Eight Pieces of Writing Life Wisdom I Received as a Beginner (And They're Still Schooling Me, Eleven Years Later!)

This is the kind of foundational wisdom you can build a writing life on. | lucyflint.com

I tumbled into the writing life with a lot of ideas and a lot of advice.

Luckily for me, I wrote all that early thinking down as one of my final class projects before graduating from college: a long essay spelling out what I hoped and expected the writing life to be.

And at the beginning of this month—eleven years after writing it—I dug out that paper and reread it. After all this time, I was curious. I wanted to sift through the mix of hopes and fears that filled my transition from the student life to the writing life, and see what I thought I was getting myself into! 

Some of my expectations were pretty ridiculous—even damaging. I'm so relieved to have chucked those old beliefs and to have learned a better way forward.

Today, I'm looking at the other half of the paper—at the best tips and advice that I compiled after interviewing writers and professors, and reading a ton of articles and writing books before taking the plunge. 

Because I was surprised: there was some advice in there that I'd forgotten, some tips that I'd discarded without thinking, and some points that could breathe new life into my writing practice.

Who would have thought??

So I've pulled the best of it together to share with you: the solid stuff that still rings true. This is what I want to keep applying to my writing days.

Read on for some of the best, most lasting advice about the writing life!

1. Love of the work = the very best fuel. Eleven years ago, I had just read Julia Cameron's incredible book The Artist's Way for the first time. And, I'm ashamed to say, I totally blew her off.

So I casually wrote in my paper:

Julia Cameron warns that discipline can be seductive and counter-productive. One danger for artists is over-focusing on the discipline rather than their love of the work.

I cheerfully scribbled that down, and then went off to do precisely that: I overfocused on discipline. For, um, eight years.

Instead of focusing on my love of the work. Love? What did love have to do with it? I was used to doing assignments and handling deadlines—who cares about love?

Better to hold myself accountable for every single five-minute period of my life, and rate my output with pass/fail grades all the way, right? 

Hahahaha. Nope. 

It's taken a long time, but I am finally, finally applying Cameron's excellent advice to my writing life. I'm aiming at love and enthusiasm in my work.

How about you? Being super disciplined is all the rage right now, and it definitely has its points ... but it can also backfire.

Let's bring discipline back into balance with enthusiasm and love of writing.

2. Long live the daily brain-dump! Another brilliant piece of advice from The Artist's Way is Julia Cameron's classic practice of writing morning pages: three pages of stream-of-consciousness, written longhand, first thing in the morning.

I tried them for the first month after graduation. With a lot of griping. And then I decided "they did not work."

But I'd forgotten their whole purpose: to just clear your mind first thing in the morning. They aren't supposed to be nice. They aren't supposed to even be readable. They can be as whiny and grumpy as you feel: that's their job. To just catch what's in your mind.

Now that I've relearned what they're for, and now that I've been practicing them for a year, I can't not do them. If I skip a day, I feel more mentally cluttered. I get off-balance.

They're every bit as essential to my mental hygiene as brushing teeth first thing is to my mouth.

Have you experimented with adding morning pages to your days? Even if you've given them up like I did, they're worth trying again. I promise!

If three pages feels daunting, try starting your day with at least one, or even half of one. Do them simply to do them, to clear your mind.

3. Our MAIN job might not even be actually writing. So, fair warning: rereading this forgotten piece of advice blew me away. And it's been seriously messing with my mind ever since.

In the paper, I quote from an interview with Gary Paulsen (anyone else grow up adoring Hatchet?), in which he said:

You can't learn to write in a workshop. You can't learn in school or through a class. Writing is not going to help you learn to write. ... You have to read, and I mean three books a day. ... Reading is the thing that will teach you. Make it an occupation.

Holy moly! Can we just, uh, take a moment? Because he just said "writing is not going to help you learn to write," and I'm reeling at that.

Because, well, it kinda makes sense.

I don't know about you or what your writing journey has looked like, but it's so easy, embarrassingly easy, for me to downgrade the importance of reading fiction.

Over the past decade, I've been writing and writing and writing, and yes, it is gradually getting better, but I'm wondering if some of my rather slow progress is because I've been reading-starved?

Possibly?

Rereading this quote re-convinced me. Or, actually, it kicked me in the pants: I need to turn the dial way, way up on my reading life.

"Make it an occupation," he said. Ooooh. 

How's your reading life been lately, my friend? Are you, like me, a bit under-fed in that area? Let's dive in, big time, this summer! To a HUGE stack of books.

4. Respond to everything you read. As far as reading goes, one of my professors recommended that I keep a kind of Reading Journal.

She said that I needed a place to respond to what I read—where I could talk back, critique, delight, and explore.

This is one of the pieces of advice I actually stuck with, I'm happy to say. As I read (not as fast or as much as Gary Paulsen recommended, but I did still read), I took plenty of notes on lines I enjoyed, on what didn't seem to work, and on the overall feel of the book.

I compiled all these notes in a series of Word documents, in a huge and ever-growing folder on my computer. All very tidy, searchable, cross-referenceable.

But rereading that line in the paper, I suddenly have this wistful wish that I'd kept it in a physical journal. Something that feels more warm, more personal, instead of the lab-note feeling of my digital files.

Hmmm. Maybe a change is in order.

Tell me friends, do you take notes on what you read? Do you ever come back to those notes? How do you organize them?

And are you for digital or analog reading journals?  

5. Make good self-management a top priority. One thing that I was rather accurately worried about was burnout.

In that paper, I wrote,

I routinely hit a point in each semester when it feels as though I can't go on: I become very sure that every assignment will fall lifeless to the ground, that my GPA will plummet, and that there will be no recovery, not this time. I'm afraid that if I'm my own boss, I won't be able to pick myself up and keep on keeping on.

I always knew that managing myself well would be a key part of the writing life ... but I didn't really know what that looked like for a long time. It's taken a while, but I'm slowly learning to be much more kind to myself, and to trust my instincts (instead of automatically assuming I'm lazy).

This is why I want to keep asking questions about how to manage well. What does it look like to be a good boss, a kind boss, a wise boss? I never want to stop learning about that.

How do you feel about your own self-management style? Where do you most want to grow as a boss?

Let's keep working toward sustainable creativity and kind productivity. Let's keep learning how to manage ourselves well!

6. We are not machines. When I get overfocused on my work, on all that good reading and writing and time management and productivity and focus ... I kinda forget that I live in a body.

Which is why this bit of advice still rings true: Several professors pointed out that I'd need to balance reading and writing with plenty of actual physical stimulus.

Oh, the body. We don't just live in words!

I read a lot of Annie Dillard while at school, especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I was captivated by how Dillard's time in nature and her time spent reading all poured into her writing.

Which is probably why one of my writing professors recommended I follow Dillard's example: read, write, and roam.

To be honest, that's something I really haven't done much.

It's one thing for me to remember to take good care of myself. And another to remember to take good physical breaks, like stretching it out on my yoga mat, or shaking it off with a dance party. I'm doing pretty well at those things, though I always want to get better at health and movement.

But what I most want to come back to is that idea of a clear, even balance between read, write, and roam. To do that kind of wandering and watching.

As spring spills into summer, I want to really sink in to the habit of taking long walks, and spending as much time among trees and lakes as I do around words.

Sooooo many writers swear by the power of walks, of spending time in nature, of honing their ideas on long rambles. I don't want to just shrug that off anymore. 

How about you? How do you balance all the time around words?

7. The order of occupations is extremely important. This is one of my favorite, favorite pieces of advice. It can clear up 90% of my troubles when I get panicky or anxious.

One writer I interviewed made this lovely point: that if everything I did was in pursuit of Great Art, and The Writer Within—then I would collapse under the pressure of becoming that snooty kind of "Writah." (She said it like that, nose in the air. Writah.)

She said: never forget this.

She said, "You're a person first. You are a person who writes."

There in the coffeehouse on campus I earnestly scribbled down what she said, sensing the truth in it, the reasonableness of it, the way it would save me from my extreme moods and punishing systems...

... And then I spent far too many months trying to become a writer, and forgetting to be the person. Any non-writing thing that fell into my life, I tended to see as trouble, as distraction, as difficulty.

I'd forgotten this so-important truth: We are people first. We have to learn to be good humans before we're good writers.

Personhood has always interrupted me, as my family rode through years of change and illnesses and sadness and hey, even more change.

I did, eventually, remember this advice, and when I remembered the truth of it, I could let go the panic, the deadlines, the dented plans I'd made.

We are not machines, we're not robots, we're not heartless Writahs.

We are people. People who write.

And I think that's lovely.

8. How to defeat the obstacle of all obstacles. In spite of my eagerness to take the plunge into the writing life, and in spite of all the preparation I did beforehand, I was still terrified. 

I wrote: 

The humming of insecurities is building to a roar. Despite all voices of encouragement, I wonder if I'm being frivolous and ridiculous after all.

A roar of doubt. Before I'd even begun.

(Hands up if you've felt this!)

One of my professors warned me that the hardest thing for me would be to take myself and my ideas seriously. Confidence, she said, will make or break your writing life. 

Confidence! I had maybe a teaspoonful. 

Another interviewee put it this way: "Ignore your own insecurities. Act like you have direction."

This still makes me laugh, because in one way or another, I have done exactly that.

Sometimes it took a while for the ignoring insecurities part to kick in, but acting like I had a direction and moving forward, carrying my teaspoonful of confidence—yes, that I've done.

And in spite of the doubts and insecurities, and the ways they've shapeshifted and reappeared year after year—in spite of all that, I'm still here! Still writing!

Still picking words out and setting them in sentences!

Which is why I can say that perseverance is everything it's cracked up to be. We really can keep on keeping on, and if I can do it in the face of withering doubt, so, my dear lionhearted friend, can you.

But how to make it practical?

There are five little tips for dealing with doubt that I kinda slipped into my paper (and more or less acted on, actually, right at the beginning), which came from an article in The Writer magazine, written by Polly Campbell.

She recommends blasting away at doubts by: 

  • surrounding yourself with people who encourage you;
  • learning about the challenges of famous writers;
  • saving all positive feedback in a file; and
  • writing an essay that explains why you write.

She also says to "set a regular writing routine and keep to it. To succeed, you've got to believe. Act like you do, until that belief becomes reality."

And finally, she says, "Nothing destroys doubt like a good day at work."

That. 

That, my friends, is oh-so true. 


Mmm. There's nothing like a good Advice Festival to get me stirred up, ready to re-evaluate how I approach my work, how I think about it and structure it.

I'm definitely looking forward to reading a LOT more (thanks, Gary Paulsen!), to adding more roaming to my writing days, and to let myself be a person more than I'm a writer.

And too, I'm looking forward to using those tips for defeating doubt. You can never have too many tools in your anti-doubt toolkit!

How about you, my friend? What's some of the best advice that you've heard about writing? What kind of tips did you fill your pockets with, when you set out on your writing journey?

And, because surely I'm not the only one, what good advice did you actually ignore at first? 

What would you tell someone who is just starting out as a writer?

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.

Crank Up the Awesome in Your Writing Days by Tackling This One Skill

By tightening our grip on just one skill in our writing life management, we can sharpen our focus, improve our ability to rest, gather momentum, and avoid burnout. What?! Yes really! Come check out this four-step tune up. | lucyflint.com

Good Monday, my lovely lionhearts! How is all this spring cleaning treating you so far? 

At this point, we've clarified and updated our goals, we've replaced negativity with radically positive affirmations, we've dusted and decluttered, we've straightened up our online lives, and we've taken a much-deserved break from all the good noises around us.

Whew!! That's some incredible work you've been doing!

Today we're looking at another major area that can get cluttered up: how we deal with our writing time.

It's so easy for boundaries around writing time to smudge a little. To blur.

And then ... they can break down completely. 

Right? You know the feeling?

Protecting our writing time is one of those habits that requires continual tweaking and adjusting. 

OH, and by the way: feeling guilty about how you're doing with writing time management? Absolutely forbidden.

I mean it. 

So if even the thought of this is making you feel a little gloomy, just escort that sense of defeat right. out. the. door. 

Think of this as doing general maintenance around your house. We're looking at the fences, or the roof, or how the siding is holding up. The stuff that protects what's inside.

There's no point in getting upset at yourself because of hail damage on your roof, or because the fence is getting a little weak and wobbly and needs a few slats replaced.

Right? Stuff wears out, breaks down, needs strengthening and replacing. No big deal.

So we're just straightening up. And not bludgeoning ourselves for the fact that this habit, like all others, requires maintenance.

Okay? No beating yourself up.

So let's do an across-the-Internet high five, and then get started!

Here's our checklist for a writing time tune-up:

1. Starting on time is the nicest kickoff.

Whether that means 8 o'clock at night, or 8 in the morning: Whenever you've decided it's writing time, there's something mega-powerful about starting right on time.

Honestly, this is the one I struggle with the most! It's darned hard for me to get to my desk right on time. 

So this is the policy I'm adopting: I'm gonna aim to be at my desk at eight. But my honest-to-goodness writing time starts at 8:30.

I know that this strategy wouldn't work for everyone, but if I verbally tell everyone—including myself—that I've gotta be at my desk at 8, then when all the little last minute things happen (because they will), I can still make my actual start time of 8:30.

I get such a rush from starting when I say I will, as opposed to feeling like I'm scrambling to catch up. So I'm reminding myself that it's worth that extra effort! 

2. Ending on time respects both you and your work.

It's easy to feel like a productivity hero when you blast right through the end of your scheduled work day.

And when you're working from home, it's all too easy to get carried away and work later and later.

Maybe because you just love your story so much. (Yay!)

Maybe because you're aiming for a killer deadline. (Understandable.)

Or maybe because you got off to a really late start, and are desperate to make up the time. (I hear you.)

For whatever reason, it can be really tempting.

For the first few years of writing full time, I was regularly working at all hours. I especially loved working after midnight, when the house was quiet, and no one could bother me. 

But it turned into an ugly cycle.

Working late zapped my ability to get started early. It felt like the day was always half gone before I got to my work.

So I felt guilty and sluggish during the day, even though I was technically "catching up" by working late at night. (No matter what, I couldn't turn off the idea that I needed to get right to it.)

Also, I felt like work was always on my mind. (Hellooooo, burn out!)

I've realized since then, that if I want to be totally focused when I'm at my desk, then I need to also have times when I'm totally not at my desk.

I need a big chunk of time where my creativity can replenish itself, when I can actually do other things, and, you know, live.

My writing time needs a definite end point.

So I've gotten pretty consistent with this. Even when I'm in love with my story, I stop working when I say I will. (Lately, that means 5:30 p.m.)

I'll happily keep daydreaming about the story while I make dinner and chat with family. It will be there spinning in my head as I'm brushing my teeth. And I definitely jot down the ideas for plot twists, dialogue, and setting switch-ups as they occur to me.

But I'm not at the desk. My brain is allowed to breathe.

Even when I'm working on a deadline: I might let myself work an hour later, every other night, but then I definitely, absolutely stop. (And I'll even do the insane thing and give myself a mid-week day off to make up for the extra work!)

And if I'm tempted to work late because I got off to a late start, I try to let myself off the hook. I put in a half day and say, "hey, it happened." And I work to get there on time the next day.

Why? Because overall, it's just stopped being worth it to me, to plug away until my brain turns to lint. 

3. Taking breaks during the work day makes you stronger.

Taking breaks within the writing day is something that can feel totally lazy if you're not used to it.

Especially if you come from the school of thought that says, "When you're working, you're always actively working, all the time. If that cursor isn't flying across the page, you're doing it wrong." 

But that's exactly how I burned myself out. (Boo!)

So I've learned to embrace the power of a quality break, during the writing day. 

(This quick video on renewal, from The Energy Project, says it better than I could. Super inspiring! I'm all fired up now!)

Let's just remind ourselves: Taking breaks makes us better problem solvers. It gives us fresh perspective when we come back to the work. And our bodies need it

I'm convinced: Working without breaks isn't a badge of honor. It's a recipe for serious trouble, both creatively and physically.

So, if breaks aren't already a part of your writing day: add 'em in, my friend! Guilt free!

You can pick your work-to-break ratio: There's the Pomodoro method, which gives you 5-minute breaks after 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a bigger break after four rounds of pomodoro periods. (I love this one when I'm especially dragging my heels about a task for the day. You can get an amazing amount done in a focused 25-minute stretch!)

There's also a lot of buzz about 52 minutes of work, and then 17 minutes of break. (Somehow I can't wrap my brain around that one... But if you've tried it with success, let us know!)

Or, what I've settled on for most working days, is this: a solid 90-120 minutes of work (with a couple of stretch breaks in there, but all pretty close to the desk), followed by 30 to 40 minutes away. ... Which is long enough for a walk or some yoga! Hooray!

The point is, of course, to find out what ratio most rejuvenates you.

And you'll probably find that your ideal work-to-break ratio changes, based on what kind of project you're working on, how your health is doing, and what else is going on in your life.

So the most important thing is to definitely commit to a break strategy. And then, protect that time. Especially from yourself! From the impulse to run right over it.

When your timer or reminder alert dings, come to a stop in your work as quick as you can, and get up!

Believe that time away will actually make you better (clearer! more creative! quicker! more insightful!) when you come back.

Oh—and, for me at least, breaks are not the time to go through email, social media, answer phone calls, or other busy work.

NOPE.

That just clutters my brain and further drains me.

A really restorative break lets my creative mind keep brooding on the work, while the rest of me is chopping veggies, sketching, cloud gazing, or inching into a downward dog pose.

4. Protecting your writing time from those other people you know (including you!) is a vital skill. 

Oh, interruptions. What would we do without you?

When do we let other people in, and when do we strictly protect our writing time from spur-of-the-moment happenings?

I'll be the first to say: I'm not perfect at knowing the difference. 

Look: I live in a house full of the people I love most in the world. So, if someone wants to grab a coffee and talk, or dash out to do something interesting: it is super hard for me to say "no thanks."

Sometimes I stick with the writing.

Sometimes, frankly, I don't.

I've also taken extended breaks from writing (or at least downgraded it to Writing Lite!), because of family needs. 

And honestly, I'm okay with that. Family is one of my major values. I have incredible relationships with my family members, and that's just how I want it to stay.

So: I've made those choices (the occasional breakfast out together, or a few weeks away to help a sister), and I don't regret them.

(Okay, okay. I still kinda wish I had cloned myself, and had Lucy #2 scribbling away at the same time. Ah well. Maybe next millennium.)

Sometimes, the right thing to do, is to accept the interruption. Step away. Catch up with the person who is asking of your time.

At the very same time, it's important to know when you really do need to do your writing.

It's important not to skip it every single time. It's important that writing wins about half of those head-to-heads. 

And look, if this is hard for you, I get it. It can be really hard! Some of those lines are blurry. It's hard to make a decision that feels right.

What I can say to it is this: As best as you can, go with your gut.

If you know in your heart that you would really regret blowing off a writing session, then you need to stick with it.

But if you instinctively feel that this is an important opportunity to build a relationship that matters to you, or to take care of something that you need to do: Then go for it. 

If I'm feeling torn and really wanting to do both, it helps to give myself ten-to-fifteen minutes of writing first, before dashing away. Jotting down a list of writing stuff that's on my mind. Capturing a writing thought.

But then I go, and go freely.

After all, if you've decided that, at this moment, there's something more important than getting every inch of your writing done, then you definitely don't want to bog down that important thing with guilt! 

So yes: Now and then, it's good and right to let life break in to your writing practice.

BUT. 

If, on the other hand, the people around you are putting weird guilt moves on you, and you're feeling pressured to do crap you honestly don't want to do and don't NEED to do instead of write, then that's a whole different scenario.

And for those situations, I offer this genius quote from Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way.

It's a little long, but sit with it. It's totally important.

Cameron writes:

Often, creativity is blocked by our falling in with other people's plans for us. We want to set aside time for our creative work, but we feel we should do something else instead.

As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others.

We tend to think such behavior makes us good people. It doesn't. It makes us frustrated people.

DANG, right? Yes, that one zings me too. 

So when something shows up that would pull you from your writing, give yourself some time to really evaluate. Go with your gut. Make the choice that seems right, and then don't kick yourself for it later. 

And if it's something you really don't need to be doing, then honor your responsibility to your work and to your own self. 

Okay? 

Whew! Boundaries around time can get slippery in a hurry, right?

What's the trickiest thing to stick with for you? Starting on time, stopping on time? Taking good breaks? Dealing with interruptions?

And how are you thinking about repairing that boundary? What would you like to aim for, to bring it back into line?

(And just a reminder: I'm in the zone of relying on new systems, not strict goals. So play around with this, but without stressing. We're just cleaning up our good intentions.)

Maybe there's an affirmation you can use. Or maybe you can reconnect to your purpose.

Maybe there's something you can set up that reminds you of your amazing story (a sketch, a quote from your characters, a photograph that reminds you of your setting).

I'm so much more interested in enticing ourselves to our desks, you know? The way the scent of a warm apple pie entices everyone to the kitchen.

Okay? So let's not say "You must do such and such, or you don't really care."

Nope. Nah. Let's not.

Instead, what about using a wonderful, aromatic, delicious little invitation to get back to work? Some reminder that your story is where something good and juicy and incredible is happening??

Mmmm.

THAT'S the kind of Call To Work that I'm most interested in!

My Favorite Writing Strategy: Take Super-Good Care of the Thing that Takes Care of the Writing

During a mega-drafting marathon (hey there, Nanowrimo!), one of your best writing tools can take a big hit. Here are some quick ideas for how to avoid that. | lucyflint.com

It's too easy for a writer to treat her body like an afterthought.

It's just the mass of bones and muscles that keep our writing brains from scrabbling around on the ground, right?

Our fingers are simply the instruments our brains use to reach the keyboard, and mouths were clearly made for just one thing: Coffee reception.

It's too easy to fall into that trap, but I have a suspicion: A ridiculously healthy body just might be a writer's best weapon.

It hit me recently how easy and typical it is for me and my friends to all categorize ourselves as "Busy and Tired."

Suddenly I wondered: What would happen if I were, instead, Focused and Deeply Rested? 

How clearly would I think if my body were at its best condition? 

What would happen if my wrists weren't on the brink of carpal tunnel syndrome? What if I wasn't putting my back in permanent danger, and what if I wasn't burning my retinas out by staring at a screen without blinking? 

Would I--shocking thought--actually be better able to do my job? 

Would I think more clearly, and have more interesting ideas, and have more attention for each project? Maybe, you know, be a better writer?  

I think it's pretty dang possible.

During a drafting marathon, it's SO easy to make your body suffer on behalf of your draft. But honestly, you might pay for it later.

I have a writing friend who totally fried her wrists in an attempt to meet an aggressive writing deadline... She ended up in physical therapy, and yeah, her writing had to sit on the back burner for a while. (Not to mention: OUCH.)

Can we maybe not make ourselves sick and broken in the pursuit of that 50,000th word? Can writing "The End" not kill us, please?

I know you're already keeping track of a lot. But maybe, consider loving your body a little during the remaining days of your drafting marathon. 

Here's a list of some teeny tiny little moves toward health. It won't ask much from you, but your body will be THRILLED ... and it just might reward you with that plot breakthrough you've been begging for! 

Give 'em a try:

  • If you're writing longhand, try using markers instead of pens, because they slide over the page more easily. Good news for your wrists!
     
  • Every fifty minutes, stand up from your desk for a five minute dance party. (Set a timer to remind yourself if need be!) Yes, you. Yes, really. Getting your blood moving around means more idea power, so get twirlin'!
     
  • Better yet? Stand up every thirty minutes and just shake everything out! Or, if dancing isn't appealing, try these five simple yoga moves for a fantastic stretch. They always make me feel more awake!
     
  • Protect your eyes by giving them a break too: look away from your screen for at least five minutes, every half hour. Go look out a window while you brainstorm your next paragraph. (I tend to get my best ideas away from the computer anyway!)
     
  • Skip chocolate as a drafting snack (once in while, at least!), and fill up your bowl with celery sticks, carrots, red pepper slices, and hummus. (And grapes! And pomegranate arils! Go crazy!)
     
  • Dare yourself to drink a big glass of water before you refill your coffee mug. (If you're really health-bonkers like me, grab a green juice now and then. Kale LOVES helping with your plot.)
     
  • Can you stand and type? I plunk my keyboard on an upside-down trashcan and tip my screen up. Voilà! DIY standing desk! My brain feels instantly perkier.
     
  • If you find you're always zoning out, give yourself a nap. Subconsciouses like to dance around while you're sleeping anyway: you might wake up to brilliance.
     
  • And while we're talking about sleep: Send yourself to bed a half hour earlier: what you lose in drafting time, you'll regain in mental clarity. (This has worked SO well for me lately!)

It's not rocket science. None of this is shocking health news.

But I know that I need to forcibly remind myself, mid-draft, that my body doesn't just exist to write words down!

So here's my challenge to you: Try to do at least ONE THING each day that your body would genuinely thank you for. (No fibbing.)

And seriously, from one writer to another: Please don't burn out your body for the sake of your book. There are other ways to finish, which don't include totally trashing your self.

Sound good? 

Okay, my lionhearted friend... back to those words! My celery sticks salute you. 

Got a good health tip? ... Especially something easy to apply in the midst of drafting season? Do share in the comments!! I'm always up for feeling more awesome!