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Tag: Writer’s Block

I forgot I needed a plan

It’s been a while (months, I’m afraid) since I’ve mentioned the book I’m writing. Or rather, I suppose I should say “the book I was writing” because if we’re being honest I haven’t worked on it much since July.

There’s plenty of excuses for why I haven’t been writing — my book notes and thoughts were never properly unpacked after I moved in early July, I became busy with another major project at the end of July that’s been eating up a lot of my free time, etc.

Excuses are cheap and easy to come by.

But the truth is that all of those pretty excuses are just excuses.

It’s not that I don’t have the time to work on my book.

In fact, I’ve had “spend 20 mins writing” on my To Do list every week since July and there’s only been a handful of times I’ve actually crossed that item off.

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out why I wasn’t writing.

I tried most of the tricks I know — I used to set the goal of writing for an hour but when that didn’t work I made the goal smaller, just 20 minutes. Surely I could find 20 minutes?

But no.

I started to work on other intangibles, trying to sleep more and working to tidy up my physical space — both of which are important but neither of which helped me.

And then I started to toy with the idea of doing just five measly minutes minutes of writing.

If I didn’t have 20 minutes then I absolutely had five. I’ve had great luck in using five minutes to re-build flagging habits (an idea I heard first from the lovely Anna Kunnecke).

What if I wrote for just five minutes?

It was a question that haunted me for weeks. Surely 5 minutes wasn’t enough to produce anything meaningful?

Usually when I write I need at least 20 minutes to get into the swing of things, remember what I was doing, and produce something useful.

But 20 minutes wasn’t working and I kept wondering about the tantalizing possibility of five.

Which was, naturally, when I figured the whole thing out.

Because five minutes might totally be enough time to write something useful — but only if you sit down at the beginning of those five minutes knowing exactly what it is you plan to write.

Five minutes wasn’t working for me because I didn’t have a plan.

[Photo of index cards on wall]
The “Wall of Book” that now exists in my bedroom.
This not-having-a-plan thing is the problem I’ve run into every time I’ve declared I was writing a book — from my first attempt at age 11 to my most recent failure during NaNoWriMo 2012. And it nearly got me again, this time around.

Every time I have a book idea, I jump right into the writing. I draft pages and pages of story (sometimes as much as 100) and inevitably, eventually I get stuck.

I get stuck because the story grows so large that I can’t keep it all in my head.

I get stuck because I have a million and one good ideas and none of them quite seem to fit.

I get stuck because I only kinda-sorta-maybe know where I’m going.

I get stuck because I don’t have a plan.

So this time I’ve brushed off my index cards and painter’s tape and I’m putting together my plan.

One scene, one idea, one paragraph at a time.

And you can bet that once I’ve got the plan worked out I’m going to write my way to the finish line — even if I have to do it five fucking minutes at a time.

 

What about you — do you have a big project you’ve been stalled out on? If so, what’s been holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

 

Making the shift from consumer to producer

I want to talk about a pattern in my life that’s been unfolding over the past several years — a pattern I’ve only recently become aware of. Slowly (so slowly I didn’t notice!) I’ve been making the shift from consumer to producer.

I started this blog more than a year ago and, at the time, I thought I would start writing again. I thought I would start writing regularly (I imagined myself writing poetry and stories, not essays) and publishing those stories and poems on my blog.

But it didn’t work out that way.

I do write regularly these days, but the blog post I publish each week are nothing like the creative pieces I had initially imagined.

Instead, my blog drifted from poetry and stories to essays and my creative writing practice (although it has experienced periods of productivity) has, more often than not, floundered.

Creativity and building a creative writing practice is a subject I’ve devoted any number of blog posts to, and yet it’s still not a code I feel I’ve cracked.

I feel like I know all the things to do creatively and yet I never actually do them.

In other words, I often feel like a creative failure.

And yet, there’s a thought that’s been percolating in the back of my head for the past couple of weeks — a thought about making the shift from consumer to producer.

What exactly do I mean when I say “the shift from consumer to producer”?

Increasingly I am convinced that creativity happens in the margins, in the pauses and the white space we build into our lives. And in today’s hyper-connected, always “on” culture — consciously cultivating white space is getting harder and harder.

And I’m not just talking about the seven TV shows you follow religiously (my number back in the day).

There’s actually two different kinds of consumption:

  1. There’s the physical, tangible stuff we consume — the news articles, the blog posts, the podcasts, the TV shows, the books, etc.
  2. But there’s also the intangible stuff — the stuff we don’t so much buy as buy in to. These things are the stories we tell about what people are supposed to do, who a person is supposed to be, what daily practices and habits a person is supposed to cultivate.

In my experience, it’s this second kind of consumption that’s most toxic to creativity.

For every bad habit of tangible consumption I’ve cut out (the food blogs with recipes I never cooked, the health blogs that left me feeling more anxious than I started, the writing blogs that reminded me daily that I wasn’t writing enough, the hours of TV I used to numb myself on weekends so that I didn’t have to feel my own discontent), I’ve bought into a half-dozen new stories about how TV is a waste of my time and how my writing practice should be a perfect expression of my creative soul and how my cooking is too utilitarian and my recipes should always be effortlessly delicious and look like art.

My inner perfectionist dive bombs into these stories about the perfect person I’m supposed to be — and the subsequent guilt of not living up to my own expectations entirely zaps my creative energy.

My white space is still filled… just not with physical clutter so much as clutter of a different, more poisonous kind.

And I believe that in order to develop a sustainable creative practice you have to throw out *all* the clutter, in all of it’s various forms.

Creative brilliance begins in the blank moments and the empty spaces when you’re caught adrift somewhere between existence and boredom.

Whether your clutter is physical or mental, the end result is always the same: you’re busy filling in the blank stretches of your mental space.

And without that empty space there’s never going to be room for something new and beautiful to grow.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation and not a monologue! Are you interested in making the shift from consumer to producer? Which kind of consumption do you struggle with more, the tangible or the intangible? Let me know in the comments below.

 

The systems that make your dreams come true

Here’s a problem I’ve been pondering lately: when you have big dreams how do you make them come true?

There are obvious, unhelpful answers like “you pursue them!” or “you don’t give up!”. There are more practical, but still unhelpful answers like “you just write” and “you just do it”.

Because here’s the thing, often just wanting the dream isn’t enough to get it done. Lots of people want to write books, but very few of them ever do. You need more than just desire, you need systems.

Systems are like magic.

At their most basic, I think that systems are just habits that help you make progress on what’s important. Ten minutes of journaling before bed is a system that might help you get clear and accountable on how your actions that day have furthered or hindered your goals. Turning off your email notifications is a system that helps you remain focused on what really matters.

Systems can also be more complicated, the structures and scaffolding from which your sculpt your life. They can be complex creations with moving parts that flow throughout your days and help keep you on track.

And the system I want to talk about today is like that. It’s your productivity system, your calendar, your to-do list, your inbox. It’s the clutter in your house and the mess in your closet.

I’ve been deeply engrossed in the work of Anna Kunnecke for a couple of months now, and she places a lot of emphasis on how clearing up and clearing out one’s physical environment can have a huge positive impact on one’s internal world. Having tried it out for myself, I find I couldn’t agree more.

And yet the change that has made the most significant impact on my life isn’t so much to do with my physical world; it has to do without I keep track of all the moving parts that make up a life.

And my system is based heavily on Anna Kunnecke’s recommendations and on David Allen’s suggestions in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

If you’d told me two years ago I needed to improve my personal productivity, I’d probably have laughed at you.

I’d have pointed to my two degrees from MIT and said “me?!”. But the truth is that MIT didn’t teach me good productivity habits — what MIT taught me was how to fight fires with incredible efficiency. At MIT every assignment was a crisis, every week was overloaded and I raced about in a kind of dazed panic from problem to paper to exam without a moment to gasp for air.

Which means that when I graduated I didn’t have any skills for getting things done in a less-stressful environment. In real life there aren’t so many deadlines. The book I’m writing doesn’t have due date. There’s no teacher leaning over my shoulder, fingers shifting restlessly in anticipation of each completed chapter. There’s really no reason to finish writing my book except that I want to.

The truth is that it’s very hard to find the time to write.

This is a truth that so many writers seem to gloss over and so many aspiring writers can’t seem to move past. So much writing advice boils down to “just write” including the oft-cited quote from Neil Gaiman to “write one word and then another”, or this recent post from Chuck Wendig. And this advice is not untrue — it’s perhaps the truest advice there is — but my quibble with such advice is that it also doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help the aspiring writer finally start writing the novel they’ve always dreamed of. And it doesn’t help them keep putting down words every day, even when the story takes a left turn somewhere on page 50 and suddenly they haven’t got a clue what the story even is anymore.

I’ve spoken about some of the tricks I use to help make my writing feel effortless, but when we get down to the nitty gritty of it, no amount of desire or effortlessness is sufficient to help me prioritize my writing over all the other things that need to happen in my life. Should I do my writing or my cooking first? Well… I’d really rather not starve. Should I do my writing this morning or be on time at my job? Well… I’d really rather not be late.

So in order to actually get my writing done I need to find a way to hold myself accountable to actually doing it — otherwise, I can say I’m writing a book till I’m blue in the face but if I’m not actually putting words on the page then (as Anna Kunnecke would say) “it’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?”

And the system I’ve found myself turning to with great efficacy is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

On the surface David Allen’s system is simple.

It really boils down to just five steps:

  1. Capture. This is where you identify and catalog all of the things that you need to do from the mundane (empty the dishwasher) to the complex (finish the first draft of my book).
  2. Clarify. What is the very next physical action I need to take to move forward on this? This is where you determine what actually needs to be done next for each of the tasks you captured in step one.
  3. Organize. This is where you organize the actions and projects you identified in steps  one and two into a system that presents them to you at the appropriate time and prevents things from slipping through the cracks.
  4. Reflect. David Allen suggests we need to take time weekly to reflect, to capture any new tasks from the week, to look ahead and make sure nothing is sneaking up on us, to look behind and make sure there’s nothing pending we should follow up. It’s also a moment to take a look at the bigger picture and reset one’s priorities.
  5. Engage. This is where the rubber hits the road and you act on all those next actions.

As David Allen says, there’s really three kinds of work: the work we plan to do (the stuff that is on our to-do lists), the work that shows up (emails, bills, etc.), and the work we do to define our work. After MIT I was fantastic at doing work that shows up, but not so fantastic at doing the work I’d planned to do and I’d never really learned to do the work to define my work at all. My next actions had always been decided by due dates and professors.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve been increasingly thorough in implementing David Allen’s system, I can tell you that being able to take control of defining the work you do is one of the most powerful systems I know for making your dreams come true.

Suddenly I’m finding time to write because my lists keep me accountable and they help me understand everything else I might also need to be doing so that I know that if I sit down to write for 30 minutes or an hour on a Tuesday that I’m not suddenly going to find Wednesday morning I don’t have any food for breakfast. And it turns out simultaneous accountability, security, and a deep honoring of my priorities are just the things I need to make my dreams (and this book) come true.

Now it’s your turn! What tools do you use to make your dreams come true? What systems support you in your life? Let me know in the comments 🙂

 

Is resistance ruling your life?

How are you living your “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver)? Do you struggle to do the things you want to do? Do you feel like you’re four steps behind where you want to be? Do you feel like you work and work and work but that your work never gets you anywhere you want to be?

This is exactly how I have felt for the past two or three years. Ever since I graduated from college I’ve been stuck in a rut that I know isn’t where I want to be, but from which I seem unable to free myself. It was a state of affairs that left me feeling frustrated and baffled and kept me from living my best life. Until recently, that is, when I read this article by Martha Beck, in which she writes:

“As every life coach knows, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. The same thoughts… torture me when I’m writing, emailing, even sleeping. I should be going faster, getting somewhere. I should have more to show for this. I shouldn’t have to double back, to revisit old emotional issues, to wipe the same damn kitchen counter every day. These thoughts burble along just under the surface of my consciousness every day. They make me slightly anxious—okay, some days irrationally terrified—and lend a driven quality to moments when I could be relaxed and present.” [[Emphasis mine.]]

And, you guys, it was like a thunderclap in my head as, with a whooshing sound, I realized something incredibly profound:

I do everything in my life with resistance.

Every single thing I do I treat as though it’s a struggle. Getting out of bed in the morning is a drag. Making my lunch is a drag. My day job — a double drag.

By the time I get home at night I’m so tired from dragging myself around all day that the things I actually wanted to do with my evening turn out to be… you guessed it, a drag!

Because my chosen after work activities (like my writing!) felt like a drag, I would often avoid them. And then I would feel terrible guilt for having avoided doing the things I was “supposed to” do. (Even if they only person who had decided I was “supposed to” do them was myself.)

But what if it didn’t have to be like that?

What if your life could be effortless and joyful instead of a drag?

What if you could make your life effortless simply by choosing to stop resisting what is? These questions have been plaguing me for the better part of a week  — and I have to tell you, the results so far have been nothing short of amazing. Already my life feels lighter and more joyful. Already I am beginning to find space to breathe for what seems like the first time in years (decades even).

I’m finding myself sitting down to happily do tasks that I have resisted for years. Suddenly my writing practice, which I have struggled to grow into anything robust, feels almost effortless.

I used to fall into a trap where I knew I wanted to write, at least in theory. But whenever I had the time to write I would find myself doing something else — anything else.

If you find yourself struggling to achieve your goals, I invite you to ask yourself this question:

What are you really resisting?

Because what I now realize is that I was resisting becoming the person I really want to be.

Somewhere deep down in my lizard-brain I was still struggling to hold onto my vision of myself as I am/was: the good student, the scientist, the professional. I wasn’t allowing myself to set aside those old dreams in order to step fully into the person I am interested in becoming: the adventurer, the poet, the writer.

So if your dreams seem continually out of reach, or you’re always struggling but never really satisfied with your success, I invite you to question what it is you’re actually struggling against.

Because if you are like me, you might just find that you’ve been struggling against yourself.

And the only thing I know for sure is that that is a battle we’ll never manage to win.

 

I’d love to hear from you! What are you struggling with in your life? What seems to be holding you back? What is it that keeps getting in your way?

Let me know in the comments below!

 

Breaking the Habit of Hiding: Visibility on and off the page

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about bravery and courage and what those things mean for me. I’ve written in recent weeks about my fear of being seen, which has been showing up a lot as I’ve begun to submit my writing for publication and also to work on my very first book. (Well my first-and-a-half book if we’re counting the 100 pages of a YA fantasy story I wrote when I was 12…)

Breaking the habit of hiding is something I’ve been talking about for a couple of weeks in my email newsletter. And it’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for months as I’ve been working up the courage to start writing my book (and now I have!).

There’s a piece of writing advice that circulates and which I’ve seen most recently in the article Writing from a Place of Fear over at Writer Unboxed. The advice implores us writers to “write the stories that scare us” — and I don’t think it’s bad advice.

But here’s what I do think:

  • I think that writing is hard.
  • I think writing that scares us is harder.
  • I think that writing our scariest stories takes more courage than we may be capable of.

And so I don’t think it’s enough to suggest glibly that all we need to do is “write the stories that scare us”. Perhaps this is the destination, the goal.

But between here and there is a whole lot of scary ground to cover. Before we can contemplate the visibility “on the page” required to write our scariest stories we must first work on our fear of visibility “off the page” in our everyday lives.

We must get used to the terror of being seen.

Terror is frightening and recognizing that we’re afraid doesn’t do much to make the situation feel less scary. So in order to work through the fear of being seen “off the page” we must do more than just recognize the fear is present. We have to take action to adjust and adapt and to face our fear squarely in the arena.

And, I think there are a handful of concrete steps that we can take to make the process go a little easier:

  1. Start slowly. Start very, very slowly. It’s important not to start with steps that feel too big; it gets harder to start over every time fear beats us.
  2. Begin by releasing old attachments and beliefs. You have to make space for new beliefs and habits.
  3. Build trust step-by-step. There’s no shame in spending a while jumping off the low-dive before tackling the high-dive.
  4. Make sure you’re ready. You’ll know you’re ready when the fear is almost (but not quite) outweighed by your excitement for what might happen next.
  5. Jump a little before you’re ready. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting forever because you’re not “ready enough”.

I’ve done all these things in preparing to start writing my book.

  1. I started slowly by writing and publishing short stories and poems here on my blog.
  2. I done a lot of work on my limiting beliefs and developed strong habits around cultivating courage and supporting my writing practice.
  3. I built trust by putting my work out there and watching as my world did not in fact fall apart.
  4. I  made sure I was ready by starting slowly and building trust.
  5. And then I jumped before I was ready (when I still felt like screaming “aaaah!” even as I splashed the very first words across the page).

I’ll keep you posted on how it pays off! The hope is that if I grow my “off the page” courage by publishing here on the blog and submitting my work elsewhere for publication, I will simultaneously grow my courage “on the page” when I sit down at my desk to write.

So far it feels like the strategy is going to be a stunning success 🙂 (After all, I’ve just started writing a book! That’s a feat of tremendous “on the page” courage.)

If you’d like to read more about overcoming fear in your life, I highly recommend Lissa Rankin’s article, “Five Steps from Fear to Freedom”.

I’d love to know: How do you prepare when faced with something scary?