
Until then, happy mind-setting. Or meditating. Or whatever.
And do tell what you think it takes to be a writer.
Just in case you were thinking, while the cat’s away, the mice will play, no such luck. To give you something to do other than sit around and sob about my absence, I’ve decided to set up writing prompt posts for every Monday in September, with seven posts for you. One for each day.
You know the drill. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes, and write without stopping. Use the prompts as a warm-up tool, or to inspire you, or when you are blocked. Okay? Here goes:
–Pink, yellow, purple, brown. Mary shook her head as she sorted the yarn her mother had chosen. She’d suspected it for a long time, but now she was certain: her mother had to be color blind.
–The road trip was tedious, especially when they got stuck in traffic for 30 minutes and Kevin started telling her to be patient.
–The small child turned the item over and over in her hands, then looked at the person who had handed it to her. “It’s called a watch. You tell time with it. People used to wear them all the time.”
–A group of brightly colored hot-air balloons sailed over head. She was so delighted with them, she ran through the fields, chasing them.
–He was a mean, ugly person with a twisted sense of humor. Yet still she loved him.
–Down the rain fell, harder and harder.
–If there was one thing your main character could change about the place she lives, what would it be?
Okay, have fun. Look for a guest post coming up soon. And look for another edition of prompts next Monday, September 12th. Oh, and here’s a little teaser–there just may be something in the way of a prompts journal coming up later on this fall!
Writing a novel is, at heart, all about making shit up.
That phrase–making shit up–became the constant refrain of my Mapping the Novel workshop at the Sitka Center last week. (It was the BEST workshop ever, mostly because of my wonderful students, but also because of the fabulous staff and the spectacular location. I could go on and on.)
In order to write a novel, you’ve got to make a lot of shit up. You just do. But then you have to shape the stuff you made up into some kind of form. And that was the premise of the workshop–that you’ve got to let your right brain roam free but also learn the structures through which you will corrall it.
It is easy to get hung up on any part of the process (she said, having experienced getting hung up at many points along the way). But bear in mind that structures are part of craft and can be learned. You can study plot, scene, character, style, and theme. It’s hard, but you can figure out how to apply it so you make a novel with a cohesive whole.
What is harder, arguably, in this day and age, is the making shit up part. It’s the part where we let our brains run free, and allow our hands to follow them, putting word after word on the page–even when we don’t know where the words will lead us.
The making shit up part is why we become writers. I mean, who sets out to write a novel because he wants to master plot? There may be a few of you out there, but I’d wager a bet that most of you want to write a novel because you’ve experienced the glory of writing, how good it makes you feel to lay down those tracks.
The making shit up part is fun–and its also sometimes really freaking hard to get ourselves to do. But really, all you have to do is go do it. Take a prompt, any prompt, set a timer for 10 minutes and go write! Do it now. Go make shit up. You’ll be glad you did.
Leave a comment and let’s discuss your favorite way to make shit up.
**I had a couple of great photos from Sitka picked out to go along with this post but some reason, WordPress doesn’t want to let me upload them. If you want to see a ton of them, go to my Instagram page (and follow me while you’re there–it is one of my chief social media outlets).