How to Be Your Own Writing-Life Fairy Godmother (Or, Finding Your Groove, Part Two!)

Getting into a good groove is essential for long-term sustainable writing life. (Plus, it's way more fun. I mean seriously. So much nicer than a slog.) In this post, four more ways to find your way into one. You'll think your fairy godmother just showed up. (Pumpkins optional.) | lucyflint.com

So last time, we talked about four ways to build a groove in our writing lives. Ways to make our writing flow more readily, more easily. Without, you know, spraining our ankles or exhausting ourselves.

We talked about creating the best environment for our work, about flooding our creativity with quality nutrition, about learning craft from a master, and about committing to the hard work required to really find our pace.

When these traits add up, they really can make writing-life magic. More words, richer ideas, more ease. I mean ... who doesn't want that, right? (So if you missed the last post, check it out.)

Okay. If you're ready for a few more ways you can support yourself into a writing life upgrade, read on! 

The next four traits build on the previous four. These can seem like the lighter set of tools, all fluffy and unimportant. And none of them are going to be completely and crazily new to you, if you've hung out here for a while.

But don't be fooled. Because when we take all four together ... well.

It's like your fairy godmother just showed up.

She might seem like any other lady at first, but then she starts turning pumpkins into high-class transportation. Suddenly you're going somewhere.

Never underestimate the power of your fairy godmother, my friend. She makes all the difference. 

Ready for your transformation? Here we go:

1: Set yourself up.

Here's the truth about the writing life: It can be very hard. The craft is far bigger than we can ever learn. And we're working for a significant amount of time without a reward.

Which means that: There are going to be minutes, hours, days, and whole months, where our instinct for self-preservation is going to be dead set against our doing any of this.

Why put yourself through it?! It's easy to give up, it's easy to stop early, and it's easy to just not start at all.

This is why I'm a big fan of the power of routines, the steadying effect of habits, and the beauty of rituals.

They are how I've made sense of this work, how I define what I'm doing. They're the invisible net that holds this whole writing life of mine together.

I have a general routine, and I have a few dozen habits, just like anyone else. 

But what I've been especially focused on lately are rituals. 

Neat little collections of habits, all grouped together in a pack, each habit addressing something very specific and particular, the answer to a set of questions I used to ask myself. 

How do I get my mind ready for my creative work? How do I make sure my physical energy stays up? How do I keep track of general ideas that don't fit this particular project? How do I not lose old insights? How do I steady my courage for the day? How do I not give up before I've even started?

I answered those questions in the form of rituals.

There's the first ritual of the day, writing my three morning pages (à la Julia Cameron), longhand, by the light of a lamp, sitting up in bed. The whole house is quiet, but my mind is awake, and I scribble down all the mundane thoughts and emotions and worries that I woke up with.

A bit later, when I sit down at my writing desk, there's a set of habits that form the ritual that starts my writing session:

  • I bring a cup of coffee to my desk. Because coffee. No one needs a reason for coffee, right?
     
  • And then I take out an old journal and I read a few pages in it. Reading these old pages is so valuable: they remind me of how I've solved past problems, or I come across old insights I'd forgotten. And sometimes, these pages make me laugh because of how obsessed I was about something that turned out to not matter at all. (Who, me??) Rereading old journals gives me perspective, and it's also a great transition into my writing work.
     
  • I'll write down any new thoughts or ideas that strike me, using the format for the idea journal that Todd Henry talks about in The Accidental Creative. (Basically a plain journal that I index as I go: I fill pages with ideas that spring up during the day—after listening to a podcast, watching a movie, walking the dog, washing the dishes. Whatever, whenever: it goes in here. At the front, I summarize each idea with a single line and a page number for reference. SUPER handy.)
     
  • Then I review the index of ideas that I've been compiling in the front of that idea journal, and if anything snags my interest, I'll go back and reread the entry for that particular idea. This is a great way to stir up my mind, and to keep quality ideas from slipping away.
     
  • After that, I read two pages in A Year of Writing Dangerously, because I just love what that book does for me—it is so encouraging. And it connects me in spirit to a huge collection of people who spend time among words. I feel my bravery rising.
     
  • And finally, I'll sit with a list of true beliefs I've developed, and I practice actually believing them. (If this sounds totally weird and waaaay too touchy-feely for you, I really understand. But you gotta check out this post. Skip down to point number two. And see what you think after reading.)

At this point, my mind is all stirred and awake. I feel grounded and cared for and ready, and as brave as I can be.

And so I dive in.

That's it! That's my pre-work set of rituals. 

Spelled out, they might sound completely mundane and boring. But as I enter into them, I feel a little whiff of excitement—as if I've just flicked the first domino in a long snaking line-up, and now I get the joy of watching them zip along on their own.

If I skip this set of habits, this pre-work ritual, I can still do my writing work, but I feel a bit off, a bit blindsided. 

I get more easily distracted, sideswept by doubts. It's easier to slide off track and indulge the "but I don't feel like it" whine. I'm less focused. Susceptible to interruption.

That's why I love calling these habits a ritual, why I love dignifying them like that. Because they're so important, vital to the success of each work session.  

So what about you? What are your rituals? Your routines? 

What do you need to set yourself up well? What are the provisions—mental, physical, spiritual, emotional—that you need for the next little stage of your writing journey?

What would be an incredible gift to yourself, at the start of your work session?

Do you have any nagging questions or concerns about how you work, anything that's been thrumming in your mind lately, that could be addressed by some small, simple behavior? 

String those behaviors in a row, teach each to feed into each, and you'll have your own pre-work ritual. 

You'll have created your own gravity, a set of behaviors and rhythms that pull you to your work, keep you from floating away.

Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit points to rituals as tools of commitment and preparation. I love that.

So what tools of commitment and preparation do you need in your arsenal? 

(If you're loving this topic and would like a little more, check out this post for an all-purpose, all-weather writing routine, and this one for a bit more on the rituals that protect our work.)

2: Go for steady.

So much of what I do in my writing work is shaped by the goals I have. Oh, goals. We've had such a roller coaster relationship. 

This is why I love everything to do with goals:

  • They give me a rush. 
  • They make a gorgeous future seem more possible.
  • They make what's important to me very clear.
  • They let me feel like I've organized my life very, very well. Gold star for me. (And I love gold stars.)
  • They give me something spectacular to aim for. Which makes them the most essential tool in an overachiever's toolkit, right? And I like that toolkit. It's neat.

And here is why I really don't love goals at all: 

  • My life is incredibly unpredictable. And when my health goes belly-up, or when family needs me, I have less energy to give my ultra-ambitious writing goals. 
  • I sometimes accidentally look at things from a pass/fail perspective. And I tend to find myself "failing" when I do that.
  • Oh, and this happens about 90% of the time: On my way to hitting the goal, I discover something much more important that needs my attention. When I switch tracks, I feel foolish, uncertain, and inconsistent.
  • I brag about goals, tell everyone about them, and then abandon them

Goals can sweep me up in a dizzying skyward surge of energy, but then one thing and another and another conspire to tug at our wings, and the goal and I plummet back to earth.

Those landings are a real blast.

This is why, last spring, I began revising my view of goals. The more I saw them as just a tool, the better I felt. Tools are meant to serve, not destroy.

I'm always going to be a sucker for that neat clean feeling of a few well-chosen goals, but I also want the freedom to replace them, revise them, and refresh them as I go.

What's a romantic goal-setter to do? Especially when I fall for every goal-making chance I find: I make new goals after reading a fantastically helpful book, I make them at the start of summer, at my birthday, during back-to-school season, and always always at the new year... 

So is there hope? Yes, of course. That hope comes from the wonderful relationship between a good goal and a strong system

A goal is the thing that helps you know where you're aiming. It's invaluable. I am probably never going to stop picking up goals and bringing them home and feeding them and smiling at them. 

But their highest and best use (for me, at least!) is this: I need to use those goals to engineer a strong system.

The goal is where you aim; the system is what you put into practice in order to get there. The goal is the beautiful height you want to reach; the system is the practical smart staircase that you wheel underneath the height.

Goals might sound pass/fail, but systems aren't. Systems are quiet, non-flashy things. They are the program that runs everything, as it turns out. 

When you pair really lovely habits and rituals and routines, with a deep, sensible program for how you'd like your work to move forward—what kinds of people you want to learn from, the books you want to study, how you want to practice, how much you want to create—that is what makes up your system. 

So if you have a bit of a goal-hangover, if your resolutions are all forgotten, overruled, or dead: embrace the power of systems. Systems are your friend.

(If you want more: This quick read is a superb article from James Clear, which explains the difference between goals & systems beautifully. Systems win. So inspiring!)

3: Head toward the heat.

When I had to do a research paper in school (for high school or college or whatever), I usually fell into this terrible habit.

I was so focused on the deadline, and the amount of work looming between me and that due date, that I wouldn't spend much time looking for a topic. I'd grab the first possible thing that came to me, and off I'd go.

Do the research, do more research, write the paper, barrel through a few drafts, hit all the milestones, and turn it in.

I usually didn't much love what I was writing about. I didn't feel any conviction or excitement about it. But hey, school is school. No excitement doesn't exactly raise red flags.

Here's the problem: I brought that old writing process right into my post-school writing life. 

Bad Thing #2: I didn't even realize it. I didn't even notice.

I'm embarrassed to say it, but there was a whole lot about my first novel idea that I didn't even like much.

I kept wedging certain topics and ideas and plotlines into it because I thought I should. And not because they thrilled me, delighted me, kept me from sleeping.

Here's a tip: Writing about stuff that doesn't move you will probably never launch you into a writing groove. 

Yeah. I think I can say that confidently: NEVER.

So give yourself and your writing life a little check-up: Are you ridiculously in love with what you're writing about?

Have you given yourself permission to even find out what you love?

It was a long time before I finally did that. Before I finally took the time to admit to myself that I adore middle grade adventures and always will. Before I admitted that my favorite characters are more than a little weird, that I love worlds that aren't true high fantasy but are instead a funny mashup of reality and the bizarre. 

That's what I'm writing now, and I'm seriously delighted by it.

But here's a hint: I couldn't figure out what I love by moving quickly. Speed and rushing around basically hijack self-awareness for me. 

If you suspect that you don't truly love what you're writing about, that it isn't coming from the deepest and best place in you, then maybe take a moment to explore that.

Give yourself permission, space, time, and silence: Listen to yourself. And discover what nudges your curiosity. What moves you toward wonder. 

What you love.

What lights up your writerly heart? What gets your enthusiasm flowing?

Work from that place, where it's warm and everything is glowing. Work from your curiosity; work from your natural excitement. This can sound so simple, but it's oh-so important (and shockingly easy to side-step!).

And it's really the best writing fuel there is. Trust me.

(If you'd like a bit more on this topic, check out this post on embracing your quirks, on seeking more wonder, and on how not to learn to write a novel.)

4: Respect your source.

Sometimes, when we really, really, REEEALLY want to see results in our work, we abuse our creativity and our energy. 

We sideline vital things like sleep requirements and monitoring our energy. The way we talk to ourselves changes, gets a bit more sharp, more urgent.

It's all in pursuit of a greater purpose. So that can feel noble. Self-sacrificing. 

Only problem is, when you're an artist, a writer, and you decide to be self-sacrificing, it means you're burning up the very thing you're working from.

When we burn up our energy, when we get exhausted, when we mentally beat ourselves up, it's the same as setting our work space on fire, torching our computers and our online accounts. As erasing the alphabet from memory.

Working too late, too long, too hard, without breaks, without replenishing yourself... it's not a good recipe, my friend.

That's destructive. And what we're trying to be is creative

If we're working to build something with our brains, we can't, at the same time, tear apart our ability to use our brains.

So do a bit of a general check-up: How has your energy been lately? Have you been taking superb care of yourself, or maybe, um, not? 

Have you been overworking yourself, feeling like you can't ever take a break, can't ease up? If so, check out Twyla Tharp's fantastic recommendation:

If you've been following a don't-stop-till-you-drop routine--that is, you only quit when you're totally wiped out--rethink that. This is how ruts form. As an exercise, for the next week or so, end your working day when you still have something in reserve. 

Now ask yourself, exactly what is it that you're putting into reserve. Is it raw energy? Is it desire? Is it a few more ideas left unexplored? Is it something you meant to say to someone but didn't? Whatever it is, describe it in writing on a notepad or index card. Put the note away and don't think about it for the rest of the day. Start the next day by looking at your note.

She's a master choreographer, creating scores of dances over dozens of years. This woman knows what she's talking about. It's probably a real good idea to listen to her. ;)

It's tempting to wear ourselves out. But that's only a short-term solution: it kills us over the long-term.

How sustainable is your writing habit? Do you binge then burn out? Do you beat yourself up mentally?

Oh, my friend. Let's come back to a kinder, gentler, more long-term way to work.

(If you want more on this, I've got more!! Check out these posts: for a comprehensive energy check-up, for a thorough sustainability check, a plea to get rid of brain fog, the best support for creativity that I've found ever, the best escape for a weary writer, and how to change that killing voice in our heads.)

Let's Get Adventurous. (An Announcement From Me + A Challenge For You!)

If you listen really hard, what is your writing life telling you? Bonus: Can you muster up the courage to *do* whatever it's asking for? That's what we're looking at, over on the blog today. | lucyflint.com

One of the skills that I've tried to improve this year is listening. Not just to the people around me (though that's hugely important!), but also to my own instincts.

Especially my instincts about my writing life. 

Not my fears, but my honest observations, my true best-self sense of how I'm doing and where I'm at. 

Every time I really focus on this and check in, I'm rewarded, big time. It's why I've written about it here, here, and kinda here too. ... I am smitten with the power of pausing the noise and listening to the truth of what's really going on, underneath everything else.

I have never regretted doing this.

And near the end of September, I started listening in again. (Something about whenever the seasons shift: I always want to do a big "How'm I doing?" check.)

I set aside my productivity schedules and wildly important goals and self-care strategies and I listened. And, yep, sure enough, my writing life was saying something. Over and over and over. 

It said, "Help me, I'm starving."

Wait, what?!

I've been doing all this stuff in earnest, after all. I've been working to help my imagination and writing life recover from a really tough year. Which is why we've been talking self-care and strength building here in the blog. 

In the last two months, I've rebuilt my writing practice and honestly, I've found a really sweet routine. My writing space is the prettiest, coziest, and happiest it's ever been, and I'm reading novels on the regular

I'm treating myself well in so many ways. And everything feels lovely except that when I've been drafting, I feel like I'm stripping myself dry.

Like I'm mining something that isn't there anymore. 

So I kept telling myself it was just a matter of time before my imagination really caught up and my writing got all juicy and self-propelling again.

Only . . . 

Only it hasn't. 

I've done all my usual tricks, I've applied the best that I knew to do, and I still feel like my imagination is gasping.

So why isn't everything fixed? 

I had a few days (actually, it was more like a week) of total consternation. 

And then I picked up the book The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry. (Like so many other good things that come into my life, this one was a recommendation from my mother. Thanks, Mom!!)

I read it in a whirlwind of excitement and hope.

Amidst the many helpful concepts and ideas, there were two that especially leapt out to me: 

1) Todd Henry's idea that creativity follows a kind of rhythm, and 2) his concept of creative stimuli, creative nutrition.

It hit me that my crazy year had deeply disrupted my own creative rhythm. No surprise there. But in rebuilding my routine, I was only working on half the problem. The externals are all back in place, but that internal rhythm of creating? That hasn't fully come back.

And, to fix that, I need to go deep into the world of creative nutrition: taking in the best kinds of things, so that my creativity can thrive.

Okay. So, good creative stimuli = brain food, which is the sort of metaphor I can get pretty happy about. 

To camp out on this for a moment: As I read Todd Henry's ideas about how to take in better creative nutrition, it really hit me. I'm a big fan of eating well, and taking in nutrient-rich foods, especially as a way of getting healthier. I've seen it happen in my physical body, so using the same principles for my mind and creativity gets me pretty happy and excited.

Here's the thing: sometimes, when you need an infusion of health, it makes sense to take a superb daily multivitamin. Sometimes, it means you commit to having a daily salad or green smoothie.

Yay. Good effort, good work, good food.

But sometimes it means that you go on a radical course of overhauling everything you eat. And flooding your body with superfoods, with all the best nutrition, all. the. time. 

And that, my friends, is exactly what I need now.

My earlier attempts were the creative equivalent of upping my vitamins and adding in more salads to my days. It's good, and a great way to maintain health. But when a total overhaul is required—and when there's nothing there to maintain—it's just not going far enough.

And this is what was brewing in my mind when I wrote about commitment last week. 

I want to go all-in with committing to my creativity. 

I've listened hard, and I've decided that I have to do whatever it takes to flood myself with creative nutrition. I'm pretty dang sure that this is the missing piece, the thing that bumps me back into a good groove.

Thanks to Todd Henry's book, I have a much better grip on where to go next. He has a great section called, "Stimuli: What Goes In Must Come Out."

I'm taking that tagline to heart, and I'm preparing for a mega fueling session. Here's the scary-exciting adventure that I'm planning for myself: 

For the whole month of October, I'm doing a creative nutrition immersion sabbatical festival extravaganza.

All right, so I haven't figured out the name yet. ;) 

I'm turning my full writerly attention onto soaking up the best kind of inputs.

I'll be listening to quality podcasts and TED talks and documentaries. I'll check out the good fiction that gets my inner eleven-year-old all excited and swept up. And I'll take plenty of artist dates. 

I'm planning on more art, more nature walks, more luscious music. More excursions, and more solitude.

More of anything that's gonna fill my parched creative reservoirs.

But in order to do this at maximum, I'm going to take a break from productivity. I need to stop producing for a little bit, so that I can regenerate what I produce from.

Because what I said in the last post is oh-so true: I want to commit to creativity in a bigger way. I want to nurture it, so that I can show up fully. I want to live in wonder and curiosity. 

And this is the big creative obstacle that I'm focusing on: I can't dream up a book if there's nothing for me to dream with.

What this means for the blog is, 
I'm going to take the month of October off. 

Yep.

In the blog world, that can be a kind of yikes decision to make.

But I've thought it through, and my deal with you is that I owe you my best.

If I keep chug-chug-chugging along without taking this month to consume a huge amount of creative nutrition, I'll just start repeating myself, or blogging on autopilot. And I wanna write my best stuff for you—it's what you deserve, and it's what I signed on for.

So: this will be my only post this October. (At this point, I'm pretty sure I'll be back in November to cheer you on for Nanowrimo: so check back in with me then.)

In the meantime, three things for you: 

1) Check out The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice, by Todd Henry. Because it's lovely and helpful. It blends so much good wisdom together, and helps you apply it in a rhythmic way.

If you needed one more reason besides my jumping up and down: He calls himself an arms dealer for the creative revolution. How amazing is THAT?! I'm so on board.

2) Check in with yourself. Take a little time and listen in to your heart of hearts. What do you, my dear lionheart, need most from this October?

Where are you craving a bit of a sabbatical yourself—but it sounded too wild, or you feel like you're supposed to just be productive all the time?

Where do you need permission to unplug?

What's aching for some better care, some deeper rest, some quality nutrition?

And, especially those of you who are gearing up for Nanowrimo, can you do the crazy thing and give yourself some space to fill up your reservoirs?

3) Finally, if you're in need of a pep talk, inspiration, or some extra encouragement while I'm off refueling, check out my brand-new Archives! The link is up at the menu bar at the top of the page—the Archives is all spruced up and ready for you!

Every single blog post is here, from September allllllll the way back to my first wee efforts.

So please do check it out! Find a series that you missed, browse through the older posts, or just be slightly astonished at my obsession with really really long blog titles. *facepalm*


Okay. So, true story: I feel excited for this sabbatical in a totally new way. Like an impossible weight on my writerly shoulders has just tumbled off. 

I'll miss y'all, but I can't wait to come back with fresh ideas, richer insights, and so much more creative oomph. 

(I have been seriously missing my oomph.)

Til November, then. I love ya, and happy writing!!

Pssst. Go do something so gorgeous for your creativity that it scares you a little and excites you a lot.

Maybe that means taking a course in flower arranging, or reading through your favorite childhood novels for three days straight, or sketching a handful of paintings while roaming an art museum, or writing in the dark under the stars.

Or something else even wilder. Okay? Okay.

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.

Give Yourself This Simple, Powerful, Life-Sustaining Gift This Weekend

Let's not underestimate how sweet, blissful, and powerful a reading vacation can be! (Not to mention cheap. And totally doable!!) | lucyflint.com

And then sometimes, reading is just a blissful escape.

A cheap—but incredibly effective!—mental vacation. 

Obviously this can be abused, and of course it's not the most healthy idea to keep checking out in the midst of circumstances that need your attention. (So let's not do that.)

But a well-timed book escape can also be balm

Find a good, absorbing novel, and it's a ticket away, a mind-spa. Nourishment.

When they're set in an exotic locale, a book escape makes me feel like I really have "seen" other places and other times. (Love Mary Stewart's books for that!)

But more importantly, reading in this way protects space and time for me to rest, to be nurtured. To remember what I value.

To hear about courage, to read about other people's struggles, and through that, to feel steady enough to re-enter the fray of my own life. 

Books have filled this place for me again, and again.

Let's never underestimate the delicious ability we have, to escape into a book. To give ourselves a getaway, just by tumbling into a novel for a while.

(Or that we are writing such getaways for other people. It's a huge service, and a wonderful one, too!)

The most vivid memory I have of taking a "book vacation" was a little over ten years ago. I was in an emotionally brutal living situation. My roommate convincingly hated me, and there was no getting out of it.

To put it mildly, I wasn't thriving.

One week, I worked extra hard to clear all my homework by Friday night. And then I walked to our college library. Hiked up the five floors to the children's department. And I grabbed two thick novels by Robin McKinley. (Swoon!)

That Saturday, I woke up early. I carted some snacks out to our balcony and dragged out a chair.

And then I just read.

I snuck back inside for more food or for a bathroom break, but otherwise I spent the whole day on that balcony, in that chair...

but in an entirely different world.

No terrible roommate, no passive-aggressive behavior, no manipulation. I was Elsewhere, and it was marvelous.

By the time the book was over, it was night. I fell into my bed and dreamed story-inspired dreams.

The next morning, I started the second book. This time in my bed. It was a top bunk, so I made myself a little reading nest: I brought my meals and snacks up with me, snuggled under a blanket—and roared through the second book.

By late Sunday night, I'd finished them both. My eyes felt a little warm, a little sore.

But I clearly remember having this exquisite, deeply-rested feeling. 

Like I'd truly been gone. 

Like I'd been able to catch my breath.

I had enough space and time and words pouring through me, and somehow that helped me remember who I was and how I thought and what I liked. (All things which had been under attack in my living situation.)

It can sound like a small thing: two books, one reading-binge weekend

But there was also rest, delightful words, stories of courage. They were big, beautiful books of adventure and facing obstacles, which was exactly what I needed to hear.

And which, I guarantee, helped me survive the weeks to come.

So, let's never underestimate the value of a reading holiday. The power of a well-placed story. The way good books shine light into dark, difficult places.

Mmmm. This is no small thing we do, my novel-writing friends!

Every story we write is a powerful gift to someone else. 

Have you ever had a "reading vacation"? (Or, do you maybe need to take one right now??)

How or where has reading done that service for you? How has it lifted your burdens for awhile, so that you could re-enter the struggle with new energy?

In all honesty, I've had a pretty chaotic summer, and I'm not always landing on my feet these days. So my decision to spend July falling into novel after novel? Has actually been a pretty great one. 

It is so, so lovely to hit pause on all the worries and concerns and challenges. To slide into a book for a while.

And then to step back into the day with a fresher perspective, a little more energy. A clearer head. More words.

It's just one more way that books are beautiful things, right?

Give yourself that gift today, or this weekend. How can you make some space, clear some room for reading, and splash around in someone else's world for a while?

It's worth it. Especially if you feel like you don't have the time.

Take a delicious, story-fueled break. 


Okay, so, reading report: I'm about two-thirds the way through Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, and snickering all the way through. I love books like this!! It will be no trouble to finish it by the end of the week. 

How about you? What have you been readingand lovinglately?

Four Ways to Spark Your Writing Ambition If You've Been Feeling a Bit Meh

Ambition is one of those writing life essentials. If you feel like yours has gone wandering off, check these four ways to relight that ambitious fire. | lucyflint.com

Even though we're practicing radical happiness and cultivating patience, we still want to aim super high with our writing, right?

I mean—I want to write the most amazing book ever. I'm guessing you do too.

There's a readiness to conquer, an excitement for improving. That's the lion part of lionheart, right?

Which is why our next lionhearted trait is ambition. We are ambitious for excellence in our work.

OH yeah.

Let's define it: Ambition is about pressing toward success and achievement, especially with the elements that we can control. 

Healthy ambition looks a lot like that line used in so many good fitness challenges: "The only one you're trying to beat is yourself."

So, just to be clear, when I'm talking about ambition, I'm not saying to be ambitious about the things that are up to the people around us. Awards, huge pats on the back, and all other subjective things.

They're nice, and it's fine to strive for them. But the trick is that they don't always correlate with our best efforts. (And wanting them too hard can kinda burn up your heart.)

So, for this post, let's focus on what we actually do control.

Which is, frankly, a lot.

Our quality of work. The quality of our ideas. Choosing projects that stretch us in one way or another.

Writing faster. Writing better.

A richer conflict. A scene accomplishing more purposes. Stronger subplots. Stellar structure.

Working hard and aiming high: that's what we do. 

Mmmm. Gets my writerly juices fizzing.

But—if you're reading this and thinking, that used to be me, maybe, but right now, not so much— 

I get it. 

Maybe you're feeling burned out. Or maybe it's not even that dramatic: you just feel like your ambition has gone missing.

If that sounds like you (or if you'd just like to give your ambitions a good stir), try this:

1) Double check your circumstances.

I know. I've been talking about this a ton lately.

But that's because I used to demand that I jump over buildings in a single bound, during times of intense family or personal stress.

Whoops.

Those usually aren't good times for leaping.

Sometimes, when the rest of life is especially hard, the ambitious response actually looks like: showing up for my writing every day, even in really small ways.

That's super ambitious!! Showing up during hard times? That's huge. You don't need to add some big achievement on top of that.

Focus on smaller achievements. Thumbnail-sized ones.

Maybe just bringing your attention back to the work. Or journaling a certain number of pages a day. (Say, three). Or reading fiction, a chapter a day.

Okay?

Ambition can be redefined.

Heather Sellers writes in Chapter after Chapter about how we writers need to "cycle through standards."

She says, "When you're stuck or stranded or bored with your book, lower your standards. Slouch your way through it. When you're writing high and hard and strong and solid, raise your standards."

I fought this idea for a long time (and kept burning myself out, ha ha). Now I realize how incredibly wise it is.

If your circumstances are going nuts, or if you're in the middle of a big transition, it's time for smaller ambitions.

Don't worry: when the sky clears, you can let it all out and shoot for the moon. 

For now, small successes are plenty.

(And yes, I'm totally preaching to myself on this one.)

2) Double check your fuel.

Okay, a cheesy metaphor so we're all good with this point: 

You can have the flashiest, reddest, raciest car there is, but if it's out of gas, then even I can run faster.

All engines require fuel, and our creative machine is no different.

Sometimes your life circumstances are okay, but there's some part of your mental/creative fuel that you just haven't been getting for a while.

Take a second to self-diagnose:

Do you need to just go get lost in words? Or strike out in a new reading direction?

Or fall into a pile of really excellent movies, the kind that stir your desire to tell stories? (For a while, I would watch Finding Neverland, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland, every time I felt my story engine faltering.)

Or maybe you need to stir your creativity by playing in other ways.

Do you just need a bit of a spark? A new way to approach your work for a day or a week?

What does it look like, to really recharge your creativity and give your brain the space it needs to dream up stories?

3) Double check the kind of project you're working on. 

If you're good with your circumstances, and if you're creatively fueled, then there's still something else to try. 

Get really still and quiet and then think about your story.

Not from a frantic point of view, or a burned out & done with it point of view.

But think about the story or the work itself, and especially what drew you to it.

Have you veered off the path that you loved? Are you working in a format, a form, or a genre that you don't enjoy? Maybe the characters aren't the ones that you want to write about. 

Is there a crushing deadline that has dampened the thrill of ambition? (Deadlines can be the perfect spurs or the perfect smothers. Double check yours and revise it if it isn't working!)

Here's another test: this is a fun, quick exercise from Chris Baty, in his Nanowrimo guide, No Plot, No Problem.

I tried it once on a whim, and I was shocked at the results. So give it a try, especially if you've felt less than inspired lately.

It's pretty simple: He has you write down everything you love in a book, in a story. Go crazy. Write it all down.

Nothing is too small or too big. You just want to list everything that gets your heart beating faster when you're reading.

And when you've filled out everything, make a second list.

This time, it's everything that you can't stand in a story. Anything that dries up your enthusiasm as a reader or viewer.

What makes you want to chuck a novel across the room? And warn all your friends away from it? 

Write all that stuff down. Alllllllll of it. Every single story-esque thing that gets on your nerves.

And then, you get to sit back and review your lists. (Baty calls them the two Magna Cartas.)

The whole point is: write a book that's got a lot of stuff from the first list! And nothing from the second.

Pretty simple, right? Straightforward?

Can I tell you a mortifying secret?

When I did this with my first novel, I was blown away to see that I was writing a lot of stuff from my second list, and very little from my first. 

What?! How did that even happen?

(I still don't know! And actually, Baty says the same thing happened to him, so... it's definitely possible.)

I instantly made the changes, throwing out every hateful thing that had crept into my story.

Baty writes, "Write your joy, and good things will follow."

YEP. I was much happier after I decided to intentionally write toward everything that I most enjoyed. 

So try that. Make sure that your material isn't somehow thwarting you.

4) Give yourself a fun challenge.

If everything else is fine, but you still feel a little lackluster, then maybe it's time for a lighthearted challenge?

Not something crushing. Just a friendly prompt to stir the juices and kickstart a little magic.

Maybe go on a few little writing adventures.

Or maybe give yourself a writing exercise program, and explode your sense of storymaking that way.

Consider which areas of your writing life you haven't really touched on in a while, and give yourself something extra to aim for. Or a small daily task to build your strength.

Just for fun.

And watch your ambition rise.

Why We Won't Give Up: Finding the Energy to See Our Writing Through

It takes a colossal amount of energy to write a novel. It's a physical, mental, emotional, and creative game. So, where's all that energy coming from? Do you have enough? | lucyflint.com

When our writing jumps the tracks, it's easy to blame our work ethic, discipline, or inspiration. 

But one of the huge players in this whole writing game is energy

Writing a novel takes a huge amount of oomph, every which way. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and creatively. It's big.

You gotta have enough fuel for this game, and you have to have enough each day. We can't show up half-hearted.

I hate to point out the obvious but: Allllllllll that energy has to come from somewhere.

We can't be too drained and depleted from other, non-writing things.

This has been a huge focus for me lately. I have finally realized that I simply don't have the stamina to have much else going on during the week, if I'm also writing hard every day.

My work thrives on eight-hour writing days: my characters love the attention, and they give me amazing stories to tell.

But if my evenings are taken a few times a week, it cuts my writing energy in half. No kidding.

I fought that for a long time, but finally faced it a few months ago. As an introvert, I've had to back away from commitments where I was regularly spending time with large groups of people—because I just couldn't, and still get my work done effectively.

So part of this whole energy equation is: figuring out what drains your energy away, and limiting that.

Or, if you're in the midst of a big challenge, if you're doing something major, then don't stop at just limiting this. Do the scary freeing thing and step away from that commitment completely.

Then there's the other side of the equation. And it's the part that I need to challenge myself to do more of. We need to ask ourselves: 

What gives you energy? What fills you up?

And—because it's 2016 and we've got some stuff to do—I'm not talking just a teeny little smidge of an energy buzz. This isn't just a bit of caffeine.

I'm talking more on the level of: A scandalous amount of energy. 

Like, a two year old on a sugar rush. That kind of energy.

That's the kind of drive we'll need to meet these amazing goals.

So I've been asking myself some questions, looking at what's worked well for me in the past, and how that might look for me now. 

If you're looking for a mega-boost of energy, join me for a bit of brainstorming. Sound good?

PHYSICAL: Can't get around the fact that all this writing affects our bodies. 

  • When was the time in your life when you had the most physical energy? What did that feel like, and what were you able to do?
  • What were the components it took to get that level of energy? Such as: 
    • How much were you sleeping? Were you taking power naps?
    • What were your eating habits like? Plenty of green veggies? 
    • What kinds of exercise were you doing? How regularly?
  • What do you think would make the biggest difference for your physical energy right now? Any kind of adjustment in your habits of resting, eating, and moving?

EMOTIONAL: Writing a novel means we're playing all the roles of an entire cast of characters. We feel all the feelings... and that takes a lot of effort.

  • When was a time when you felt really emotionally healthy? Low stress, low anxiety? Feeling peaceful, cheerful? Relationships going well?
  • What else was going on in your life at the same time?
    • Were you journaling? Practicing a degree of self-awareness? Pursuing a spiritual practice? Meeting regularly with a friend, a mentor, a counselor? 
  • What do you know is good for your heart? 
  • When do you have a chance to be around beautiful things? How often do you let yourself go and do something truly fun? When do you feel most peaceful?
  • What are you craving emotionally? What do you think you need the most?

MENTAL: Obviously our brains are hard at work, and they need the energy to gulp down facts, to research, and to analyze our stories. We gotta be on our toes!

  • When have you felt the most mentally sharp? When were you at your best thinking critically, analytically? When were you best at learning, at processing information?
  • What else were you doing at the time? 
    • What kinds of information were you around? What were your reading habits like?
    • Were you part of a discussion group, either formally or informally?
    • Were there trusted people you bounced ideas off of (colleagues, friends, professors)?
  • What never fails to bring out your best thinking? What kinds of books and media stretch your mind in the best ways?
  • What concepts are intriguing to you right now? What mental habits are you interested in? What would you really like to learn about?

CREATIVE: We are problem solvers and image makers. We're constantly inventing! We have to be overflowing with creative energy to see these stories through.

  • When have you felt the most dazzlingly creative?
  • What's going on around you when you're most on your game as a creative? Are you doing any creativity exercises (freewriting, problem solving games, visualizing challenges)?
  • How else (besides story telling) have you explored creativity? How else have you been a maker? What did you create? (Music, paintings, crafts, food, woodwork, kids, gardens, photographs... )
  • Are you still participating in those creative outlets? Do they get a little chunk of your time still? Which do you miss doing?
  • What topics do you feel curious about? What do you wish you were doing more of, creatively?

So, what did you come up with?

If any of these prompts made your heart leap, or excited you a bit, I'd say: do whatever you can to try and make that a reality for yourself. 

What would happen if you picked one energy-maker in each category, and gave it a regular place in your week?

What would that look like? 

You know I'm a big believer in starting small. If this is at all overwhelming, maybe pick a single tiny habit. Just one little thing to start doing, to bring a stream of extra energy trickling into your life?

But then, I'm also a big believer in going big: What is the most radical thing you could do, to make sure you have a scandalous amount of energy for your work? 

Just think what would that look like! How that could feel, to have huge reserves ready to go straight into your writing?? 

What could you do this weekend, or during the rest of January, to move yourself closer to being that amazingly energized writer?

Oooh, this is the kind of thing that makes my fingers tingle. 

So, what are my big energy initiatives? Because yes, I definitely thought my way through these questions too! 

  • Physically: I'm adding a lot more physical movement throughout my day (standing desk! dance parties! yoga! brisk walks!), and I'm drinking a green smoothie every morning. (Love that!)
  • Emotionally: I'm getting back to journaling my prayers in the morning, and getting rid of extra noise in my life so I can feel more peaceful.
  • Mentally: I've added some more challenging reading to my must-read list for each month, I'm listening to some great podcasts every day for new ideas, and I'm also dipping into some beautiful essays and poems every night. 
  • Creatively: I'm devoting regular time to exploring my curiosities, and I'm finding ways to make some art every day. 

So far, I've been bouncing off the walls! (And I promise it's not just the vat of coffee I drink every morning.)

Your turn! What will you be doing to get yourself some extra energy? Share tips in the comments below!

Can We Stop Being Weird About Writer's Block?

Are we blocked? Are we lazy? Let's get real about writer's block. | lucyflint.com

Confession: I promised myself that I would never talk about writer's block. I mean, we've heard enough about it by now, right?

We've heard the debate: Does it exist, does it not exist. Are we lazy, are we unprofessional, or is inspiration a huge mystical thing and we haven't done the right sacrifices...

I'm tired of people saying, "I don't feel like writing today THAT MEANS I HAVE WRITER'S BLOCK, DOESN'T IT."

Oof. No. That's not what it means. 

And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are the people who shout: "Writer's block is just a construct. No other profession hides behind this. Be a professional."

I find that point of view extremely . . . unhelpful. (I'd like to hear what they have to say to a runner with a broken leg. Is that just a construct?) 

I believe that inspiration can be sought and found. I've done some excellent writing on days when I would have given my teeth to not write. Sometimes I go to my desk kicking and screaming.

But: I do think that there are times when we just can't write. There are times when your writing project cannot and will not go forward. 

The blocks that I've hit fall into three categories. And because I'm clever and subtle, I'll just call them Small, Medium, and Large. Here's what they're like, and a few ideas for how to get around them. Okay? Let's go.

The Small Blocks

What it feels like: These are the days you look at your computer or your draft, and you just feel this huge upwelling of "meh." This is your internal, "I would really rather not." It can keep you from your writing for a day or two... And that can grow into a few weeks. 

What that might mean:

  • This is hard.
  • I'm not prepared.
  • I'm really out of love with this part of the process.
  • Chocolate.

What you can do about it:

  • Writing is hard. So, this is an accurate assessment. Look around at how you're moving forward, and see if you're making it harder. Are you putting restrictions on your work that maybe you don't need right now? Can your deadline be adjusted? Is your topic too restrictive? Do you maybe need to bring in a bit more play, try to have more fun?
     
  • Get your tools out. Are you writing from an imaginatively dry place because you didn't research? (I do this all the time! Ack!) Maybe you need to browse a reference book or four, maybe you need to do a little Internet rabbit trailing? Or, maybe it's a writing skill that you need: grab a book on scenes, on structure, on dialogue. You can learn anything. Take the time to go for it.
     
  • You might be getting near burnout. Try working on a different part of the project. Try cajoling yourself back into it with some playful exercises. Give yourself an intentional, guilt-free day off to try and get some perspective. Read for fun. Take a nap. Clear your head for a bit, and then go back to it. Reward yourself for every step forward.
     
  • Eat the chocolate. Always. 

The Medium Blocks

What it feels like: It feels like there's an actual obstacle between you and your work. Your brain is fizzing-full of anxiety. Or, your brain is wiped clean of any real ideas. You go through your usual tricks, but the words are all coming out sideways. There is angst. Deep frustration. In spite of faithfully showing up and "trusting the process," you feel like you're just spinning your wheels.

What that might mean:

  • I'm not going to make the deadline.
  • I'm panicking.
  • The topic is wrong. Or the point-of-view is wrong. Something's just... wrong.
  • I can't keep working because I'm just making it worse.

What you can do about it:

  • Find a way to get yourself more time. To breathe. Deadlines are awesome to get you moving. But if you've taken a wrong turn, they might just help you get lost faster. Lighten your load, any way that you can.
     
  • It is really hard to imagine new things when you feel like you're writing your way off a cliff. Take a few days to recapture your perspective. Why did you start this story in the first place? What was it that you loved about it? Go for a long walk, and just think about the good parts of your story. Find a way to get back to the heart of what you're writing: take the time to do that.
     
  • A lot of what we call "writer's block" is really a huge detour sign. It's the part of the creative process that says, "You can't get there from here. You can't go that way." This is a really good thing. See it as a chance to look at all your options. Have you gone off a better, original track? Or are you a slave to your original vision, while your story wants to try a different way? Freewrite. Do a lot of freewriting. Give yourself a week to explore other ideas, other angles. Run down all the other paths for a while. Keep your grip light. When something you jot down gets you excited, keep going!
     
  • Perfectionism is writer's block's BFF. They show up together. You have to kill perfectionism. Really. Be merciless. Drafting is about making messes, making mistakes, and doing the wrong thing. You're going to have to redefine success. Success is: another day with words in it. Accept that your novel will not get better in a straight line. In fact, give yourself permission to totally screw it up. Write that down on paper, and sign it. Post it by your desk. I'm serious. I have to do this all the time to keep going.

The Large Blocks

What it feels like: A large block is a total inability to deal with words. (Sometimes accompanying a total inability to get up in the morning.)

I've hit this kind of block three times in my writing life. And each time, something else in my life had gone very wrong. So a large block might come calling if you're in a season of pain, depression, or a huge life transition.

What that might mean:

  • I'm in a state of total exhaustion.
  • Words are broken. I have zero faith in writing, zero confidence in my ability to write.
  • I can't write. I have nothing to say.

What you can do about it:

  • Let yourself off the hook. With everything. Take all productivity demands off the table. Put all projects on hold. This is serious: seek physical and emotional health more than any writing goal. Sleep. Sleep a lot. Binge on Doctor Who for hours (or some such thing). Do the gentlest, kindest things for yourself. Other professions let people have sick days, right? Take care of the writer; don't worry about words for a while.
     
  • If you've been hurt by someone (if your words have been taken and twisted and used against you), it can be really hard to put pen to paper. Really, really hard. I've found my way back to words through reading Billy Collins's beautiful poems. They're simple, charming, and moving. They got me believing again in the power of a few well-placed words.
     
  • In moments of huge transition, it can happen that you lose a sense of who you are. I once fell very suddenly and (it seemed) irrevocably out of love with writing. Ready to walk away, for good. So I did stop writing. Instead, I read. For two months. And then, out of the blue (it seemed), I had a new novel idea that was so precious it took my breath away. If you can read a whole bunch, I'd say just do that. Read yourself silly. Give it time. Don't force yourself to make any decisions about your writing future: just give yourself a lot of words to read. And wait to see what happens.

Dealing with blocks. You have to be your own doctor, to an extent. Diagnose yourself; discover what works for you.

If you're in this writing game for the long haul, you'll be doing this from time to time. So it's a good skill to have: you're learning to listen to your life, to look for signs of growth, signs of trouble. Keep practicing--you'll get better at it.

And you'll find your own best ways around the obstacles you hit. For me, the way around even the worst of blocks boils down to this:

Let yourself play. Stay curious. Seek health. Surround yourself with words. And give it time.


Do you have any anti-block strategies to share? Writer's block stories? Let's keep encouraging each other! 

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Beating the Writer's Paradox and How to Keep Going.

3 Ways to Build Your Story When You Just Don't Wanna

For the days when you just can't manage to write: 3 creative ways to re-engage your story brain. Bonus: they're totally fun. | Keep writing, from lucyflint.com

There are days when you find that you're just sick of words.

Maybe you're exhausted. Maybe you've been thinking too darn much, and your story is in danger of going all crooked and stale on you. 

You know you need to jazz up your creativity a bit, but . . . ugh.

Can't -- muster -- the -- energy.

Hey, it happens. And when that mix of moods hits me, I fall back on three ways to keep exploring my stories.

What's so great about these? Well, they're totally bottom shelf. Super easy, no strain, no muss, no fuss.

You can do them when you're pretty darn tired, you can do them when you can't put two words together, you can do them when you don't want the hard mental work of actual writing

These are for the too-busy-to-write days, the bored days, the cranky days, the I'd-rather-nap days. The rainy days.

Bonus: They're totally fun. It's like fingerpainting for your soul. Okay? Let's dive in.

1. Hit Pinterest hard for some visual inspiration.

If you haven't tried this yet, now is totally the time for you to explore Pinterest as a writer.

Yes, Pinterest is the place to get enough ideas to stress yourself out over every birthday party for the rest of your life. And Pinterest can help you get to a state of serious discontent over your interior design skills (or fashion, or crafting, or whatever). 

But you will also stumble across a zillion amazing illustrations. Concept art. Photographs. Links to articles about crazy settings that just have to make it into your novel.

I've never heard another writer confess this, so I might be the only one, but: I am total crap at imagining faces.

Can't do it. I get very vague impressions about hair, and maybe height, and physical gestures. As far as actual details, as far as all the things those character exercises in books want you to list? I can't imagine them. And it feels forced to just randomly say, uhhhh, she's blonde, and um, blue eyes? Maybe brown? Oh I don't know. 

It hasn't worked for me. Those details don't seem to stick.

But here's what has worked: browsing illustrations and photography on Pinterest.

love seeing the amazing character illustrations, wading through them by the dozen, and pinning bunches of possibilities to a secret board devoted to my work-in-progress. It helps me figure out the mood I'm going for, the range of possibilities for each character.

I'll browse concept art for some weird location ideas, portrait photography for more true-to-life character ideas.

Or I'll do a more specific search: like today, scanning photos of creepy forests. (And not getting spooked one bit. Or wait. Maybe I did.)

This is the easiest exercise on the list. You can do it if you only have the energy to keep your eyelids half-open and drool, so if it's a rough day, go for it!

It's amazing what happens when I see a face that rings just right for a character. Suddenly the character in my mind takes on more shape. She feels more certain, more definite. Now I know her physical specifics, all the details that I need to describe her well.

And when I'm ready to sit down and write, her voice is that much clearer. 

2. Match music to your characters.

I started doing this exercise over ten years ago, as a game.

A couple of friends and I were studying Shakespeare for a semester. As it came close to finals time, we were pretty well steeped in the nine plays we'd read. We knew our stuff

And I had this CD. It wasn't the kind of CD that made you think: Aha, Shakespeare, forsooth!

(All right, all right, it was Linkin Park. But it was a long time ago, and I was maybe a little angry sometimes, and also my tastes have changed. No judging. Thank you.)

Here's what we did: For each song, my friends and I listened carefully to the words, and then we assigned it to a character from one of the plays.

Yes, really. This one was Hamlet, and that one was totally Ophelia. And this other one had to be Antonio from Twelfth Night. We even had one for Banquo's Ghost in Macbeth

Obviously, some of the songs were a bit of a stretch. (A lot of a stretch.) We made our case for each one, arguing on the basis of a few strong lines, or the general idea behind the chorus. 

But it got you thinking: how might the rest of the lines fit the character?

Was there a plot line in the play that might be stretched a bit, to make those lines fit? Or maybe the character's motivation in the play was totally different from what we'd been thinking...

Maybe Iago had a softer side? And maybe Leontes in The Winter's Tale had been poisoned? The more we listened to "his" song, the more we were sure of it.

You see where this is going, right? 

Here's how I still use this one: I'll put on Spotify Radio or Pandora. And I assign every song I hear to a character in the story. And I pick a point in the story where it fits them.

I love this exercise, because it's still pretty low-impact. You can do it while you're doing dishes, or going for a run, or driving. You're just listening to music, and thinking vaguely about your story. No big deal. 

But you'll find yourself wondering about emotional aspects of your story. You'll start thinking differently about character motivation, about their backstories. 

Lines from the song will jump out, and at first you'll think, "Nah, that doesn't fit them..." And then it will hit you. Of course it fits them! And actually, that answers your questions about what should happen right after the plot midpoint... 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself scribbling notes. Don't be surprised if you actually start getting excited. I won't tell anyone.

Best of all? After doing this exercise, the next time you hear that song, you start thinking of your story.

Which means: your story is more alive for you.

And if you're accomplishing that on a dreary day--well! Good for you.

3. Binge on movie trailers: have a story element feast.

Okay, again this one might be just a me thing, but it's one of my absolute favorite ways to build my story.

I have a movie trailer festival. (Right? Sooooo hard, but someone must, I suppose! And because I love trailers to a ridiculous degree, this exercise really kills me. But anyway.)

I watch a whole bunch of movie trailers. (IMDb is super for this.) They don't have to be anything like the story I'm working on. A wide variety is great.

Why do I love trailers so? They're presenting the hook of the story, the premise in miniature.

The whole point of a trailer is to get you ready to pay to see that story. To experience whatever they've described.

Which means: they're putting in some of the high points, they're peeling back the cover on the conflict, they're showing off their special effects. If possible, they even make you love the main characters. They make you curious.

What does this mean for you, writer?

It means that you're feasting your eyes and ears on key story moments. The emotional highs, huge effects, witty dialogue, cliffhangers, possible revelations, anxious character moments, conflict so sharp it skewers, and about seventy explosion sequences... 

Okay, so you've done all that? Eyes feeling a little buggy? Getting the story lines confused a bit? Perfect.

Now close your eyes, and dream up the trailer for your story.

It doesn't matter if your novel isn't done. It doesn't matter if there are huge gaps.

It doesn't matter if your novel doesn't feel at all exciting. It doesn't matter if your characters feel lifeless.

Think about a darkened theater. Think about how you feel, when you're craving an amazing story.

And then let the trailer write itself, on the screen of your closed eyelids. Bring in the scary music. Let things happen in slow-motion... or super fast.

Let your characters talk. Let their dialogue feel heavy, important. Let them talk like they're both going to be nominated for an Oscar.

Crank up the volume on conflict: let the characters start running through rubble. Blow some stuff up. Even if you didn't think you were writing a blowing-up kind of book. (Hey, you're just messing around, right? Splash a bit! Have some fun.)

Maybe this one will take some practice, but it can be the most rewarding of them all.

Why? I think because you'll find that you start believing in your story a bit more. You'll want to add more big moments. Because it will start catching at your heart, like the best movies, the best trailers. Because it will make you lean forward a bit.

You just might give yourself chills.

And even if there's a ton of work still to do on your novel (and when isn't there?), you'll have a renewed belief in the power behind the story. And you'll be writing toward that power--and not just to check list items off a sheet.

And that is the sweetest feeling of all.

I hope you'll try these exercises, friend. They've saved my bacon again and again, pulling my heart back toward my stories, back toward my characters.

I hope you start seeing your characters walking around, and that your settings come alive. I hope you start compiling a playlist of songs that are perfect your novel. And I hope you start dreaming up movie trailers.

And when you're back at your desk, you can channel all that new imagery, all that new dreaming into a living, breathing, heart-grabbing novel. 


If you want to keep reading, check out: Let's Go Get Our Inspiration and The Side Effects (to Writing Hard).