Dealing With Our Kryptonite: Recognizing and Overturning Writing Life Weaknesses

Four major writing life weaknesses that can sap our strength and torpedo our energy. Know 'em, and know what to do to overcome them! | lucyflint.com

So far in this Building Strength series, we've covered a lot of ground!

We talked about being clear on what we consider strength is (because different strengths matter to each of us!), and we've talked about ways to strengthen our creativity, our enthusiasm, and our overall writing sustainability.

And then, just to kick things up a few notches, we checked in with the book Deep Work, because it has great points that will make us stronger writers: like how to supercharge our ability to focus. And, at the same time, how to deepen and strengthen our ability to recharge.

WOW. So, you feeling those muscles yet?

Today I wanna switch gears a little and work on strength from a different angle.

Namely: What makes us weak? What weakens our writing lives? 

What saps our strength, drains our energy, muddies our abilities? What's our kryptonite?

I've rounded up the usual suspects in my own writing life. See if any of these behaviors have snuck into your writing life too:

Skipping breaks.

Let's start with this one, because I have our last post about recharging on the brain

I know that this won't apply to everyone, but for anyone pursuing full-time creativity, this can be a struggle. And I personally fall into this trap a lot.

Here's the deal: I cannot be purely creative and focused and hardworking for eight hours straight. Cannot be done.

... And I can type that, and nod very sincerely at my computer screen, and even mean it, and then go off and think that I am invincible and needeth not such breaks.

This is a problem.

My best true version of my work schedule looks like this: Two hours of intense, focused, deep work, followed by one hour of pure recharging. (Which usually means, getting some good food, moving around, doing a workout, or even taking a nap.)

Then two more hours of intense work, and, yep, another hour to recharge. (A snack, maybe time spent outside if the weather is nice, doing some art...)

Finally two hours of taking care of all the shallower work, the smaller things, and then my shutdown ritual. With that, I'm done for the day.

Sounds straightforward. Super health-focused (because I've learned the hard way that I've gotta be). 

This is what can happen, though: I'll start late. Maybe because I slept in after a late night. Or maybe I got caught in a morning discussion or media dive that got all my creativity fizzing but also made me late for work. 

So I plow into the day, and work straight through my breaks, because I think don't have the time to stop.

And at the end of the work day, I'm a zombie.

I mean it. You can't get any sense out of me. I'm stumbling around, bleary-eyed and brain dead. And, at that point, my next work day is automatically harder. I have less mental flexibility, and less focus, and less motivation.

It's a really bad cycle! Easy to fall into; hard to break out of.

Those recharging periods within my work day are absolutely essential to my creativity: I need to refresh my mind by getting back into my senses. I need to stare at clouds, eat some good food, take a walk. Besides, we're not supposed to sit for hours and hours! 

The biggest single help in fighting this has been to remind myself of two things: 

1) That rest is one of my new core values. I have to be rested to work well, to do what I love, and to enjoy life. It's just that true, that simple.

2) That play and rest are prerequisites to doing good work. Period. 

My reminder of choice is an index card near my computer. "Rest is a core value," it announces. "Don't neglect your breaks!" 

It reminds me that this is the kind of writer I want to be: One who is rested, one who isn't a zombie, and one who has a wealth of imaginative details in her pockets.

Breaks ensure a better writing day, and a better writing week. Even if they need to be much less than that luxurious hour, they have to happen, or I'm toast. 

How about you? Do you interject moments of rest within your creative work? Even if you're working in shorter spurts, do you still get a moment to pull back and recharge, before diving back in?


Overthinking.

Overthinking has been my lifelong nemesis.

And "lifelong" isn't an exaggeration: I have memories of being super young and paralyzed by decision-making overload, going back and forth between two possibilities. (There is an epic family story about my inability to choose between a hamburger and a cheeseburger. Yep, it's real.)

It is so easy for me to get stuck, to get pulled into this trap of cerebralizing and analyzing. Breaking down the problem from every single side, every possible angle.

Instead of diving into what I need to do, I sit there at the edge and worry, make lists, plan things, consider endlessly. 

Obviously, there are times for deep deliberation.

Equally obvious: Not EVERY time.

Usually, this overthinking is a fear tactic. A stalling technique that feels intellectually noble.

How do you tell the difference? For me, when overthinking smells like panic, it's fear-based. It's coming from that frightened part of me, and so it's a way to stall.

This is when perfectionism is singing over my head that if I screw this up, I'll never recover from it. 

When I truly need to think something through, it feels different.

It's much more calm—a reasonable analysis. It's when I ask myself, "should I do this project now, or can it reasonably wait?"

And I answer, "Well, if I go down the wrong path, I'll just make it right, I'll just turn around." 

Fear-based overthinking just keeps inflating the issue. It gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It says, But I might never have a chance for a cheeseburger again!!

There's a rigidity in it. It's insisting, just below its surface, that I must make the perfect choice, the irreproachable way forward.

Everything gets dramatic. The shadows get longer and darker, and suddenly you and your pros & cons list are in a battle of good versus evil.

Yeah. It gets ugly.

I am only just beginning to find my way out of overthinking. 

One thing that has helped enormously is the way that Julia Cameron describes overthinking in Walking in This World (her lovely sequel to The Artist's Way).

She compares working on an artistic project to the moment of firing an arrow at a target. 

She says that if we overthinking the project, we're essentially standing there, pulling back the arrow, and then just waiting. Analyzing, heart pounding, while our arm loses strength and the arrow begins to sag.

So when we finally fire it, it doesn't hit the center.

She sums it up by saying,

In short, you have mistaken beginning something with ending something. You have wanted a finality that is earned over time and not won ahead of time as a guarantee. You have denied the process of making art because you are so focused on the product: Will this be a bull's-eye?

Ouch, right? She's got me. Most of the time, I'm overthinking because I want a shiny guarantee: "Yes, go for it, because it will work out swimmingly and everyone will pat you on the head and say that you've done something amazing."

But we don't work with guarantees. We work with our hearts, we learn on the way, and yes, it gets messy. But that's what we've really signed up for, and if we're all in, it can be a wonderful way to work.

Cameron adds,

We have attached so much rigamarole to the notion of being an artist that we fail to ask the simplest and most obvious question: Do I want to make this? If the answer is yes, then begin. Fire the arrow.

I love that straightforwardness. Yes!

How about you? Where in your creative life do you get swamped in overthinking?

And where is something inside you saying, let's fire the arrow!


Treating myself harshly.

One of the most effective ways to undermine our own strength? Talking bad about ourselves. Diminishing what we do, calling our work crap, saying that we'll never finish or improve.

This can be hard, hard, hard to shake.

For me, this comes directly out of shame, fear, and doubt. 

I can still be nervous about the fact that I'm a writer, that I've yet to publish. It makes me feel childish when it seems like my peers have glorious, flashy, paid grown-up careers. (Nothing's ever quite as glorious as it can look from the outside, of course, but I never remember that when I'm struggling.) 

I can feel the sting under someone else's words when they say doubtfully, so, not published yet? And I'm ready to disparage myself so that they don't have to.

As I talked so much about it last month, y'all already know that I've been learning about shame resilience from my new best friend Brené Brown. (Okay, we're only friends in my head, but whatever. She's lovely.) 

So, I'm working on this. I am trying to remember to breathe through it, to remind myself that I am not my job and I am not what I produce and I am not my salary, thank God! 

So that's half of the battle.

The other half, is to sincerely tend to what I know I need.

I am starting to develop a habit that helps me break out of this inner harshness and, bonus! that overthinking cycle too.

Here's how it works. Let's say I'm trying to decide which direction to go with a project, and there seem to be three strong options.

And the Overthinking Monkey is saying don't screw this up, you've gotta look at all these different parts of the different options. And THEN what if this happens, and look, here are more reasons for each thing over here, and oh my gosh this is hard isn't it...

And the Shame Monkey is saying, this is why it's taking you so long, you can't figure anything out, and you don't know even a quarter of what you need to know, and meanwhile everyone thinks you can actually write, so you better not mess up...

SO HELPFUL those monkeys, aren't they?!

So I've started to catch when this cycle is happening. And here's what I've started to do. It's so simple but it helps so much:

I get up and move away from my desk. I go to the other side of the room and I lie down. I take a few huge deep breaths, and I close my eyes and I just hold still.

(This is great, because the monkeys freak out. "She's walking away?!? It's like she doesn't even care about us!")

I breathe for a little while, and then I tell myself in my kindest, and most calm voice: You know the thing that you need to do next. You have one option that seems like the right one for now. What's that option? 

And I give myself permission to 1) pick something, and 2) that it doesn't have to be the perfect choice. It's the choice that seems right, for now, and that's good enough for me, I tell myself.

In about ten minutes, I'll get up with a very clear calm-ish path in my head, and dive in. And I end up not regretting my choice, even if I have to revise it later.

Seriously, this has been huge.

So if you're nodding along with this, and you get what I mean about overthinking + harshness, here are my four steps again. I apply: 

1) Oxygen. For real. Because I start breathing too fast, or holding my breath when I'm anxious. Good decisions require oxygen! Try to relax, unclench, and breathe deep.

2) Space. I can't find my way out of a spiral if I'm staring at a bunch of lists or all my different options. I need to separate myself.

3) Clarity. I try to boil it down: I just have to take one step, and I just have to pick that step. It isn't rocket science or brain surgery. If they all seem equally good and even equally risky, then I really can't go wrong. I can simply choose.

4) Permission. I take the idea of a "right answer" off the table. I'm not looking for a perfect choice. (And yes, sometimes I have to say this out loud.) I'm just looking for a choice. A starting point. I'm allowed to change my mind later when I see things even more clearly. But at the same time, I'm not going to second guess myself just because

This little sequence has been a game changer! 

How about you? Where in your writing process are you most tempted to be hard on yourself? And what would it look like if you gave yourself a tiny dose of kindness instead?

And what would it look like if you gave yourself a really, really BIG dose of kindness?


Resistance.

For anyone who's read the excellently butt-kicking motivational books of Steven Pressfield (I'm thinking especially of The War of Art, Do the Work, and Turning Pro), Resistance is something you're already familiar with.

For the rest of you ... well, you're familiar with Resistance too. You just might not have called it that.

Here's how Pressfield introduces the concept in The War of Art:

There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.
     What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

He goes on, 

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
     Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? ... Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

It's an internal, persistent, relentless force that keeps us from doing our work. That's it.

That slippery, negative feeling that we get before we do something that we honestly, in our heart-of-hearts want to do ... but in this moment, we seem to want to do ANYTHING else.

You get this, right? I mean . . . anyone who's tried to write for about two seconds understands this feeling.

There is so much good in Pressfield's books. He is super helpful when it comes to understanding Resistance and the whole creative process. Definitely ones to pick up, if you haven't yet!

I'm half tempted to type out the whole second half of his book right here in this post ... okay, actually the whole book.

But I won't because of plagiarism and rules and all that. You'll just have to read it for yourself. It's a quick, very helpful read—which is great because you can flip it over and reread it and get it deeper into your brain. 

But anyway, here is the Resistance-fighting technique I've been using lately, and, amazingly, it's been working.

It's deceptively simple. Ready? Here it is:

I'm working toward a bunch of goals right now. Seriously, so many. And though they're worthy, I can feel a ton of Resistance anytime I'm working on the next step toward a goal.

What's suddenly changed for me is that I've realized where that huge burden feeling is coming from. The real burden, the real problem, isn't the task itself.

So, the problem isn't actually the intense, complicated scene I need to write today.

The real problem is that Resistance tells me that I'm not up to working on something so complicated. It tries to convince me of this by flooding my mind with dread.

Resistance tries to convince me that the task is the problem. That the task is why I have dread.

When really, Resistance is why I have dread. The real problem is Resistance. 

So I wrote myself another note, and I stuck it to my computer monitor: 

It's not the task that is burdensome, but the Resistance to the task that is.
 

It's Resistance that's killing me.
Drop Resistance.

Yes, I know. That sounds simplistic.

But what's happened in my head since realizing this is amazing. 

By rereading that note, I can catch Resistance when it sneaks in. And I can remember that its chief trick is to make me think that something else is the problem—instead of the Resistance itself.

So, when it's time to write, and I sense that slow build of "Meh, I'd rather not" working its way through me, I'm alert to it. I snap out of it.

I say, AHA, look, it's Resistance! You, Resistance, are the thing that's even harder than the hard work. You're the thing that's worse than bad writing. You're worse than brain cramps and elusive sentences and revisions. 

So I'll get rid of you.

And I'll stop resisting the task.

... And that simple moment of reframing the situation WORKS. And it's lovely.

So, try it. Identify your real enemy.

It isn't the writing. It isn't the scene that will come out somewhat backwards (though with a few glowing phrases, a few spot-on descriptions!). It isn't the journey we take into the unknown every day.

It's the thing that would block us, with no truly good reasons, with no clear helpfulness. It's the thing that creates a mood, a doubt, a dread. It's fat angry Resistance squatting in the middle of our road.

Refuse to buy into it. Refuse to welcome it, listen to it, pick up the burdens it hands you. 

When you feel it rising, remember that it is the difficulty, not the thing that it's pointing to or hiding behind. Don't listen to it, and dive into your work.

And then see if that makes a difference.

This Is How We Get Fiercely Productive and Fiercely Happy At the Same Time

When we have meaningful downtime, everything changes. Our brains focus better ... and we have a lot more fun!! | lucyflint.com

One of my favorite sections in Cal Newport's Deep Work was a section within the chapter "Work Deeply." I was reading along, getting all fired up about the untapped potential of my mighty brain and all it could do for my work, when I hit the subsection titled "Be Lazy."

Wait—what?? 

Is this still the same book?

As I kept reading, Newport convinced me. The lovely balancing truth is, in order to work deeply and to focus extremely well, we also need to know how to recharge, refuel, and regather our strength.

Which is, of course, right up my self-care alley!!

When I read that, I realized yet again: I want to be as good at refueling my mind as I am at spending it.

Those two skills go hand in hand: they depend on each other.

So today? We're going to talk about strengthening our ability to refuel, our ability to be lazy, our ability to play.

Ahhhhhh... This sounds fun.

How's that shutdown ritual coming along? 

As I've mentioned before, Newport makes the point that we need a clear, concrete end to our workday, in order to transfer all our unsolved problems and undone work over to the world of the unconcious.

... Which I still think is the coolest thing ever. (Cue a fun dream sequence.)

So, what do we do when all our focused work is done? Dive headlong into a night of Pinterest and Buzzfeed and Netflix and Facebook and all the media stimulation we can handle?

Um, no. 

That would be kinda like watching our diet and counting calories really strictly during the working hours ... and then binging on ice cream and brownies and cupcakes and peanut butter when we're done with work. (Aw, come on, peanut butter, you know I love you.) 

In other words, just because we're not actively working, it doesn't mean we can just jump back into the distraction festival.

That would undo all the brain training that we're striving for with deep work! 

So, um ... what can we do?

After our work is done for the day, we're free to pursue what Newport calls meaningful leisure.

Here's what he says:

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Whoa. Quite a concept, right?

Meaningful relaxation. Taking your downtime with a serious dose of intentionality.

So... I have to think about how I relax?

Well, yes. 

In Deep Work Newport references a few different ways to do that: spending time with hobbies, and going for nature walks, and simply indulging in recreational idleness. 

He says,

Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done. 

From reading the rest of the book, it doesn't sound like feeding the brain a steady stream of distractions and media is really the rest that it's looking for.

I'm convinced. Since reading that, I've started experimenting. I've brought back some old hobbies and started using my after-work hours to pursue them instead of pursuing news feeds and cat videos.

So I'm brushing off my piano skills a smidge, using my fingers for something other than typing words. I dug out an old pack of cards, and I've gotten back to my childhood love of solitaire games. 

I've even picked up something that I was never interested in before: jigsaw puzzles. No kidding! I didn't know if they would make me crazy or not, but so far, I've been shocked by how meditative and restful they've been.

There is something very humbling and very big-life-metaphor about assembling a big, complicated picture one piece at a time. I've found it utterly addictive.

And as I've reinvested in these three hobbies, I've found that the urge to jump back into the Internet has dwindled a lot. And I'm feeling more peace in my thinking.

Really. I'm not making it up. I feel different. Honestly... it's lovely. 

Let's overhaul our approach to downtime, shall we?

Here's the challenge, then. When we're not working, let's be actively rejuvenating. Not just doing low-grade Internetish activities that are somewhat fun but not at all memorable.

Those social media or infotainment sites that absorb a lot of time, give us a few laughs maybe, give us a few spurts of inspiration maybe, but then don't leave us with much when they're done.

Know what I mean? 

So, what old hobbies are calling to you? What did you love doing as a kid, but haven't picked up in a while? 

What kinds of things have seemed too nerdy, or a bit of a hassle, or a little old-school ... but secretly you always liked doing them? Maybe you could pick them up again?

Try that. Chase down three old hobbies, or even just one. Start spending time with them in your after-work hours, and just see what happens. 

Be patient if it seems slow at first. It might be challenging, but you're up for that, right? Go easy, and then start to feel yourself relax into it.

Yes, this takes more thought. Yes, it even takes (until you get used to it) more effort.

But it is INFINITELY more rewarding.

So worth it.

... If you're stumped for hobbies or pastimes, try asking yourself these questions.

(And yes, that sound is me cackling a little bit, because when I asked myself these questions they dramatically changed my life and how I see myself. I'm not kidding. So, buckle up, lionhearts.)

Here we go:  

  • When you're on Pinterest, what do you tend to pin the most? What boards do you compulsively fill out? What imagery do you get excited over? What pins give you that eager zing in your mind and heart?
  • When you're on Facebook, who do you most want to keep in touch with? Who do you want to know about? What do you love seeing? What do you always click on?
  • What Instagram accounts get you excited? What kinds of accounts fill up most of your feed? What photos make you happy, inspired? What do you love to see?
  • In your other social media accounts: Where do you enjoy spending your time? What are you drawn to? What kinds of posts and images do you respond to readily? What do you most like?

Here's my sincere challenge to you: Go back and really answer those questions, okay? Be as honest and thorough as possible. Try to put down at least one thing for each site that you go to, and if you're really brave, list four or seven or twelve. 

Okay. Wanna change your life? Here's the simple and radical thing to try: 

Instead of pinning it, try living it. 

Instead of liking a friend's post, write a postcard or a letter. Instead of filling a comment box with confetti emojis, send actual confetti!!

Instead of watching hours of funny cat videos, check out the classics of film comedy, and have a movie festival. (I was raised on the Marx Brothers, btw.) 

Instead of oohing and ahhing over a photostream, go after that skill, that environment, that style, that fill-in-the-blank in your real and actual and daily life.

Instead of filling out Pinterest boards, try collecting the objects you're pinning, visiting the kinds of places you adore, making the things you admire.

Resurrect an old hobby, or fall in love with a new one. Visit a place instead of dreaming about it.

Take your own photos. Make your own emojis. Do your own stunts.

I know. This can feel like a lot of effort, but my friends, it's been life-changing for me! 

Case in point: It took me along time to realize that I was pinning a lot of art. I mean, a lot.

I had a Pinterest board for patterns and a board for brilliant design and a board for photography that thrilled me and a board for amazing illustrations and a board of sketchbook spreads.

And only this past summer did it hit me: Ummmm, Lucy, how about taking an art class?

I debated for a while. For a long time, actually. 

I'm a WRITER, I told myself severely. I write. I do not take art classes.

And then Deep Work came along, and Cal Newport says my brain needs a rest, so now I have a year-long subscription to CreativeBug. And I am definitely taking art classes. 

Right after I enrolled, I watched preview after preview of class options. And at one point, I actually had tears in my eyes while listening to one woman describe the joy of keeping a sketchbook. 

Something in me has been wanting this, needing this, for a long time. And because I needed to be a "serious writer," I kept saying no to myself.

What I LOVE is that being a serious writer means I actually get to say yes.

Yes to a more meaningful downtime. Yes to those non-work pursuits. Because those yeses translate to a better, sharper focus when I'm at my desk.

HOW CRAZY AND WONDERFUL IS THAT?!

In total honesty, I have not been doing a lot of pinning lately. I haven't been on Instagram in a long while. (And you can tell because those dang photos of mine aren't changing, sorry!!) 

But I really loved my line drawing class, and that sketchbook spread I painted last night makes me smile every time I think of it.

... You see what I mean, right? 

It's worth it. Figure out what your social media habits are telling you, and then try pursuing the real thing. 

If you're feeling resistant to this, believe me, I've been there.

I've had plenty of weeks, plenty of months, when my brain felt like melted butter, and all I wanted after work was a nice media snack and then bed.

I get it. I really, really do. 

But diving into a hobby instead of merely media-ing it has been incredible.

I'm seeing myself differently. When my writing is done for the day, I start feeling like I'm also an artist. I'm a pianist again. And after a long jigsaw puzzle stint, I start to see the physical world around me differently, noticing how objects look side-by-side in a totally new way.

Because of my overhauled recreation time, I have a broader sense of what I can do and who I am.

Also, it is so incredibly energizing, in a way that all the Internet-inspiration-browsing has not been. Choosing to live your inspirations changes you from a spectator and a consumer to a maker. An artist. A creator.

... So THAT, my lionhearted friends, is my challenge to you. What would you make, who would you reach, where would you go, what would you try, if social media wasn't the answer? If the Internet wasn't waving its big, distracted arms at you?

What would you do, and who would you be, instead?

Mmmmm. Be very excited: your answers just might change your life.

The Key To Everything Is a Crazy Amount of Focus.

The megaskill that makes way for all other skills: the ability to focus, intensely. (Like ... more intense than ever before. A whole new level.) | lucyflint.com

If you saw my last post on Cal Newport's stirring & motivating book Deep Work, you know that a radical new approach to focus is totally necessary if we want to write with super-high quality. It's also vital if we want to grow exponentially in our writerly skills.

Which: we do. Right? All of us. That's what we signed up for.

Focus. It's a big deal.

So ... how do we learn to focus with that kind of intensity? How do we adopt that training program mindset, so that we become writers who dive in deep and write our most incredible stuff? 

From the last post, we already know that deep work requires literally rewiring our brain. Which ... is hard. We know that this is going to be a challenge.

So, do we have patience with ourselves as we practice, and a readiness to encounter difficulty? Check and check.

High five. Let's go strengthen our ability to focus. 

Where do we begin?

1) Develop a deep work ritual.

Is it just me, or is everyone talking about rituals lately? Morning rituals, bedtime rituals, getting-ready-for-exercise rituals, planning rituals... 

Personally, I love 'em. (Shocking, right?!)

Yes, I love the idea of using a clever sequence of little behaviors to naturally lead my mind into the next important thing I'm doing.

It's like an on-ramp for the brain.

Welp, Cal Newport says we need to ritualize our deep work sessions as well. Why?

After describing the rituals of a few successful deep thinkers, he points out:

Success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there's no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.

Minimizing friction: that is key!! I don't know about you, but some days I feel like my writing time is friction. I can be forever transitioning between activities and making decisions, instead of getting into a good groove and staying there.

I'm sold, Mr. Newport. So, what does a deep work ritual need to do?

He lists three things in particular that a ritual has to incorporate: where you will work, how you will work, and how you'll support your work.

If we're making and remaking these decisions every time we need to settle in, we'll be flooding our deep work time with that transitioning friction. 

So, for starters, you need to ensure that your deep work area is a good environment. With a low chance of distractions and interruptions, and enough space to think.

And then, when working: how do you want to structure it? Do you need to keep a certain kind of pace, or consider a certain number of questions or read a certain number of pages? 

Finally, do you need some good food (he suggests some good coffee, and you know I'm all "amen to that!"), and some space to move around a little? (He repeatedly recommends walking as a way to enhance thinking ability.)

Personally, I don't have a clear, solid ritual in place yet. But I do have bits of one: 

  • In my planner, I write deep work mode! next to the hours when I'm planning on being uberfocused. That extra bit of intentionality reminds me to be sure and keep distractions out of my work zone.
  • Before I dive in, I sweep my desk space, and clear out anything that would derail me.
  • Like my phone. I march it over to my closet, tuck it into a little drawer, and leave it there.
  • I pull up a soundtrack of nature sounds on my computer. The rhythm of ocean waves works like an audible cue: time to go deep.
  • Finally, I keep a notepad nearby, so that if a distracted thought drops in (I need to text so-and-so! I have to track down that one recipe! Did I ever deal with that one email?) I can note it and not lose it ... but without pursuing the distraction itself.

Yeah, I know. This is pretty basic, and certainly isn't up to the more quirky and eccentric rituals that we hear about. But I'm willing to get there. ;)

And so far, this has been a good framework for supporting my early deep work efforts.

The real key here is to experiment with whatever works best for you. To take care of all those moving parts that would derail you, and make sure that you have everything you need ... and nothing that you don't.

2) Have a plan for your precious deep work time.

The time to figure out how your session is going to go is before the session starts. We don't want to waste precious deep work minutes planning our deep work time, right? Right!

So before you start, be sure that you know how long you're going to work deeply. When you're starting and when you're stopping.

Because when we're working this intensely, it's vital to know that there's only a finite amount of time we're doing this!

Newport says,

Be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

And yes, I've thought, "Oh, I'll be fine. I'll just work til I'm ready to stop." Hahahaha—no. For some reason, when my mind doesn't know when it's going to get a break, it starts tempting me to give up, get up, slow down, get bored, and get distracted.

Let's not do that.

Know when you'll start, and when you'll stop. And when you're done, get up and move around and take that break!

One more point about how long we're working: It's tempting to learn about the value of deep work, and then to swear you'll have an eight-hour deep work day, and charge out to save your world with focus.

But that doesn't work so well. That's kinda like me dashing out to run a marathon. (You'd have to scrape me off the pavement after about four miles.)

When we're new to this, it's essential that we start small

Newport recommends that we aim for an hour of this kind of pure focus to begin with. And actually, it's really all we can muster before our brains are retrained.

If even a full hour sounds especially difficult, I hear you! There is zero shame in starting with even smaller amounts. Twenty minutes of total focus can be really challenging and super rewarding!! 

And it's shocking how much good thinking you can get done, in twenty focused minutes.

(When we get super good, we'll be looking at four hours of deep work a day. Even the masters can't do this indefinitely!) 

Also, what kind of work will you be doing? We'll answer that next:

3) Know the difference between deep work and shallow work.

Shallow work is another central concept in this book. Shallow work is the stuff that we still need to do ... but it doesn't require the same amount of focus, and it isn't generating huge value like deep work.

Newport defines shallow work like this:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

For me, shallow work is the busywork of dealing with computer updates and gathering resources. It's filling out forms, running errands, editing photos, fixing the printer. It's dealing with email and shuffling files and organizing papers.

Anytime I think, if I had an intern or a clone, I'd have her do this!—that's shallow work.

Shallow work isn't bad. In fact, it's completely necessary! It doesn't take as much focus, so it has a lighter feel to it. 

The reason we need to recognize it is because we're tempted to drip our shallow work all through our day. It can sprawl across our schedules and just take over.

But it simply isn't coming from the same place as our deep work. If we blend the two all day, we keep ourselves from going deeply and doing the kind of lasting work that would, well, make a name for ourselves.

(Doesn't that give you shivers?)

If you have days that look like this kind of once-typical day of mine, then you get where I'm coming from: 

  • work a bit on the draft
  • um, I'm bored/stumped, so I'll check email... 
  • oh, sweet, blog comment! I'll dash over and answer that!
  • okay, right, focus: work a bit on the draft
  • I need a new computer update!
  • Oh, I should back up my computer while I'm thinking of it, can't risk losing data!
  • while it's rebooting, let me just clear my email inboxes on my phone . . . 
  • that outfit on Pinterest is so cute. So are a dozen of the recommended pins alongside it...
  • Oh, right! Drafting. Drafting drafting drafting.
  • Geez, I'm hungry...

THAT is an oh-so typical blend of shallow work and deep work attempts. Sure, I can get some important shallow work done, but when I keep switching back and forth, my drafting (aka deep work!!) suffers.

Because when I'm drafting from a shallow-work mindset, my scenes feel more sketched than deeply dreamed. My characters act more clichéd, their dialogue a little too rehearsed.

We can't completely cut out our shallow work—some important things would fall apart. But, we can't let shallow work take over our valuable deep work time, either.

Newport recommends, instead, batching our work. That's why the deep work ritual is so important: Get into deep work mode, and do the deep work, no distractions!

And then, get into shallow work mode. Scrape all those lighter tasks together and knock them out at once, staying in that mindset throughout. 

4) In fact, give yourself a shallow work budget.

This is such a cool suggestion, and it's one I have yet to implement. But I think that, when I do, it's going to be huge.

Here's the idea. Newport recommends talking to your boss (for those of us writing for ourselves, that's us) about the difference between deep work and shallow work.

Our deep work time will bring the most valuable work to our "company." Our shallow work time won't be so much about generating value, but it will keep everything running smoothly.

Both are important, no question.

Here's the question for our bosses, aka us, to wrestle with:

How much time per week should we spend doing each?

Wherever you're at, this is a great question to think through.

His suggestion for self-employed knowledge workers (like me, like you, if you're working on your novel and/or building your brand): the ratio should probably be around fifty-fifty.

So, roughly half our time we spend digging in deep with our novels, writing our best stuff. Working with pure focus, operating as our absolute best and smartest selves. Thinking amazing thoughts. Growing our skills.

The other half of the time we're answering emails, editing photos, planning social media campaigns, tweaking newsletters, etc.

Make sense? 

And then, as you settle into this rhythm, track your time each day. He says it's an eye-opening and helpful way to keep yourself honest: to keep shallow work in check, and to keep your deep work in your sights.

So, if anyone has swamped her day/week/month by deciding that she needs to clean out allllllll her file folders instead of facing the next few scenes (who, me?? never!) ... yeah, this is gonna help with that.

5)  We already said it, but, it's time to make it official: Distraction, we're breaking up with you.

Oh, Distraction. You talk so sweet, but you clearly don't love us as much as you say you do.

You mess with our game, you change our brains, and you keep us from doing our best work.

And you pretend it's all in fun.

Nope. Not okay anymore, Distraction.

We're all signing off. We're done with constant notifications, chiming, buzzing, dinging, ringing. We're going deep. We're practicing mega-focus.

We're not afraid of being bored. We'll find new ways to stay entertained. We'll notice what's around us and be fully present, instead of disappearing into your mile-a-minute maelstrom. 

And when we truly need a Pinterest hit or a Facebook fix, we'll schedule that time like the deep workers we are, and go check our sites happily for that pre-scheduled half hour, or however long we've decided.

We aren't at your mercy anymore, Distraction. We're taking our power back. No more falling into your lost minutes, lost hours, lost days.

Distraction, we're done. It's not us: it's you.

Ya gotta go.


On the face of it, a lot of these tips are common sense, right? This "deep work" stuff can sound like just cleaning up some habits around working well. I get that.

I think what makes these ideas feel so weighty to me, though, is because Cal Newport treats deep work like a whole new level of working.

Near the book's conclusion, he says,

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. ... To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I'm arguing, is a transformative experience.

He makes the case that as we learn to do this, we won't be saying, "oh, yeah, I guess I polished that novel rather nicely."

It's more on the level of, "holy crap, I just took that whole GENRE to new heights," or, "I created a different kind of story form," or, "I destroyed the pre-existing limits on this kind of publication launch."

It's about solving problems in a huge way. It's about shattering our previous ways of working, our small successes and tiny increases. Trading all that in for absurd levels of growth, productivity, and understanding.

This is rocket fuel, in other words. 

So, if you're in, if this sounds awesome, here are a few deep-workian questions to consider:

What's your deep work ritual look like? Or, if that sounds daunting, what's at least one way you can signal to your imagination and your brain: we're goin' deep!

How long of a deep work session do you want to start training with? Remember, a killer twenty-minute block is much better than a terrifying one hour, when you're getting started! Don't be ashamed to start small.

What kinds of activities in your typical work week qualify as "shallow work"? Nothing wrong with them, but they just don't come from that mega-focused place. What would it look like if they had to take up only half your time (or less!), and the rest of your time went to pure, total focus? 

And yeah, we just broke up with Distraction. What do you need to do to make it official?

Remember: It's easy to feel like we're focusing well enough. That we already know what focus feels like, thanks, and why must we go to extremes? Isn't that a little harsh, a little crazy, a little weird?

The truth is,we underestimate the power of this level of focus, because most of us (myself included!) have never really, actually, consistently tasted it.

We don't know what it can do, and we assume that we're working as well as we can.

I think it's worth it, my lionhearted friends, to dig in and really try for this. 

Personally, I love the idea of my time—that very finite resource!—doing radically more than it currently is. Of having richer insights, more imaginative work, and better everything.

Woo! I'm getting chills.

So I'm on board with this.

Oh, okay, and one last thing: If all this focus talk makes you feel like your brain is going to fall out, and also like, what the heck, Lucy, that last month was all self-care all the time, and now I feel like you want me to be a machine... 

I got you. On Thursday we'll be talking about strengthening our ability to play. Which is the other half of this deep work equation. 

OH yeah. We'll balance it out. High five, my friend.

Wanna Write the Absolute Best Work You Possibly Can? Me Too. And I Just Found Our Training Program.

I've got a great book recommendation for you. If you want to make the most of every writing session, improve your skill, and produce your best-ever work, this is a must read. | lucyflint.com

Well, my friends, get ready to toss some confetti. Because I've just discovered another awesome book that you are going to love. 

It's exciting, compelling, and challenging. It's definitely going to force us to build strength in a few areas. 

But best of all? It works at developing a key skill in creating high quality work.

Which is what you're working on. Which is what I'm working on.

We all want high quality writing, yes? 

So this is our next thing to learn.

The book is Deep Work, by Cal Newport. It's a bit of a wake-up call about how we are currently working, and what the results of that kind of work are.

Eye-opening, and oh-so helpful.

The subtitle is, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. No surprise, then, that Cal Newport is discussing how we can habitually work with a serious, life-changing amount of focus.

He has this equation that I just loved: 

High-Quality Work Produced = 
(Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

... And if the math-ness of that makes your head explode (I hear you!), then here's the game-changing truth: 

To make the best kind of work, we need to focus acutely within the time we have. 

In fact, our ability to focus intensely makes a huge, across-the-board difference, within every single minute we spend at our work.

If you only have half an hour to write each day, you need deep work practices, to make that the most dynamic half hour possible. 

And if writing makes up the main part of your day, like mine does: we need deep work practices as well to make the most of each day ... and to keep us from tricking ourselves about how productive we are.

(He makes it clear early on that mere busyness isn't the same thing as creating valuable, quality work. Yipes!) 

Oh, and my friends who are gearing up for NaNoWriMo in a couple of months? Yeah. Cal Newport's got your back too. The principles of deep work are gonna make that your easiest 50K ever.

In other words, if you've ever gotten to the end of a writing session, or a writing week, or heck, a writing year (yup, been there!), and said, What did I do with all my time

This book is for you.

It's for all of us.

Yes, some parts are challenging. But hey, you're a writer. You've signed up for challenging. You eat challenging for breakfast. So this is right up your alley.

Ready to start? Here are four of the best things I learned in Deep Work.

1) What the heck is deep work anyway? And why is it so dang valuable?

Definitions first. Newport defines deep work as: 

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

What does that mean for all of us writers?

Deep work is about using our total abilities to do our work. It means doing our writing with full imaginative capability, full mental capacity. The works. 

ALL our brain cells doing their part, to help us dream up, draft, revise, sculpt, polish, and complete our amazing bit of writing.

So that's why it's seriously important.

Deep work means that you're writing valuable things.

It also means that you're getting better at what you do. 

Just by working in this way, you're improving your characterization, dialogue, the flow of information in your story, the pacing, the structure, killer conflict, sentence style, all of it.

Bonus: Deep work practices help make sure that your work is especially unique.

Because you're dialed in, you're working with your whole self. You're tapped into your best ideas. You're digging past those surface clichés and narrative reflexes that we all are familiar with (and accidentally add to our stuff when we're not thinking deeply, whoops!).

In a nutshell, pursuing deep work means that you're going to write the best darned work that you can possibly muster.

Oh, and since your skill is growing all through the process, that next book? Will be even better. You'll keep breaking through your old limits.

... You can see why I'm sold on this, right?? Heck yes, give me a huge helping of deep work! I will sprinkle it on my cereal and stir it into my coffee and have it all the time

Deep work is worth pursuing.

... But then we hit a few snags.

2) So, why has distraction stopped looking so cute and friendly?

Did you see the words "distraction free" up in that definition?

So ... yeah. Distraction free. That's kinda the first real bump in the road.

To pursue deep work, we need to take a hard look at what we're comfortable with. Where we're already operating from.

And we're gonna have to change some things.

If we're working in distraction-supportive environments (notifications dinging, email chiming, text messages chirping, Facebook facebooking, Twitter twittering), then, um, we aren't doing deep work.

Meaning: we are severely limiting our ability to write valuable things, to come up with our most original stuff, and to grow in our skills.

Yikes.

I mean, YIKES. That's a pretty sizable hit to take.

And ... it gets worse:

In Deep Work, Newport explains the concept of attention residue.

We experience attention residue when we're working on one thing, and then we switch reeeally quick to just check something else—a little look at email, a tiny Facebook snack, a peek at Twitter—and then go back to our first task.

When we come back to our original task, we have this kind of attention hangover. Even if we don't consciously notice it, part of our brain is still paying attention to the email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever else we checked out "real quick." 

And attention residue can last for ten to twenty minutes.

In other words, our five-minute break isn't five minutes in its effect. Even if we come right back to our work. 

We all basically knew that distraction wasn't harmless, but, if you're like me, it seemed like such a fun thing to keep around.

I'd go through periods of cracking down on distractions, but then I'd fall in love with Instagram again. Or want to keep tabs on something on Facebook. Or listen to an Internet radio service with those jarring ads. Or, or, or...

Newport's description of attention residue really convinced me. That hidden cost of switching tasks just seems way too expensive.

Up to twenty minutes of really bad brainpower, for every quick break?! Wasting twenty minutes of work time? Ack!

So, as I type this, my smartphone is shut in a closet. My computer isn't registering any notifications and I don't have any other tabs or windows up. No music playing.

My focus isn't perfect by a long shot. But I can feel it getting better. 

(Stay tuned: We'll talk a lot more about how to strengthen our ability to focus in the next blog post!)

3) What do we have to know before we start practicing this stuff?

One of the points that Cal Newport really dwells on is the idea that 1) deep work is hard, and 2) it is a skill that we have to train.

It's not something we can just pick up and be great at. It's going to take work.

It is going to take training.

In other words, we are going to want to stop, give up, shrug our shoulders, and go back to our old ways. 

For serious.

In the book, he quotes some really compelling research findings about how our brains don't just snap back to being able to focus intently. 

In other words, this isn't just a question of motivation. It's not just about trying hard and seeing if it works.

It's about taking a muscle that has atrophied and bringing it back to full health and then some.

Why is it so important to know this?

Because the breakthroughs are on the other side of perseverance.

Part of our brain has to learn to walk again: It's going to be painful! Progress might be really slow.

We might forget why we're even doing this, or if it even matters, when it seems like all the cool kids are interacting on Twitter every five minutes.

And if we know, in advance, that it's GOING TO BE HARD, we'll be more willing to stick it out through the challenging parts.

Right now, most of us work in a near-constant exposure to distraction mania. And those distractions actively deteriorate our ability to focus deeply.

Chasing distraction isn't a neutral habit, in other words. Running scared of being bored, scrolling through countless media sites as a reflex, keeping multiple windows going as we work—it's not just slightly bad for us.

It is actively, persistently, and ruthlessly breaking down our chances at doing our best work. 

And it's creating a mental dependence on distraction, which is going to make it even harder to learn to truly focus.

Did I say yikes already? Because: yikes. Again.

So, he says, we have to wean ourselves off of distraction.

We have to stop letting our work sessions and our work breaks and our evenings  and off times be defined by distraction-oriented activities.

It doesn't mean we all have to swear off Pinterest and the like. But it does mean that we have to be intentional about our use of Pinterest and its friends.

Newport recommends that we schedule our distraction time. That we, quite literally, write down on a piece of paper when we will be indulging in the distractions. 

He points out,

The key here isn't to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

That resistance? Super important. 

He mentions elsewhere that, by doing this work, you are literally working to rewire your brain. To retrain it. To pull it back from being distraction-craving and distraction-driven.

And to turn it into something that can focus well and work hard.

(And, you know, write deep and amazing books.)

4) And why does it matter how we end our work session?

One of my favorite favorite parts of the book is Cal Newport's powerful idea of a shutdown ritual. 

And believe me, a shutdown ritual is your new best friend.

It's a set series of things you do at the end of your work session to close things down. Pretty basic territory. You might even do a version of this already.

For me, it means:

Sounds simple, right? 

Here's the key thing, though: our brains need us to officially stop thinking about our work at a certain point.

Yes, really.

And here's why that's so cool:

Apparently our conscious mind and our unconscious mind operate super differently. We all pretty much knew that, right?

The thing that I, at least, didn't realize, was that, both parts of our mind are incredible problem solvers.

The conscious mind—the thing that's clattering along right now as you read and as I type—is super good at solving a certain kind of problem. 

Newport says it like this: 

Your conscious mind ... is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems. 

Cool, right? Good job, brains. Very nice. 

Here's the interesting part of that description, though: limited problems. The conscious mind handles the smaller things.

What does the unconscious do? Newport continues:

Whereas your unconscious mind is like Google's vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.

Huge amounts of unstructured info: uh, that sounds exactly like all the info I generate while plotting.

Surprisingly useful solutions to difficult questions: sounds like exactly what I'm looking for!!

You too, right?

Let that sink in for a second.

Your unconscious mind holds spot-on solutions for your very complex, difficult questions.

Like how to save your character from the mega-mess she's made in chapter 47. Like how to figure out your business and marketing plans. Like how to do any of the other myriad, gnarly problems that we face all. the. time.

Your unconscious mind is your hero.

And I don't know about you, but when I'm trying to solve a big problem I can kind of panic, trying to just chug chug chug uphill with my dinky little conscious brain, thinking: If I just work later, if I just keep going, if I just don't let it go til I figure it out...

But this section of Deep Work convinced me: We have to send hard-to-solve problems over to the unconscious mind. To do that, we have to deliberately take them off the conscious mind.

What that means is, we need to kind of train our brains to make the switch. We need a clear, concrete end to our work days. Which is why that shutdown ritual is so dang important.

Newport recommends doing the same sequence of steps, each time you finish your work.

And he even makes the case that, it helps to say something out loud to help make this transition. You're essentially telling your brain, "Okay, the conscious mind is done with this. Over to you, unconscious!! Make me proud!" 

This part of the ritual can be simple. Newport says out loud, "Shutdown complete."

I'm usually talking to a bunch of characters, so I say, "Good job, everyone! That's it for today! Sleep well!" 

It doesn't matter so much what you say, but keep it consistent.

And the final super-critical key to a shutdown ritual is this: You stop trying to think about your work. For the rest of the day. Yes, really.

He says, 

No after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

And instead of panicking about the problems that are unsolved, we're free to go about our evenings, or whatever our time off is—knowing that the massive resources of the unconscious are working hard on our problem.

COMPLETELY amazing, isn't it? And so very freeing. The shutdown ritual has been one of my favorite parts of applying this book so far.


There's a lot of really compelling information, insights, and suggestions in this book, my friends.

Honestly, it's a must-read for all of us who want to write things that will be valuable for our readers. Who want to write works that will last.

I'm applying the book slowly and steadily, so I'm not on top of everything he says yet. But the small progress I've made has felt really invigorating. 

My mind feels a bit less like a sieve, and more like a machine that actually works. I feel less ready to jump up or click away at the slightest craving for a distraction. I feel more on task, more content, and more satisfied in my work.

Which, honestly, is super empowering.

So if you worry sometimes about how well you're working, or how deep you're digging: this book is for you. Get your hands on Deep Work, and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, let's challenge ourselves to get rid of distractions.

Let's be willing to engage our minds in this training work.

Let's give our conscious minds a rest at the end of the work day ... so the big scary-exciting work of the unconscious can begin.

Most of all, let's take courage. One of the best resources for a successful and fulfilling writing career is this deep work ability. And it's right here! Right within our grasp!

It requires no fancy equipment, no flashy tools. Just you, your mind, your willingness, and a whole lotta grit.

Let's practice it, get better at it, and write those amazing stories that the world needs.

What's Going On When The Writing's Going Smoothly: A Mini Checklist for Writing Life Sustainability

It can be oh-so easy to fall off the tracks, right? Here are three simple things to check in with, to make sure that your writing life is good to keep on going! | lucyflint.com

In the first years of my full-time writing practice, I spent a lot of time burned out. 

Um, a lot of time. 

I'd whip myself into a frenzy of urgency with my work, I'd go flat out for a while (terrified of slowing down, of losing momentum). And then I'd hit a wall and burn out.

Shake it off eventually. And then repeat.

It wasn't really a fun system for getting work done. Exciting, maybe. Dramatic, definitely.

But not so much fun.

Plus there were a lot of casualties: I wasn't the easiest person to be around. (Moody!!!) 

And I burned through and discarded some truly great story ideas. (They're still hobbling around in my subconscious, poor things. Some day, my dear ideas! Hang in there!)

But the biggest casualty, really, was all that time that I could have had a lovely writing life!

Years when it could have been this fulfilling, intriguing adventure, instead of something I thought I was failing.

Honestly, there were just too many days when I hated my dream job. Which is why the whole concept of sustainability is my absolute best friend.

Seriously. Sustainability = yum.

It means that the way we work today is hugely important. Because it makes sure that we can also work again tomorrow.

Know what I mean? 

So I've been taking aim at strengthening my sustainability. At working with a flexible endurance. And an ongoing kindness to myself.

And—maybe this is the most important thing—I'm learning to put the right value on those sustainability practices. 

They are so crucial to our ability to work! We need to value that kindness to ourselves, that flexibility, that endurance, every bit as much as we value the other tools in our writing lives.

Because this is the stuff that keeps us going. Without it, we are wide open for a bad case of writer's block.

Yikes, right? 

These are three of the most basic sustainability practices that I've adopted, and they've made such a difference! 

Every now and then, it's vital that we come back to these basics, check in with them, and make sure that everything's running smoothly.

1: We are continually & constantly refilled.

It is SO essential to know what it is that fills up our creativity. Right? 

Because as we work, we're tapping that source. Mining our internal sense of story, our images, our ideas.

It's easy to forget: we aren't endless. That well of ideas isn't bottomless.

So we've got to get into a habit of refilling ourselves. Bringing in new images, new experiences, new ideas. (Julia Cameron calls this "refilling the well," which I just love!)

We need to keep seeking out mystery. Delving into our curiosities.

The other way to refill is just settling into any regular, repetitive, sensory experience: like driving, doing dishes, stitching seams.

Letting our artistic attention wander a bit. Strange but true: this also refills our story-making abilities.

It sounds so simple, right? And yet it can be so easily dismissed or forgotten.

We can get into a habit of not filling ourselves back up. We can model workaholism, and just drain ourselves dry.

Or, we can try to tend this, but not do enough. Not put back as much as we've taken out.

So here's what I've been doing: 

Every day, every single day, when I wrap up my writing, I write down on a piece of paper exactly how I'm going to refill the well that evening.

It can be anything, if it's done intentionally—cooking, or messing around with origami paper. Doing a few sketches, or pulling out my coloring book and markers. Playing a few rounds of solitaire, or going for a walk.

I usually give myself a few options, in case one doesn't work out. And then I make sure to do at least one of those, if not all of them!

And that one little step, that bit of intentionality, has made a huge difference on my ability to follow through and actually do that refilling. 

I can feel the difference, too: I feel more ready to face my work than I used to, more equal to it. Because I still have plenty to draw from.

So what fuels you? What nourishes your creativity? Little things, big things, delightful wonders, or regular actions.

Try this: grab five minutes, right now, and just jot them down. Make yourself a "refilling the well" list.

And then, every day, when you wrap up your writing, or your other work: make sure you spend at least twenty minutes with one of those things. 

And then see what happens. See if you feel yourself working more smoothly.

2: We use that sweet, two-letter word to protect our writing energy.

This sounds ridiculously obvious, but hang with me: what we're doing when we're away from our writing desk has a huge impact on how much energy we have for writing.

And since writing takes energy—sometimes a lot—we have to be aware of where our energy is going.

You already knew this, right? 

When the rest of my life gets busy and the demands on my time increase, my writing starts to shrivel. It happens pretty dang fast, too.

I used to wonder what the heck was going on. Why was it so hard for me to manage extra commitments? 

But lately, I've been thinking of energy the same way I think about money. You kinda have to have a budget, an idea of where things are going, and how much you have available to spend.

Truth: We can't spend what we don't have.

Yes, I know. There are loans and there are credit cards, but that's debt. And it's when I go into big-time debt with my writing energy that bankruptcy, or burnout, happens.

Not worth it.

Let's not go into energy debt.

Every now and then, we have to check in. We have to get real with ourselves about where, exactly, our energy is going. 

Track your pennies for a while.

And here's the tricky yet worth-its-weight-in-gold question: What is taking more energy than it's giving back?

What are the activities that seem to mostly drain you? 

When I'm in the midst of an active drafting project (which is most of the time), I have to step back from other commitments, even good ones. Because they simply left me too tired for writing the next day.

It felt weird, but oh so wonderful, to step back from those things. To use a well-placed "no" to protect the energy I needed to work.

I finally admitted to myself: I just need most of my evenings quiet in order to do what I need to at my work.

You might have a different ratio, but it's best to know: what's the limit for your schedule? How much free time do you really, truly, honestly need, to make your energy budget work?

And what kinds of things are more exhausting than others? 

What would you need to do, to have an incredibly healthy energy budget?

3: We know exactly how small our feet are. ;)

So here's the truth: I love getting a big vision for what's ahead in my writing. Mmm. Just the thought of it gives me butterflies in my stomach.

I love to stare at the end result I'm aiming for. Imagining that feeling of crossing the finish line. Holding the finished novel.

Vision is good. It's so important. 

Being clear on our goal: that's the thing that lights up everything we do, right? It's important to stay connected to that.

Absolutely.

AND YET.

When I am too focused on where I'm hoping to go, it kinda backfires. In a really dramatic, ugly way.

Because I suddenly get mega-impatient with the thing that's right in front of me, whatever that is. The step that I'm on looks dull and small and unimportant. 

I start to hate where I'm at. Where I'm standing on this writing path.

I panic. How long is this gonna take? 

I can see the finish, I can taste the ending, and yet ... how far do I still have to go? Too dang far!!

And THIS is that crazy-making feeling that can send me into a panic spiral. Or I drown in overwhelm.

Or I get into this super-dangerous rushed mode, where I try to everything all at once, tomorrow, no, today!!

Instead of just focusing on the very next thing

It's easy to forget the beauty of doing the very next thing. Of taking the exact right step.

(Hint: it's the one directly in front of us.)

Here's how Julia Cameron puts it in The Artist's Way. She says that, instead of freaking out, we have to "fill the form":

What do I mean by filling the form? I mean taking the next small step instead of skipping ahead to a large one for which you may not yet be prepared. ...
     This kind of look-at-the-big-picture thinking ignores the fact that a creative life is grounded on many, many small steps and very, very few large leaps. ... 
     Take one small daily action instead of indulging in the big questions. When we allow ourselves to wallow in the big questions, we fail to find the small answers. 

It's those small answers that lead to small steps. Good steps. Down the path that we're meant to go.

This. Is. Hard.

Isn't it? I mean, I love the Internet and all, but it's also a massive window into how everyone else is doing, how they're working, how fast they're going. How successful it seems everyone else is—except us.

Know the feeling? 

It's so easy for me to start thinking, "I've gotta catch up!" And then try to get in touch with my vision to, you know, motivate myself, to remember where I want to be, and then—

Yep, panic.

Let's not do that, my friends.

Yes, focusing small can sound too simple. Too unsexy. 

But it's important to direct our gaze right down to our own amazing feet, to this place where we are standing, and to the next step.

That next step is our very best friend.

Because it's the one thing we can do right now that will take us in the right direction.

That's glamorous enough for me.


These three things—refilling our creative wells, monitoring our energy output, and focusing on the very next thing—can sound so basic, right? 

But sustainability is a pretty humble thing, when you think about it. How's my intake? Where's my energy going? And how's my pace?

Drama comes when things crash and burn, when they skyrocket and then slam. I'm pretty okay with not having anymore of that kind of drama in my writing life.

Steadiness and sustainability sound a lot more lovely.

And I think that the more we build strength around these three things, the more dependable our writing energy will be, and the more solid our writing becomes.

And that's the path that's going to take us to some mighty fine places, my friends! 

So, where are you at, today? 

Can you take a few minutes and do three things: 

1. Jot down a quick list of small actions that "refill the well" for you. Simple, pleasant things.

2. Think about your current load of commitments. What's one thing that you could say no to? Get your energy back!

3. With your current work-in-progress, what's the very next small step you can do? I'm talking like a five-minute step. Very simple, very small. 

4. Deep breath. And then: what happens if you then do that small simple step? And then do whatever you need to in order to step back from that commitment? And then take a little time to refill the well?

Let's invite sustainability in. Point it to the best seat in the house and hand it a drink. Because this is something that we want to keep around for a long, long time.

Five Ways to Spark Energy and Excitement for Your Work-in-Progress!

Enthusiasm is our best best friend when it comes to staying the course with our writing. So how can we boost our enthusiasm? I've got five super fun ways right here. | lucyflint.com

Welcome back to the Strength Building Series! So far, we've talked about what strength even means (because the wrong definition is the first step to sabotaging it). And then we focused in on building strength of imagination (because imagination is central to everything we do!).

And today—I'm really excited. Which is appropriate. Because today we're talking about how to increase our enthusiasm for our work.

I know! I know! I'm gonna have to simmer down so much to even write this thing...

Ahem. Okay. Being sensible. 

So, first thing: why even bring up enthusiasm? Why is this a place where we need to build strength?

To find the answer, think back for a sec to our Self-Care Series, when we talked all things Julia Cameron.

And one of the more mind-blowing things that she pointed out was: when it comes to sustainable momentum in our work, enthusiasm trumps discipline.

Yeah. It's still incredible. 

And that shifted my focus from "How can I be more disciplined?" to "How can I be more enthusiastic?" Which is a pretty huge course correction.

Building enthusiasm. It's essential for the kind of work we want to do.

... And before anyone gets worried that I'm about to base all our hard work on a mere feeling, let's refresh on Julia Cameron's definition of enthusiasm. She says: 

Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. ... 
     Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. ... It is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

Okay. If that was waaay more mushy-sounding than you really care for on a Thursday, let's look at it like this:

The way Cameron is using enthusiasm isn't about "how we feel right now." 

It's about 1) commitment, 2) openness, 3) creativity, 4) process, 5) play, 6) joy and 7) yes, okay, love.

Which is why, to build enthusiasm, we're going to dive into the work itself (commitment!). No matter where we're at in it (process!). 

We're going to mess around (creativity!) and try new things (openness!). And yes, it's going to be playful. It's going to be about enjoying what we're making. And even, dare I say it, loving it.

Sound good? Sound ... fun? 

Here are my five favorite ways to build playfulness and enthusiasm for my work-in-progress.

Check them out, stay open, and don't worry about "doing it right." Just dive in and give these a try.

1) Embrace the Souvenir Method.

... I was about to say "this is one of my favorite things to do with a piece I'm working on!" and then I realized I'd just be saying this about everything I'm talking about today.

So I figured I'd spare you the repetition...

AND YET IT'S TRUE!

The souvenir method is a gorgeous little way to keep your mind and heart centered in your story. Plus it's fun.

.... Annnnd it gives you a rush.

Okay. Here's what you do: 

First, get your mindset. 

This is super important to remember: You're going to be visiting your draft-in-process as if it's a place. As if you're an explorer. You're going to be looking for souvenirs: things to take out of context and bring to a new place.

In other words: You are not about to spiral into a critique-festival. You're not going to indulge in beating yourself up. You will not, even for a moment, whisper to yourself that your draft is "crap." Okay? 

This isn't about judging what's there. Not at all. This can be done with the messiest, crappiest drafts, I promise you. (Because I definitely have.)

Pick up your draft. You can start from any place. From the beginning if you like, or any chapter at all.

And read. Read slowly. Let yourself explore. 

Read like you're looking at something new. Switch off your editing brain, and just experience the story.

While you're doing that, keep your eyes open for any line, any sentence, any phrase, that seems to especially capture the feel of a particular moment of your story. 

Such as:

  • a passage that pinpoints a vital aspect of the setting
  • a line of dialogue that shows off your protagonist's snarkiness
  • an exchange or moment between two characters that hints at the truth of their relationship
  • a key moment in the rise of the conflict
  • any moment that sums up a character's personality 

Don't think perfection here. Think "candid snapshot."

You're looking for moments that get the feel of your story, even more than the accuracy. 

And—even more importantly—you're looking for bits and phrases and scraps that mean something to you. 

You're looking for the sentences that register in your writerly heart. The little "aha!" feeling when a phrase resonates especially. 

Another reader might look at what you've chosen and see a bunch of scraps of sentences, bits of paragraphs.

But when you read it through, you hopefully hear your protagonist's voice, or sense a moment between the two love interests, or feel the prickle of anxiety before a major plot point.

Go for resonance and atmosphere more than just "yes, this sums up the passage well."

Does that make sense?

Personally, I copy and paste what I've chosen into its own document. I play around with the formatting: I put little separators between each passage.

Sometimes I'll have three sentences from a section, and other times I'll just have lifted one little phrase. If one of the clips needs a brief note to remind me of context, I throw that in as well.

When I'm done, I have about a page or so of moments from my story that set my mind and heart ringing. Moments that, when I read them together, as a whole, re-immerse me into my story. 

Which is oh-so helpful for those times when I've been away from the work, and am trying to find my way back in. 

2) Create a Gallery of Nouns.

This is one that I've used recently. It's fun and seemingly simplistic... but it's been part of my post-summer re-entry to my novel, and has helped so much!

Here's what I did: While rereading my draft so far, I paused every few pages, and doodled one of the nouns that had been mentioned in the story. 

That's it.

So, as I read, I made little silly sketches of things like: the cat a character dreamed about, the spider my main character chased from her room, the row of herbs on her mom's windowsill. 

I gave each little drawing a label: "Olivia's splendid lemon cake," "a gorgeous straw hat for the beach," "the mailbox with one postcard inside." 

And then I went through and colored everything in.

I didn't care that the drawings didn't look perfect—they were meant to just be light-hearted, quick, and fun. And when I sat back, I had a kind of visual catalogue of my story so far.

Images that stood in for character moments, points of tension, or just part of the opening setting that my characters will miss later in the story, when they're far away.

What's valuable about this technique is how playful and simple it can be. But it slyly involves our ability to visualize our own story, and to translate it into another art form: a doodle, a sketch, a selection of colors.

And there's something pretty magical about being able to see bits of your story laid out on a page. 

3) Let Music Be the Food of Story.

If you've been a long-time reader, you've heard me mention this a time or three. But that's because it's my all-time favorite!!

And I'm especially smitten with it because this simple tool, more than anything else, saved my connection to my story over a long, difficult summer.

Because of some tough circumstances, I had to let weeks go by without drafting, yet I stayed open and connected to my novel idea. How?

With a playlist of music.

I've slowly built a playlist of songs that remind me of key moments in my trilogy. These aren't soundtracks, by the way. The playlist isn't focused on instrumental songs.

It's a compilation of pieces that somehow link me to a character as a whole, to a character's backstory, to a moment of the plot, to a key relationship, to a story transition... the possibilities are, of course, endless!

The lyrics don't have to be 100% applicable to my story moment. If a handful of key lines resonate, that's good enough for me.

It turns out that it's the atmosphere and the mood of the song that's absolutely pivotal.

It's hard to just talk about music, so here are three examples from my playlist: 

Example 1: Scarlett Johansson singing "Before My Time."

Yes, it's from a movie about ice. But on my playlist, it's linked to the moment we meet an old resistance leader. When she comes on stage for the first time, she's tired of hoping, and tired of trying for change. 

Some of the lyrics are spot-on for her character, but I especially love the weariness in ScarJo's voice and the lament of the violin. I can practically feel my character when I hear this. SO perfect.

Example 2: Lana Del Rey's wonderfully depressing "Once Upon a Dream."

It's a more chilling version of a familiar song from kidhood... which is why it's spot on for my playlist. In my mind, this song references a fairly evil character who creeps around within, yup, dreams. And he's just focused his attention on my protagonist.

He's tricked her once before into believing he could be helpful, so the lyrics in the song even hint a smidge at the character's backstory and their history together.

There's also a kind of fatal inevitability in the song that I love... It helps me remember how trapped my protagonist feels in this moment, and how high the stakes are for her. Oooh. So good. 

Example 3: Of Monsters and Men's live version of "King and Lionheart."

It's more simple and haunting than their original version, and it's one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. *high five*

It's also totally perfect for late in the trilogy, when my protagonist has been through a lot. She and her ragged friends are working alongside a king, and they're all gearing up for a climax that's sure to be very, very messy.

But the feel of this song and a fair amount of the lyrics are just exactly right. And honestly? I still get chills listening to this song, thinking of my main character. 

Whew! So. Those are some that have worked for me. 

The main thing to remember is that you're looking more for atmosphere and mood than for lyrics. A few spot-on lyrics are excellent, of course, but it's the feel of the song that seals it. 

So, see what you think. Basically, you'll know it when you hear it.

When it hits just right, I feel this incredible expansive rush, where I can see my characters in my mind, and—more importantly—feel what they are feeling, and hear what they are thinking.

I sense their weariness, or their uncertainty and fear, or their dogged hope. 

I can't say this enough: building a playlist is RIDICULOUSLY FUN.

It feels like procrastinating, but let me say it again: nothing saved my work this summer more than this. You can totally justify the time, in other words. ;)

Once you have a playlist—even if it's just a handful of songs—you have gold.

Play it in the car, listen to it while you cook, dance to it, take walks with it. And when you hear the songs, send your heart and your mind right into the center of your story.

You don't have to do any hard-core plotting (although I've definitely discovered plot this way). You don't have to jot down notes, or expand characterization (although, again, that has happened along the way for me).

You don't have to be "productive" with this tool at all. The biggest and best gift that it gives is a connection to the emotional and mental climate of your work.

It keeps it real and breathing and lively in your mind. 

And when that's true, allllllll good things can follow. 

4) Give It the Big Screen Treatment.

If the above strategies have been at all up your alley, don't stop there! This next idea can feel a little more tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it is pure fun and super helpful.

It also might keep you from sleeping, if you choose to do this right before bed. (So. Many. Times. I get all story-giddy and lie awake for hours. You've been warned.)

So: I love to dream up trailers for my book. As if it were a huge summer blockbuster.

I do this all in my head: I slowly fade in to some kind of panoramic story-view. Introduce characters in a moment, a glance, a funny line. 

And then I try to zoom in on the most tantalizing moments. The funniest lines, the jaw-dropping cliff-hangers, the moments of loss. You know. The way a good trailer does.

I cut from one moment to the next to the next in my mind. I imagine stirring epic music, or heart-stopping silence. Even a little slo mo, when it feels right.

... Basically I just have a blast. That's it in a nutshell.

And each time I do this, the resulting "trailer" looks different. 

What's glorious about this is how it, again, forces you to get visual about your story.

But also, it helps you focus on what movie trailers do best: excitement, intrigue, resonance. It helps you connect with the emotional points of your story. 

When I'm mired in too much thinking about structure and plot, and when my work starts to feel tedious, I retreat to this strategy. I pull up IMDb and watch a bunch of movie trailers.

And then, comfortable with the whole movie-trailer genre again, I close my eyes and dream up my own.

Seriously, my friends, when you start to get the hang of it, this can inspire enthusiasm like nothing else.

5) Believe In Where It Could Go.

Okay. This final enthusiasm-builder might sound more than a little goofy. BUT I've read this advice from several other writers (James Scott Bell and Heather Sellers for a start), and so I had to give it a try.

... And when I did, I couldn't stop smiling. 

Here it is: Make up endorsements for your work-in-progress, from authors you admire.

Yes really!

(IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER: Don't, for the love of pete, publish them or pretend that they are real or everyone gets into trouble. Okay. Just had to say that. Common sense. Right. Okay.) 

Anyway: Write that kind of endorsement that would just thrill you. What you'd dream of them saying.

Write endorsements that emphasize those key parts of the story that they most loved. Everything that you're aspiring to in your work.

Type the endorsements onto a mock title page, and print it off. Hang it in your work area, or put it somewhere else where you can see it. 

Read them often. Smile.

... This isn't about getting our hopes up, or setting our hearts on something perhaps won't happen. Dream endorsements are a long shot, sure. 

But the strength of this tool is a lot like the strength in affirmations. When we state the direction we're heading in, it helps us change course. Saying out loud what we want can keep us on track.

Plus, if these "endorsements" make you smile... then why not? 

The main point is: they are a fun way to help you remember your goal. Your vision for the story.

The fact that, all this work, all these words, all these hours, are going into a craft you're making to give other people an experience.

Maybe you're trying to make them laugh. Or make 'em cry. (In a good way.)

Maybe you want to whisk them off to strange lands for strange adventures. Or maybe you're trying to open their eyes to what's in their backyard.

You want them to think. You want them to feel

Write little blurbs for yourself that point you in that direction: that help you remember you're inventing an experience. It's about a heart, about emotions.

This little endorsement-writing trick can seem so small, so silly.

But it can lift us above the daily grind, just when we need it most, and set our focus back on the big picture.


And there you have it! Five ways to strengthen your enthusiasm and stay playful with your work-in-progress.

All five of these have been absolutely key at different points in my writing life. They have cheered me, excited me, steadied me, and brought my stories back from near-death.

Pretty dang exciting, frankly. 

Which ones have you tried before? What will you try next?

Do you have any favorite ways to stoke writerly enthusiasm? Pass 'em along!! We all need plenty of good tools for this!

Explode Your Creativity (and Just Have a Lot More Fun!) by Strengthening This One Dynamic Skill

An essential skill that's usually in desperate need of strengthening, if we want to create better stories ... and a more satisfying writing life. | lucyflint.com

Have you ever read a book that felt like the author was standing waaaaay too far away from you?

There's this weird kind of distance—like they're standing outside of their own book. That incredibly tedious, frustrating sensation that the writer is writing about their story. 

Know what I mean?

Their scenes feel like static, lifeless things that the writer is pointing to and explaining to me.

... Instead of whisking me up and sticking me right in the middle of the story itself. 

Confession One: With this kind of book, I don't last long as a reader.

Confession Two: And I can totally become this kind of writer, when I'm not careful.

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

Spoiler alert: I'm not about to dive into the differences of "showing versus telling." And I'm not going to unpack the more descriptive styles of writing as opposed to the more stark.

Nope. What's on my mind is the big, overarching, world-shaping superpower that we all have access to as writers. 

Imagination.

Today we're gonna dive into how we can strengthen that oh-so-vital aspect of our craft.

But before we start, WHY does it feel so silly to talk about imagination? Like it is so very uncool and unadult.

After kicking off this series on strength-building, I feel like I've just waltzed into a weightlifting class and announced, "Today, we fingerpaint!"

And yet. Training our imaginations has a lot more to do with athletic prowess than anything goofy or simplistic. (Not to knock fingerpainting. Fingerpainting is awesome.)

After all, my friends, we're creating people and conflicts and settings and whole worlds in our minds

That's one heck of a barbell to hoist off the ground.

Okay? So let's not belittle ourselves by sneering at the term "imagination."

It's just the name of the muscle we happen to use for this incredibly powerful work we do.

How We Get Toned, Build Muscle, and Increase Imaginative Flexibility

As I come back to my novel after a turbulent summer, I'm realizing how much time I've spent away from the inner workings of my story. I've used my creativity to solve daily problems ... instead of using it to dive into my characters' world.

So my imagination has lost a whole lot of muscle mass. It's gotten scrawny. It skips the stairs and heads for the elevator. And its joints are all stiff and inflexible. 

So when I ask it to work hard on my novel, it kinda gasps and shakes and then looks around for a bag of chips.

No bueno.

I want my novel to thrive this autumn. Right? And you want yours to be amazing too, I'm sure. 

Which means it's time to build some serious strength in imagination!

So ...

So, how do we do that?

Well, a lot goes into this, for sure. We could talk about nurturing our curiosity, pouring ourselves into wonder, and taking ourselves exploring on artist dates, all of which are essential components to a full imagination-health routine. 

But I think that there's one skill that's more vital than all the rest.

Something that can totally dry up when we forget how important it is. When we start "coasting," and skimp on our attention to it.

But when we practice it over and over, ohhhh, look out.

Our writing gets richer, stronger, and generally more awesome.

I'm talking about the simple yet incredibly challenging practice of fully visualizing what we are about to write.

This is the practice of taking a scene that exists as an idea in your head, and then experiencing it. As if you were there, in the scene. 

Being present inside it, as completely and totally as possible.

THAT.

Yeah. Like I said: it's simple. Yet super challenging. 

James Scott Bell sums up this kind of imagination practice so well in his book Plot & Structure: "Be an actor." He says: 

I'll ... try to live the emotions. I'll act out the parts I've created. Almost always what I feel "in character" will make me add to or change the scene. ...
     Vividly imagine the scene, step by step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene.

Be. In. The. Scene.

So—we've probably all done this to some degree. There are scenes and moments in our stories that tend to just drop into our imaginations, right? And other pivotal scenes can be easy for us to tumble into and experience vividly.

But I know that, for myself, I tend to not make this immersive imagining a key part of my writing routine.

Instead, I get by on low-grade visualizing. Barely seeing it in my head, I instead think my way through: I guess the character could say this, and then he'd reply with this, and so she'd counter with this

But too much of that, and writing just feels like manipulating ideas of people, notions of conflict, rough sketches of setting.

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

Instead of the kind of story that makes its readers stay up waaaaay too late at night finishing it.

The kind of story that haunts readers and inspires their dreams.

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

It keeps us from standing outside a scene and writing about the action. Instead, it plunges us inside it, so that we create the scene. First in our heads, and then on paper.

And our readers? Better be prepared to be carried away.

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

This is a practice, so be super patient. Especially if you're as rusty at it as I am!

Be incredibly kind to yourself, refuse to expect perfection, and just keep coming back to it.

As you do, here are five things to remember that might make all the difference for you.

1. Be willing to move slowly.

It's when I'm trying to hurry through my work that all pretense of richly imagining the scene just goes straight out the window. 

I'll have the merest glimmer of the scene in my head as I pound it out on a keyboard.

Now, I'm not at all against writing fast: I think it's the coolest thing ever, and I want to get better at it. (Because THIS!)

But as we get ready to write quickly, our preparation time is a key moment for visualizing. 

That's when we can slow down, and take the time to fully sink into whatever it is we're about to write. 

If you're tempted to rush, like I can be, it's good to take a deep breath and remember what it feels like to be totally blown away as a reader.

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

It's terribly easy for me to fall into a rut with what I imagine for my scenes. If I could get away with it, I'd have faceless, undetailed characters and nearly blank settings. I'm stronger on voice quality and emotional beats and overall action. 

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

Ack! I have to remind myself to not leave them out.

So, as you plunge your imagination into the scene, feel into all these lifelike details: 

  • The sensations of the air, the temperature, dampness or dryness...
  • The quality of the space—claustrophobic, exposed, oppressive, frivolous, light...
  • All the sounds: of gadgets, people, movement, weather, animals, distant traffic, or hollow stillness...
  • Scent. It's so easy to forget! The smells of the people, the rooms, the outdoor spaces, fabrics, foods, mustiness...
  • And then of course, the feel of the emotions: tension, excitement, nerves, hope, shame, uncertainty, expectation...

We could probably come up with a list five times as long as this. (Which would be awesome, but really overwhelming too, haha!) 

The point is: try to be as present in your visualization of the scene as you would be in real life.

Notice what you notice. Feel what you feel. And figure out alllll the little details that affect you.

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

It can help to remember: this might be really uncomfortable.

Sometimes, when I'm visualizing a scene, something in my head says, "Hold up. This is a really strange thing to be doing. NOT very normal. Not very adult. So let's not." 

Right? 

It's important to remember that, especially when we're new to this kind of imagination training, it might seem really weird, or childish, or wild, or uncertain. 

But it's still worth it.

Basically? Keep on going, even when it feels strange.

Even if something in you wants to say, "Ack, that's enough, right? We have a general idea of this scene. Let's just hurry up and write it already." 

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

Strength happens every time we don't quit when we want to quit.

Just like when we're jogging a longer route than usual, or wobbling in a yoga balancing pose, or lifting a weight that's right at our limit—we will want to quit.

We cry, "Okay, enough, I'm done!"

But if you push through the discomfort, if you hold on, then you get better, stronger, more flexible, more stable. 

You're inventing worlds in your mind, my friend. It takes strength and skill. Keep going. It's worth it.

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

When it gets tough or challenging, it's so easy to think, "I need back-up!"

So we drop out of our intense imagining, and go find: a good Google image spread, or a Wikipedia page, or maybe check out that one Instagram account, or go make coffee.

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

But the longer we can focus allllllll our attention on this, the more rich and deep and well-constructed it will be.

So if you need more details in your scene, just make them up. Even if they might not be accurate or will need updating later.

If you're getting bored and this visualizing feels tedious, add something that puts you back on your edge. Raymond Chandler would send in a man with a gun. Personally, I like to throw in something weird, off kilter, askew.

What would most re-engage your attention? Send it in there.

5. Whatever else you do, don't hold back the most essential part of the scene. 

Deeply imagining a scene is a choice. And a skill. I've felt it get easier with practice... and then much harder when I'm out of practice.

So when we engage with this, we're increasing our skill, for sure. 

But we're also re-choosing and re-committing to our own story. 

We're deciding to live in it. Inhabit it. Participate inside it.

When I do this, I'm pushing myself to experience my story not just as a reader, but essentially as a character. 

I become someone who can peer into the absolute central workings of it. I get to witness all the exquisite moments that won't make it onto the "main stage" of the finished page. I spend my working hours wandering other realities.

And that is when I feel like the writing life is the most incredible, satisfying, and adventurous life that there can be.

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

What we have to remember is that this isn't just an exercise.

It isn't just a strength-building, creativity-enhancing strategy.

It's a way of life. A way of working.

And it's the most literally mind-bending part of our craft.

It gifts us with the ability to write our stories from inside of them. Instead of from a distance, like we're merely pulling puppet strings.

If we’re not imagining, we’re settling for less. Less from our stories, less for our readers, but also less of an experience as writers.

When I think of fully imagining a scene, I'm reminded of this quote by—guess who!—Julia Cameron, in her book Walking in This World. (She's referring to the start of a larger project, but I think it applies equally well to this idea of visualizing our stories.) 

She writes: 

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of "throwing their heart" over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.

That image just grabs me. Can't that be how we pursue this?

Let's not make visualizing just one more static exercise for mere technical improvement. 

Let's turn it into an opportunity to throw our hearts more fully into our scenes.

And let the action and the details and the writing itself jump after it—to great heights.

If We Don't Ask Our Writing Lives This Question, Really Bad Things Happen. (Like Block, Burnout, Discouragement, and Dead Ends.)

There's so much going on that it's easy to work on autopilot. But if we don't dig into how we define this one aspect of our writing lives, we could be setting ourselves up for serious trouble. | lucyflint.com

Oh look, another month! How the heck did that happen??

Autumn is my favorite time of the year, so as soon as I hear the word September, I'm already daydreaming about apples with cinnamon and pumpkin-spiced everything and cooler days and the smell of bonfires and the sound of the marching band on football nights and snuggling my toes into cozy knitted socks ...

Whoops, got carried away. (Besides, it's going to feel like summer around here for the whole month anyway, so no need to rush things, I suppose.)

Ahem. 

I love the beginning of a month, because it's always a good time to take stock.

... Oh, who am I kidding. I like taking stock at the end of the month too. And every day in between.

So, whenever you read this, here's the question: Where are you at right now? 

How are you doing, in your mind? Your heart? Your creativity? 

How's the work-in-progress? How's the writing life?

It's been a whirlwind of a year (on my end, at least). And I'm more than a little amazed to be facing the last four months of the year. 

I loved—and desperately needed—August's self-care focus. All that self-understanding and self-nurturing was absolute balm to my hassled soul.

And now that we're on this side of it, I asked myself what we should do next. The answer was clear and immediate:

I want to gather strength. Build stability. Stamina.

So much of this year has been about taking things apart and trying to put them back together in a better way.

That has been amazing. It's been (seriously) life-changing. 

And also a bit, um, disruptive.

I'm ready to find a good groove and to get back in it, know what I mean?

Personally, I love the idea of following a month of self-care with a month of strength-building. We're taking better care of ourselves to a purpose, you know?

Now that we're better at nurturing, now that we're alert to better ways of operating—what do we do with ourselves?

Get stronger. Build strength. Yes!

But as soon as I knew that, I had another problem. 

Strength? 

What the heck does that even mean?

Because if you spent any time watching the 2016 Olympics, you've realized that there are about a bazillion different kinds of strength.

Watching those athletes compete, you can totally tell: what makes someone the best at one type of sport would be completely destructive to someone in another sport.

So if I want to build strength in my writing life, I have to do a little digging to figure out exactly what I mean by that.

Where does that desire—I want to feel stronger!!—come from? What's the urge behind it?

Part of me was echoing Julia Cameron's statement: Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong

Yes! Let's keep building strength with nurturing! Let's have incredibly strong imaginations! Let's have writing days that come from a strong sense of enthusiasm!

And another part of me was saying, "Also, let's do a ton of writing, please."

It's worth remembering: We build strength physically by repeating a difficult action. By challenging ourselves.

By going right up to our limits (we find where they are by "failing"), and then building strength and skills right on the borderlands of our ability.

I want to get better at working hard, at the very same time that I want to get better at working happy

So what might that look like in our writing lives this month?

In other words, here's my question for you today:

How do you, personally, define strength?

What kind of strength are you looking for right now, in your writing life?

It's worth doing a little digging, a little self-reflection. It's important to get clear on what we mean by it.

Because if we don't check our unspoken definitions now and then, we can slip into this funny little habit of valuing opposing things.

Conflicting habits. Mutually exclusive "strengths."

Here's what I mean:

Sometimes I tell myself that I really value a distraction-free environment. Strength of focus is a beautiful thing!

But then, I discover that I'm secretly also valuing hyper-productivity: "I can't let a single unread email sit in my inbox!"

Funny how those two ideas don't work together very well. (More on all that later this month.)

Or I can tell myself that I want to be really well-rested. Feeling healthy: definitely makes me feel stronger.

But then, as I work on honoring that, something else in me freaks out. "No, no, wait," it cries. "I also have to work at least ten hours a day with no breaks, or I feel like a slacker." 

So apparently, somewhere in my inner workings, I've mislabeled "working incessantly" as another sign of strength.

Hmm. 

It sounds a little silly, but I think it's worth taking the time to investigate. Because if we dive into the idea of "strength" on autopilot, without thinking about what we value, we can sabotage ourselves. 

We might find that we're holding ourselves to a dozen competing standards. And that's not gonna go so well.

Honestly, whenever I've burned out in the past, this has been part of the problem. I've mislabeled something as strong, and then worked to build that strength ... in spite of warning signs. In spite of a need to balance it out.

So. Take a little time today, or this weekend, and just check in: 

What kind of strengths do you most value?

When you think of yourself growing in stamina and building strength as a writer, what kinds of things come to mind?

Skills? Habits? Attitudes? 

If you gave your writing life a kind of athletic identity, what would most symbolize strength to you? 

In other words: for some people, strength looks like a body-builder's physique. For someone else, it's a yogi's amazing flexibility. 

There's a gymnast's incredible sense of balance, the endurance of a rowing team, or the sheer speed of a sprinter. Or what about a hurdler's take on navigating obstacles?

I've narrowed down my own sense of writing life strengths to a handful of traits. These are the things I really want to dig into this month. 

I want to put in my time in the weight room, and nurture these skills with habits, with practice, with good stretches, with quality repetition.

I want to check in with how we treat our work. With how our imaginations and attitudes work to strengthen our writing. 

I want to definitely build muscle around the whole strategy of routine, schedule, and balance. 

And then I want to check in with the obstacles we face. What saps our strength? And what's our vision for all this work and effort, anyway?

Mmmm.

So, that's what's ahead in September! Let's take allllll the good wellness we explored in August, and let it support us as we move into muscle-building mode.

It's time for more flexibility. Better endurance. And the ability to heft some serious poundage.

Let's create a stronger writing life.


What's going on in your life when you feel strong as a writer? What skills are in place, what habits? 

Have you seen how the right habits build strength in you, as a thinker, a creator, a writer? What creative muscles are you most itching to target?

Where do you most want to increase strength this fall?

How to Make Those Huge Self-Care Changes (Without Panicking or Giving Up!)

When you've just learned a zillion ways to improve your life, it can feel more than a little daunting. And maybe like--why even start? I get it, and I've been there. Here's how to move forward, without panicking or giving up. | lucyflint.com

Holy moly, my friends: We covered some major territory this August.

It was the month of self-care for writers, and we came at it from every angle! From looking at our ability to rest, to how we protect our creativity; from nurturing our artistic selves, to embracing enthusiasm over discipline.

I talked a LOT about my favorite new life-changing resources for overhauling my creative lifestyle and for becoming the kind of human I most want to be. We talked about pulling shame out by its roots, and we talked about the space-creating power of saying "no." 

WHEW! Sometimes it felt like self-care, and sometimes maybe it felt a little more like sandpaper, but either way: I hope it did some deep, good things for you and your writing work. 

Before we wrap up the series, though, I've realized that there are four things left to say. Each one is fairly small, but when you bring them together, all this self-care stuff kinda clicks into place.

Ready? This'll be fun. Here's where we start:

1. We can't underestimate the power of play.

One thing that came up over and over and over this month—from Brené Brown and Julia Cameron—was how vital it is to play. 

It nourishes our imaginations, our work, our creativity, and our whole dang lives. So important! And yet, so dismissible. 

I'm working on being intentional about playfulness, because I'm convinced of its benefits ... but it does not come easily for me.

And if that's you, too, then I wanna share something that's helped me so much. Here's what I've realized: 

Play isn't a reward for a job well done.
It is its prerequisite.

As I've added more playfulness into my days, I've found more ease in my work.

And even though Julia Cameron told me that would happen, I still felt kinda shocked. I mean—I was just goofing off! Being silly! Pulling out an old hobby or three from when I was a kid, and suddenly, my heart feels lighter when I work? 

Strange but true.

And when you realize that playing well is a prerequisite for doing great work, it becomes a priority.

Pro tip: If you are working on protecting your time and schedule so that you have the space to play and pursue hobbies, it can feel tricky.

Especially if you're new to this whole idea of play being important.

So here's what I've been doing: instead of calling it play, I call it prep

So, if anyone asks you why you aren't free, and it's because you've blocked out that time to play and delight in creativity, do not say, "I can't do it because I'm going to be messing around with a kid's watercolor set all afternoon." *apologetic grin*

Don't say that unless you feel extremely confident. (In which case: good for you, go to it!)

Instead, say with all earnestness, "I need the afternoon to do some essential preparations for my work week."

People are much more likely to nod seriously back to you. (At least, that's been true for me, so far!) And then you go and pull out your paint set and have a blast!

And actually, that statement is the fullest version of the truth. A truth that we need to keep saying out loud, to ourselves, to others: Play is our best prep.

2. And also, we've gotta resist the temptation to skip the chiropractics. 

After guzzling as much information and wisdom as we've covered in this series, it's easy to feel a little bloated. A bit dazed.

The question I faced over and over this summer was: How can I possibly put all of this into action, all at once?

You know the feeling, right? When you're reading a book and every chapter presents about eighty things that you'd like to instantly adopt in your life? 

Whew! It's dizzying.

My temptation is usually to follow this little process: 

  • Take a zillion impassioned notes
  • Tell everyone how amazing it is and how my life has definitely changed
  • Reread the notes and become fatally overwhelmed
  • Collapse
  • Forget the book
  • Come across a new life-changing book, and begin the process again...

It's a very exhilarating process, but not quite as helpful as it could be, haha! ;)

Let's be honest: It can get uncomfortable when our minds or our hearts have outdistanced our actions.

You know? When you have all this amazing information, or when you feel so strongly that something is right... but then you come up against your patterns, behaviors, habits, environment.

And it can feel so dang hard to change course, that it's easier to just let go of all the new stuff and slip into old ways. 

The trouble with that? Is no matter how hard we try to numb our new awareness, no matter how we try to quiet the new information, we've still been changed. 

And if we live in the old way, we can get this weird feeling of disconnection. Feeling a little out-of-place in our lives.

We're forcing ourselves to ignore the new truth we've discovered, and that just doesn't sit so well.

So how do we bring integrity into our lives? That lovely alignment of what we believe, what we know, what we feel, and how we behave

I'm fairly new to the world of chiropractors and the amazing transformations they can achieve. But the two chiropractors I've met with have worked little step by little step.

Moving my spine back into alignment, one subtle adjustment at a time. Or healing my body from a tangle of troubles, one little behavior at a time.

Meaning? 

You don't have to go after all of this, all at once. Integrity can happen a little at a time. The key is just that you start.

Maybe you start with the single biggest behavior. You find the largest game changer, the most enormous truth, and you just work on digesting that into your life.

The rest can wait.

Or, maybe you start from the other end. You find the one thing that seems easiest, that feels the most within reach. Pick the tiniest, most doable change. And commit to just doing that.

The rest can wait.

So maybe you start with the big, and begin by tackling shame resilience or perfectionism.

Or maybe you start with the small sustainable thing, and write three pages every morning or give yourself permission to have a ten-minute nap every afternoon.

Whatever you pick, be super proud of yourself. You're bringing your habits into integrity, and that's a beautiful process.

As I've worked on this bit by little bit this summer, I've felt my self-respect totally shift. Because when we're working toward integrity, respect is a natural byproduct. 

It's amazing how big an internal difference even those small choices can make. Everything starts to feel better when we take steps to line up what we know with what we do!

And that brings us to...

3. Let's make practice our new favorite word.

Seriously. I have fallen in love with the concept of practice.

I used to only see it as (I admit it) a form of drudgery. What can I say, more than a decade of music practice on two instruments... I didn't always love it! :)

But Brené Brown caught my attention early on in The Gift of Imperfection as she talked about practicing courage. 

Practicing compassion.

Huh, I thought. What an unusual way to describe it. She referred to a gratitude practice, a vulnerability practice.

That's a new way to frame that kind of behavior, right?

But the power of the word practice didn't fully hit me until, actually, I was doing a yoga video. (Yoga with Adrieneif you want a recommendationis very accessible, hilarious, and oh-so lovely.

And in the midst of working on a pose, she said, We don't get on our yoga mats to DO yoga. We PRACTICE yoga. Let yourself practice.

... At which point I fell out of the pose and just stared, because that's it. It all hit home. 

It's too easy to view everything through a pass/fail lens. Did I do well, did I do my best, did I pass? Every time we show up with writing, creativity, self-awareness, playfulness, courage, or any other behavior we're trying to improve.

That pressure of "I have to do my best, every time!" can be really draining, really restricting. And frankly, it's death to all these beautiful creative behaviors we've been working on this month. 

Let's skip the pass/fail idea. Life is not a series of final drafts: it's a long and glorious field for practicing.

So we practice our courage, and we practice our compassion.

We practice saying "no" when we need to, and we practice getting more rest.

Through the practicing process, we can explore. "Does this work better, or could I try it this other way?" We can stay curious. We can experiment. We're more free.

So I'm going to embrace the beauty and flexibility of practice. And when I remember that I'm just practicing, my willingness to try quadruples. Even when the thing I'm trying out (courage! shame resilience! the next draft of the novel!) is daunting and difficult. 

Heck, I'm just practicing! We'll see how it goes.

So, as you think about whatever struck you most in this month of exploring self-care, I'd commend to you that concept of practice. Keep reminding yourself, you don't have to get it right the first, or third, or eleventh time. 

What a relief, right? Let's show up for practice.

4. What next? Here's my tool of choice for moving forward...

You know me: I took the idea of creative preparation, and my deep desire for integrity, as well as my willingness to practice deeply and persistently.

And guess what that all added up to, for me?

A list. Yes. Because I love lists with a love that will not die.

This is a very, very unusual list, though. 

It's a list full of baby steps, in all the directions that I want to go. 

And I promise, it's a total antithesis to my old, arthritic, perfectionist-driven lists. Unlike so many lists I've made, this one doesn't feel like shackles.

Nope. This feels more like training wheels, like kindhearted coaching. Like the best sort of game. Like a series of exciting invitations.

I made it because I didn't want to forget anything. And then I expanded it because I wanted to keep coming back to these new, beautiful reminders.

... And because I realized that if I stopped and worked on metabolizing each new realization as it first hit me, then it would take me a decade to finish these books. They were that rich and full of insight.

I wanted to keep practicing the new behaviors, and to check back in with each one, and check back again. And all the while, the list grew and grew.

So now, it's a series of sweet baby steps, one after another leading me further along this new way of being. 

This is how I'm practicing. This is how I'm working toward alignment, toward integrity. I'm encouraged and guided by the loveliest, most inviting list I've ever made in my life.

It's full of incredibly kind reminders to think about authenticity, courage, self-compassion, creativity, and playfulness.

It holds invitations for bigger artist dates, splashier treats for my imagination, and ways to coax and cajole me out of my many ruts. 

And as I've been working through the items on it, I've felt myself changing. I'm feeling a bit more free, more brave, more authentic. It's incredibly exciting, and I can't wait to see where it leads!

So how about you, my brave lionhearted friends? You've stuck around through a pretty wild month: this definitely hasn't sounded like a typical "writing" blog lately! 

Where are you at, after everything we've talked about? What feels exciting for you? What are you working on?

Given everything we've covered this monthwhat's the kindest practice you could start? Or where do you feel the most out of line with your integrity? 

Do you feel like you want to start something big? Or, equally brave, begin something small? 

September is such a lovely time for beginning new behaviors. Who do you want to be, for the rest of the year? 

You Know That Voice That Says You Can't Write? Today We Take It Down.

There's that voice in our heads that says we're not good enough to be writers, or who do we think we are to try big things. The good news? That voice has a definite source, and we can learn how to take it down. A better internal message starts right here. | lucyflint.com

You know that feeling of being hit between the eyes when you read something: hearing your own life in someone else's words? 

For me, it was equal parts electrifying and clarifying, when I read this in The Artist's Way:

If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art will be fraught with internal shaming.

WHOA, I thought. That sounds ... eerily familiar.

I kept reading: 

Many artists begin a piece of work, get well along in it, and then find, as they near completion, that the work seems mysteriously drained of merit. It's no longer worth the trouble.

How did Julia Cameron know what I'd been doing with my writing projects for so long? How was she so dang accurate??

I felt stunned, glued to the page. And she didn't let up:

Often we are wrongly shamed as creatives. From this shaming we learn that we are wrong to create. Once we learn this lesson, we forget it instantly. Buried under it doesn't matter, the shame lives on, waiting to attach itself to our new efforts. The very act of attempting to make art creates shame.

This is the part when I put the book down and staggered around my house, saying, "Everything makes sense now!!"

And this is when my sister told me about Brené Brown's work on shame and I began devouring everything I could find about it. 

Because those paragraphs were talking about me. My childhood.

And the mega-frustrating cycle that had trapped me, one work-in-progress after another. 

Each project seemed to blow up in my face, just as I got to the halfway point. And I went back to the drawing board, convinced down to my toes that I needed forty more skills (and at least five more how-to books) to write the work in question.

I thought I was the problem—too skittish, too perfectionistic, too lazy, or just too stupid. I couldn't tell: one of them, or maybe all four. 

Whatever the root cause, I was getting really, really tired of people asking me, "when will your book be done," and my falsely cheerful reply, "Not sure, but thanks for asking!"

But now, thanks to Julia Cameron, I had a way in. There was some shame lurking in my past, something that I'd buried deep. And somehow that was part of this problem.

And thanks to Brené Brown, I could figure out what to do next.

... And since I know I'm not the only one dealing with this stuff, let's talk it through.

Let's have a little heart-to-heart about shame in our writing lives.

Brené Brown says that shame (she calls it "the gremlins") has two main messages. It's the ugly voice in our heads that says, "You're not enough."

And it's other main message is, "Who do you think you are?"

MEAN, isn't it?! Ack! And if I'm having a slightly off day at the writing desk, that's what I get in my head.

How about you? Any of that sound familiar? 

If I'm not careful, I can hear that whining, nagging voice start up:

Your book isn't good enough, interesting enough, important enough. Your characters are flat and foolish and your dialogue is all dumb. The settings are cardboard. You're not good enough at social media. Your website is super dull and basic and you keep saying you're going to fix that and then you don't. There are a thousand things you could be better at right now. You'll never...

And on and on and on.

It boils down to this: Lucy? A writer? Pah. She's not good enough to pull that off.

On the other hand, if I'm doing okay, and if I'm working on the plans for revision and educating myself about the publishing process, then the other voice starts up.

Oh? Oh really? Publishing, hmm? You were a boring kid, a boring teenager, and a boring college student. If you ever had talent, it's definitely gone by now. Why would anyone want to hear what you have to say? Who do you think you are?

... Is that familiar to you at all? 

Let's all take a moment to blow a loud blast on the airhorn of clarity. Because this, my friends, is not the voice of truth (though we TREAT it that way!).

It's the voice of shame.

Which is why I am steeping myself in the book Daring Greatly. Because Brené Brown is talking all about a process she calls shame resilience. 

This is the process by which we can encounter shame, deal with it, and, as she puts it, "come out on the other side ... with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it." 

Whew!! That sounds amazing to me.

Okay. Field trip: Take two minutes and check out this lightning-quick video on how to combat shame. (If you'd like a more thorough description of how to move through shame, with an example, check out this great article on Brené Brown's blog as well.)

Shame resilience. I love those steps. I am super new to this process, but I'm learning and practicing it, one baby step at a time.

Let's go through them:

Understand what triggers shame for you. And reality check those messages of shame.

What are the gremlins saying in that moment? What are they telling you you should be?

And then, is that message even true? Are those values your values? Does this even apply to you?

Stare very hard at the voice, the message, and say: Is this legit?

I love this next one. She puts it beautifully in the book. She says in the midst of a shame attack, she needs to:

"Talk to myself in the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I'm trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown."

I love that. I love that. 

We would NOT say: You're right! You're a really boring person! And you're terrible at writing! These paragraphs are a mess! Have you ever heard of topic sentences?! 

What would we say instead? 

Think of who that is. Who brings out your tenderness, your compassion? Who would you never be harsh with?

What would you say to that person in this situation? 

I'm imagining my oldest niece, coming to me and saying that she feels like she's a bad writer, that she'll never be any good, that she has no talent.

And I can feel all my righteous aunt-ness rising up in me: Drafts are supposed to be messy, darling! They're supposed to be imperfect. You are doing wonderfully. Let's take it step by step. 

Use those same words you'd give to someone you love. Use that kind, compassionate tone. Use them on yourself, in the face of the gremlins.

Tell your story. Connect. Reach out. Own your story.

She makes the very good point that you share your story with someone who has earned the right to hear it. Not someone who will shame you further, mock you, or use it against you. So, wisdom is definitely called for here.

But I love how she describes owning our stories in Daring Greatly:

Don't bury it and let it fester. ... I often say this aloud: "If you own this story you get to write the ending." ... When we bury the story we forever stay the subject of the story. If we own the story we get to narrate the ending. As Carl Jung said, "I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become." 

BAM.

Okay, friends. How are you feeling? Is this hitting a chord?

As I dove into learning about shame, I also started excavating my past. Digging up the dirt, looking around, scouring the area for any hidden messages, any gremlin outposts.

And it's been incredible. SO freeing. So clarifying. And I'm learning to have so much grace for myself.

I processed old stories out loud with my Brené-Brown-loving sister. Then I journaled about them and dug even deeper.

I'm learning that basically anything in my work can operate as a shame trigger: quality of writing, genre I'm working in. Productivity, networking skills, habits. 

It's pretty clear: the gremlins loooove to get their hands on anything to do with my work, and to hold me to a perfectionistic, unreachable standard.

It seems like their favorite thing to do is keep me quiet. I've mostly snuck past them with this whole blog thing (yay!), but when it comes to the novels, they dig their claws in deep.

They are sending me a very clear message, and lately I've realized that it's linked to one particular episode from kidhood.

And because I would love to blow the gremlins up (and also because this is a perfect example of how buried shame messes with us), I'm going to dive into this a little bit.

Do you mind coming along with me? I want to own this brief, but long-festering story from my past:

It was fifth grade. My school's administration was really trying its best, I'm sure, and it didn't know it was consigning me to a special little hell...

But when the standardized tests came back and said I was "gifted" (sounds like something out of dystopian YA, yes?), I got to leave class once a week and hop on a bus with a handful of other "gifted" kids, and go to another elementary school, where we could, apparently, all be gifted together.

There were about nine of us on the bus, and I was the only girl. One week, we were supposed to bring our rulers with us.

And I don't remember provoking anything (because I'd already learned to be mouse-quiet). 

But for some reason, the boys spent our trip slapping me hard with their metal-edged rulers. All of them. Against mouse-me, in the back of the bus. 

Eight versus one—I didn't even try to fight back. Instead, I did what I knew to do: I tried to hide.

I wedged myself between the hump of the wheel well and the overhang of the seat, so that they'd have less of me to hit. And then I literally just rode it out, protecting myself as best I could.

When we got to the school, they filed out and I tried to get up. But fear had done its work, and I was snugged in there pretty tight. 

In my memory, it takes a shame-filled eternity, but it probably only took a few moments to wiggle my way free.

(What the heck was the bus driver doing all this time?? I'd like to time travel back and tell him to get with the program. Ahem.)

I went into the school feeling very shaken, foolish, and ashamed somehow.

I didn't tell my teachers. I didn't say anything to the boys. I didn't tell friends. 

I tried to pretend it hadn't happened.

I wasn't bruised or cut. So I just sat and learned about whales and nautical charts and used my ruler to work on my map. And then we rode back home.

No big deal.

But it was a really big deal.

There were no marks on me, but I had changed that day. And I received the message, loud and clear: Your gifts are not wanted.

And: This is what happens to gifted girls.

... And that is why, when I read Cameron's words about learning that we are wrong to create, and forgetting it instantly, and saying "it doesn't matter," I heard my own voice. Saw my own story.

That's the same message I hear in myself, halfway through every novel project. When I suddenly feel stricken, exposed: I'm an idiot, what was I thinking, why am I doing this, no one wants to hear this kind of story! 

All the encouragement I've received over the years boils away to nothing, and I'm still that fifth grade girl, alarmed at something she doesn't know how to fix, ashamed of gifts and creativity that somehow make her unworthy.

Well, GEEZ. No wonder it's hard to get things done around here!!

So, this is what I love about shame resilience: I get to own this story. 

This is me. I am that girl in the ruler story. And I'm also this woman typing.

There is more to my story than that one day, that long-internalized message. And I'm going to write the ending to that ruler story by continuing my work. 

By publishing a trilogy that puts evil in its place and gives an eleven-year-old girl a voice and the courage to fight back.

Antidotes and Cures.

I'm not sharing that story as a ploy to receive hugs. I'm sharing it because Brené Brown has convinced me of a few things.

So I wanted to talk about the bus and the rulers because I want to speak my shame story—to pull it out of the dark and let it wither in the beautiful sunlight.

But also because of the power of empathy.

Empathy is the thing that says, You are not alone

And I know I'm not the only person that this has happened to. Maybe it wasn't rulers on a bus. Maybe it wasn't eight against one. 

But I know that there are stories out there like this one, that sent the same message. A message that shows up right when you most need to believe in yourself, and find that you suddenly can't. 

I want to reach out to the others who were told to shut up.

I want to send up a flare for the people who got really, really good at being silent, at hiding, at escaping notice.

I want to connect with the people who found out that gifts get you hurt, and it's safer to hide them. 

I want to look you all in the face and say, I have been there, I have cried those tears, and you, my friends, are not alone

I love Daring Greatly and Dr. Brown's other work because she shows that there are tools we can use. There is a proven process. There are resources.

We can learn how to do this!! We can learn to speak to ourselves with love and self-compassion. To practice authenticity.

So, raise your hand, wherever you are, if you've encountered shame in the midst of your writing life. If there's something in your head saying that you're not good enough, or fill-in-the-blank enough.

Raise your hand if you've ever heard in your head, Who do you think you are, to write a tweet, a blog, a novel? Who do you think you are, to share your voice, to write from your perspective?

Who do you think you are, to say anything to anyone at all?

This is when we remember our steps. When we practice them, like the new and special dance they are:

Talk to yourself like you are someone that you dearly love.

Reach out to someone you trust. 

Speak your shame. Tell—and own!—your story, so that you can write the ending.

In Daring Greatly, she gives this great example of how we can talk back to shame. She writes:

Shame whispers in the ear of the woman who's out of town on business, "You're not a good mother because you're going to miss your son's class play."
     She replies, "I hear you, but I'm not playing that tape today. My mothering is way bigger than one class performance. You can leave now."

I freaking LOVE that.

And so I'm practicing.

I'm trying to catch that smothering sensation when it comes, that feeling that silence and hiding are the only things that can keep me safe. Because who am I, to dare to have a voice?

And I'm saying, "Shame, I hear you. But I'm not playing that tape today. I'm choosing courage as a value. Courage is even more important to me than the suffocating safety you're offering. And that means I'm showing up and speaking up. You can go now."

... I may or may not seal that with a little heck-yes dance move.

What's your version? What can you say back, when that nasty gremlin voice shows up? 

What can remind you of self-love and self-compassion? What can bring you back to authenticity?

Who do you trust to tell your shame stories to? And what old stories is it time for you to own?

This is a tough battle, my friends. But it's one that we can (and must!) learn to win.

Because the gremlins are lying. Because we really are enough, just as we are. Because we all have voices and stories that need to be heard, to be written, to be read.

Don't let shame silence you.


WHEW. Yep, I just spilled my guts all over a webpage again.

But seriously: thank you for being a place where I can be real, authentic, and honest, even when I'm typing with shaking fingers.

You lionhearts are amazing folk, with sturdy courageous hearts, and a willingness to grow, and I LOVE that in you. You inspire me.

Thank you for listening, for hanging with me.

Because, geez, what was I thinking with this blog series?! Why didn't I pick something a little less rough on all of us?

Maybe our next series should be about, I don't know, cloud gazing. Doesn't that sound lovely? Mmm. :)