[Special Guest Post!] Find Your Theme, Fix Your Life: Another Great Reason to Write

Find your theme, fix your life: Another great reason to write! (Special guest post with Jessica Lourey!) on Lucyflint.com

Hello, my lionhearted friends! And welcome to June!!

I don't know about you, but I am READY for a chilled-out summer and a slower pace.

Here on the blog, that translates to a broader focus. We're going to take this month to kinda zoom out from the day-to-day of a writer's life. And instead, we'll take a look at the big picture.

Because lately, I've caught myself pawing through my writing years, trying to get a grip on my own trajectory. And I've been asking myself: what happens to a writer across many projects? What kinds of seasons happen in a writer's creative life? 

And how do all my crazy projects and ideas mesh together, anyway? 

Lucky me: To look more at that last question, we have a special guest post today with Jessica Lourey.

Jessica Lourey

I am SO excited to introduce her to you: she's published fifteen books and she has something pretty awesome to say about the themes that show up in our work. I'm so glad we get to hear from her!

So check out her post below, and be sure to hit the comments to say hi to Jessica in person!

Then you'll definitely want check out her TEDx Talk (it blew me away), as well as her latest book.

(And whaaaaat, she also has a coloring book for writers? I know I won't be the only one scrambling to get my hands on that!)

Are you excited? Let's dive in. Here's Jessica:


My 15th book released a few weeks ago. It's called Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, and it walks readers through the lucrative and life-changing process of transforming life experiences into powerful fiction. 

I stumbled across this fact-to-fiction process by accident. The year was 2001. I had a three-year-old daughter and another on the way. I was teaching full-time and loving life.

Unexpectedly, inexplicably, I lost my husband.

I go into more detail in my TEDx Talk, but in general, here's what happened after his death:

I had to write to survive. I needed to transform my fear and pain into something coherent.

I wrote one book, then another. I'd written three whole novels and received 423 rejections before I landed my first agent. Fifteen books later, I'd give up wine, bread, cheese, and my left foot before I'd quit writing.

But even after all that passion and practice, if I'm honest with myself (and you), it's not exactly ancient history that the idea of drafting a novel felt like being dropped into central Africa's Congo Basin with a compass and a paperclip.

Naked. 

Rolled in honey.

With everyone whom I've ever wanted to impress watching via a live feed, gathered together in a room, eating popcorn and laughing so hard that they spewed schadenfreude all over the television. 

In fact, after I began my first novel I spent much of my writing time feeling overwhelmed at the scope of what I'd taken on and like a ridiculous fraud for even pretending I could write a book. I grew up in rural Minnesota, for crying in the night. Not only did I not know any writers, I hardly knew anyone who liked to read.

But there was personal treasure to be mined in the writing of a novel, I sensed it even then, rubies of resilience and emeralds of hope, and so I read what I could on the art of writing, sought out mentors, and read fiction like a chef trying to puzzle out the recipe by tasting the meal.

After five years of trial and error, I finally arrived at a method to reduce the time and stress of writing an experience-based novel while increasing the joy in the writing and the quality of the story.

More importantly, I discovered that writing fiction allows me to process much of my personal garbage so I can live healthier and happier.

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, by Jessica Lourey

You'll find that most if not all your best novel ideas are already growing, ready to be plucked, in the compost pile of your mind. (Your compost pile is that fertile, loamy, crap-filled place where you tossed your baggage in the hopes that it would decompose on its own. It doesn't. You have to stir it up and spread it out. It's just the way it works.)

All writers end up with a unifying theme across the books that they write, and that theme is the most indigestible nugget in their mental compost pile, the personal challenge they were put on this earth to overcome.

For example, I write about the poison and power of secrets. In every. Single. Book. (It took me eight novels to realize my recurring theme.)

I come by this meta theme honestly. I grew up in a house built on fear and secrets, liberally sprinkled with alcoholism, psychedelic drugs, swingers, and naked volleyball parties. I packed my first bong before I was ten and mixed a mean whiskey water by age twelve. To this day, I think my parents' worst fear was that I'd rebel and grow up to be a right-winger.

(My parents would be mortified if they knew I was writing about them or my childhood. This, along with an instilled allegiance to secrets, has kept me from writing nonfiction up until this moment. How am I finally breaking free of this, you ask? The advice to write as if your parents are dead seems too harsh. I'm instead writing as if they're illiterate.)

My experience of working through and spreading my mental compost pile via novel writing is not unique.

At a recent writing conference, a successful noir author confessed to me that all her books are about that pivotal, cathartic moment when a person tests his/her limits. John Irving's recurring theme seems to be younger men who are seduced or abused by older women. Parental abandonment appears in every one of Charles Dickens' books. Amy Tan tackles mother/daughter relationships in her writing.

You will find some version of your own experience-based theme in all the novels you write.

Don't worry if you don't know your life theme right now; discovering it is one of the many gifts of novel writing. 

Just know that wherever you are at in the writing process, you are doing the right thing. The good work. 

Write on, with love,

Jessica Lourey
www.jessicalourey.com


The above is partially excerpted from Jessica Lourey's Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, available May 1, 2017, wherever books are sold.

Jessica is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She also writes sword and sorcery fantasy, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, a coloring book for writers, and magical realism, literary fiction, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk.

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?

Here's How I'm Fixing an Old, Incredibly Bad Writing Strategy

It's tempting to think that we can writing at an amazing level, while still keeping this bad (deceptive!) habit around. But I'm slowly learning: I can't do both. Here's why. | lucyflint.com

You know that feeling of being sore in muscles you didn't know you had? It's kinda weird, but at the same time, it gives you a bigger sense of yourself, right? 

You see yourself a bit more clearly (if with surprise), and at the same time, you're a little astonished to realize that you're more complex than you realized.

... Or maybe I'm the only one who feels shocked like that after an unusual workout. ;)

That's the same feeling I've been getting as I keep applying The Artist's Way to my creativity and my writing life

Only, it isn't just creative muscles that are waking up. It's creative needs.

Again and again, Julia Cameron's essays and tasks are introducing me to needs that I didn't realize I had. 

Or even needs I'd just miscategorized. Things that I vaguely knew were "important" when I could get to them, but ... maybe I could also just shrug them off indefinitely.

But that's all changing.

As I settle into Cameron's way of thinking, as I journal about these new insights, I'm gaining a broader, more accurate sense of what my needs are as an artist. As well as what it takes to meet those needs.

Honestly? It's been pretty dang startling. 

Super exciting. But also startling.

And so, as I'm repairing my work habits and settling into a fresh work routine after the craziness of this summer, I'm really taking into account the things that Cameron urges in her book. 

In other words: I'm breaking my "let's shrug it off" habit.

No more shrugging. No more dismissing.

Instead I'm seizing this lovely back-to-school vibe that's in the air (can you feel it?) and I'm designing my work space and work routines with all these needs in mind. 

If I don't set up my schedule with time in it for the creative nurturing I need on a regular basis (time refilling the well and writing morning pages, as well as time for the writing itself), it's just not going to happen.

And that's simply not an option for me anymore.

(Pardon me while I sing a quick fight song, and do a few high kicks.)

Ahem.

Here's the scary thing. Here's what is so important for you, for me, and for all of us who want to work with integrity and creativity.

Preserving the time for this kind of work, preserving the energy and the ability to focus—it takes effort! 

Showing up for your creative self on a regular basis and taking care of all these legitimate and vital needs:

It's delicious and exciting and exactly what I want to be doing.

But it also means that, to clear that space, I'll need to say no to some other stuff.

Feel where I'm going with this?

Because, spoiler alert: I do not (yet) have a clone.

I would love to have a second Lucy running around here, who could take care of all the out-and-about stuff, who could buzz around and meet friends for coffee all day, and take care of everyone's needs and preferences—

While I just focus in on becoming the artist and maker that I so desperately want to be.

The clone thing hasn't worked out yet.

So until that mind-boggling day, there's just me.

And I can't do everything.

Throughout The Artist's Way, Cameron spotlights helpful quotes from other artists in the margins of the book. And one of my favorites was this one:

"Saying no can be the ultimate self-care."
— Claudia Black

Whoa. I just sat and stared at that one.

Here's what I'm realizing. Saying no to other people is super hard for me. 

Really really hard.

I used to think that I wasn't a "people pleaser." I'm pretty quiet around others and tend to keep to myself and sing little introvert songs to quiet my nerves. 

And yet.

It's only recently that I'm seeing how much I want everyone to like me. I fall into this scary habit of trying to make sure that I don't disappoint anyone.

No matter how bad the timing is, no matter how unrealistic the expectation: It's really stinking hard for me to turn people down.

And in The Artist's Way, Cameron reminds us that we need to know how to say no to other people.

Why? To protect your art. To preserve space for all that thinking, dreaming, brewing, sketching. Your time. Your energy. 

She warns against letting the wants and requests of others drown your ability to work on your creativity. 

She's not being unrealistic or horrible with this, by the way. She is not saying we need to let other people wither without us during crises. 

Instead, she's pointing out that there will always be opportunities for us to do other things—seemingly noble ones, in fact—instead of our work. 

And it will be easier to show up for other people than to show up for ourselves.

And I don't know about you, but that is completely and terrifyingly true of me.

As I've wrestled with this, here's what I've realized: 

The hardest person to turn down is myself. 

And I'm not just talking about the times when I want to wander off and not work.

The hardest thing is: Saying no to a version of myself that I simply cannot be if I also want to write amazing books. 

The hardest "no" that I say is when I say, No, Lucy, you're not going to be everyone's favorite person because you're not the utterly reliable, always-there-for-everyone-no-matter-what person anymore.

You're not going to be the one who steps up and pitches in every time someone else has a project going on. 

You're not going to be the person everyone thinks of when they want a helping hand.

You are not constantly available. Your schedule is not endlessly flexible.

You can't keep everyone happy all the time. You can't keep the people around you 100% disappointment free.

You can't do those things and still write at the level at which you most want to write.

Seriously, friends: This is a really hard thing for me.

And guess what. When I do say no to something—an event, an opportunity, a low-grade preference of someone else's—there are other people who can step up.

Other people who are excited and committed to the event. Other people in the right place to take advantage of the opportunity. Other people who are well-positioned to fill the need.

I've seen it happen time and time again. And re-learned the truth: this whole thing's success did not depend on me. It's okay. I can say no.

So, the very hard truth of it is, I'm not actually leaving people out to dry. That's not the main difficulty. 

The real trouble is, I have to give up this vision of being a person who keeps everyone happy all the time. The person who never disappoints. Who always has time for everyone.

That is what is so tough for me. 

I want everyone to be glad I showed up. I want to swoop in and make everything better, for everyone, all the time.

Fantastic. Nice idea. 

... Doesn't so much lead to good novels though.

(Because I've tried. It is an incredibly bad writing strategy.)

Not to sound too lofty, but: I am convinced that my biggest service to the world isn't through my being everyone's best friend.

It isn't through helping everyone around me when they'd like some slight assistance. It isn't through making everyone's life easier.

My biggest service is going to come through writing the best dang novels I can muster. It is going to come through my craft, my stories. 

And to write them, I need to feed my artistic side consistently.

I need to protect the time it takes to do the work. To give as much as I want to give in my novels, I have to take relentless, consistent, compassionate care of myself.

I have to say no—to others and to the crazy super-human ideas I have about myself—as an act of self-care.

I need to say a lot of noes to a lot of different things (and different versions of always-nice Lucy) in order to be available to the people I most want to assist. 

And part of that group is my future readers. The kids who will fall in love with this trilogy.

I want to be there for them. I want to drop everything else and show up for those readers.

I want to do whatever it takes, so that my books can be there in a pinch for them. I want to bring refreshment into hard places through my novels. I want to help other people put their oxygen masks on.

To do that, I have to find my own mask. Pull it toward me and put it over my head. Pull the little tab thingies to tighten it. Get it on straight. And breathe.

I have to take very good care of myself. So that I can serve through writing. 

How about you, my lionhearted friend? Are there some commitments that have somehow snagged you, that you really don't belong to? That you don't truly need to participate in?

Can you do the amazing, daring, self-caring thing, and free yourself with a kind but firm "no"?

Where is saying no the best kind of self-care for you? And where do you, like me, have to say the hardest noes to yourself?

We've gotta learn how to do this, my friends. Our future readers are counting on us.

When You Doubt the Value of a Lighthearted Book in a Tough World, Remember This

It's easy to think that, in a tough world, we don't need the lighthearted books, the "silly" ones. But when I saw what they could do--precisely IN those tough times--I changed my mind about that. I think you will too. | lucyflint.com

Well, we're coming to the end of this gorgeous month of Reading Recess

I don't know about you, but it has been SO GOOD for me to slow down, to focus on reading, and to remember why we read.

To set up good, nurturing structure around the reading habit (in the mornings! in a nook!), but also to remember why we have permission to do this amazing thing: falling into novels and reading, reading, reading.

We have that permission, because we're the makers of this art as well. We have to keep experiencing novels as readers, to remember, again and again, everything that they can do.

Because books can be the loveliest of vacations, the sweetest escapes.

Because books connect people: they link hearts with hearts, and remind us that we're not alone.

And sometimes, they do both of these things at once.

In my reading history, there is one moment that stands out above all others.

One moment when a light-hearted, even "silly," book gave an amazing gift to me, my parents, and someone else we didn't know.

In the midst of fear, heartache, tension, physical pain, and hope, there was a story. 

I've talked about it before on the blog, when the memory was especially fresh. (I can't beat that version of the story, so I'm just gonna reprint it below.)

But seriously: for amazing moments with a novel, nothing in my life beats this:

We were in my mom's hospital room.

Waiting with her as they tweaked her pain medication, waiting for her to recover just enough from the surgery to go home. We were looking out at the amazing view from the seventeenth floor. Letting her rest, grabbing coffee from the lobby, keeping each other company.

And then: we were reading out loud. 

My family has always read out loud to one another: it's something my parents did for us when we were kids, and none of us got around to outgrowing it.

So my mom packed a lighthearted novel for her hospital stay, and Dad and I read it out loud.

And something funny happened.

Instead of being overwhelmingly conscious of I.V. cords and hospital gowns, the smells of antiseptic, the sounds of the equipment in the room (I never knew hospital beds were so loud)

Instead of all our worries about the surgery itself, and the outcome, and what the rest of recovery would be like, and if any other treatment was needed

We all teleported. 

To 1930s England. To chauffeurs in uniform, to having tea and lemonade on the lawn, to entertaining the vicar.

To frivolous women and pompous young men and imperious great-aunts. To thwarted love and silly mix-ups and endangered inheritances.

It was one of those comedy-of-manners kinds of books, trivial and subtle and funny. 

The only thing I had to focus on was reading the very next sentence. Everything else faded away. Mom listened and rested. Dad and I wrapped ourselves up in the story. 

And at one point I looked up to see my mom's roommate standing there, listening to me read.

She was holding onto her I.V. pole, with a feeding tube snaking into her nose, but she was with us in the 1930s, standing there in England, just for a little while. 

(She told us—in a beautiful accent that none of us could quite place—that she and her husband had been listening to us for a while, that it was lovely to overhear someone reading, instead of the noise of the TV. "There's a TV in here?" I said later, surprised. We had never even noticed.)

In other words—I tell this emphatically to the doubting voice in my head—in other words, books are still important.

Even when your family gets all shaken around and can't figure out what normal is for a while.

Even in a land of diagnoses and tests and results and lab reports and waiting, waiting, waiting.

After all, anything that can make two women forget—even for an instant—that they are in a lot of pain; anything that can move a group of people over a continent and back about eight decades; heck, anything that can keep me from realizing I'm in a hospital

Well. That's a very powerful force.

Whether the story reminds you of green lawns and sparkling lemonade, or whether it's populated with aristocratic assassins and monocled crime fighters [like the one I'm writing!]:

Stories are important.

And maybe there is no such thing as too silly, when even the silly stories can remind us who we are.


In reading news: I finished Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat! SO much fun. And so I've started my final novel for this four-in-four challenge.

It is in the favorite-of-mine genre of British mystery. Thought I'd save the easiest for last! Somehow, I can never, ever read enough British mysteries.

This one's a recommendation from my mom (who is totally healed and healthy now, by the way!). It's called Bellfield Hall, Or, The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent, written by Anna Dean. 

Wahoo!! I'm super excited to dive in!! 

How's your reading going? Can you spend the last week of July splashing around in some fun-for-you (or dare I suggest it, even silly) novel??

Maybe in a lovely nest or nook? Maybe while eating something nourishing and delicious?

(Or a crisp gin and tonic: also fine with me. Heck, have two. It's been a tough summer.)

Wherever you are, whatever's going on: Save some time for yourself and a splendid book. 

Re-anchor yourself in the worlds of what you're reading. Switch your perspective for a while. Nourish yourself with words.

It's vital.

Happy reading to you, my friends!

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!

The Counterintuitive Way to Protect Your Writing (from Everything that Gets In the Way!)

Ever feel like you're in a war, between your writing and the rest of your life's demands? Always defending one from the other? I totally get that. Here's how I found a resolution that frees me up to be a calmer, better writer. Let's dive in. | lucyflint.com

I can't believe that it was a year ago that I re-launched this blog as a place for lionhearted writers to gather and talk about courage, self-management, and an incredibly healthy writing life. 

A year of courageous writing! Let's all dig in to a big bowl of confetti!

So to celebrate this month, I'm coming back to one of my favorite things: quotes about writing.

If you've been around here for a while, you've probably noticed that I'm addicted to quotations.

I've done a series on helpful writing quotes, and I did another post on some of the best quotes for the "shadowy side" of the writing life. (Which I still loooooove. They are good quotes, y'all.) 

And this month, I'm coming back to them again.

Our writing lives are shaped by voices, after all. 

By the words of our teachers, our readers, our characters, our own selves, and all the books and writers that have gone before us. 

So many voices. So many words. 

And the awesome thing is, we get to choose which ones we'll hold on to. Which ones we'll believe in, and learn from. 

I love that. 

Here's the quote that's on my mind today: 

"One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that." - Michael Bishop ... So, lionheart: What kind of a writer do you want to be? And what kind of human? | lucyflint.com

I love this quote. This reminder. 

Because this is where I've been lately, my friends.

Over the last month, I've watched my grandma's health decline to nothing. I visited her, read to her, and even sang to her (not very well) because singing was something that still got through.

I saw her the night before she died, and we all sang Happy Birthday and ate cake to celebrate her ninety-second year, even though she couldn't respond. 

I sat with my mom the next morning as we got the news that my grandma had died. I witnessed the flurry of preparation for a visitation, a funeral. I helped proofread her obituary. 

We welcomed my sister and her husband and their four incredible kids into our home; I talked with friends and family for five hours at a visitation.

There was a funeral, a burial, a luncheon. We brought home flowers from the church, and I woke the next morning to the scent of roses.

I stared at the obituary photo of my grandma (bright-eyed, smiling, content) to erase the memory of how she looked the night before she died—when she already seemed like a ghost.

Along the way, I totally neglected a head cold, which responded by turning into some massive sinus-infection-meets-bronchitis thing.

(I sound very elegant while typing all this, coughing like this and sniffling, sitting here in my pajamas and my robe amidst a pile of tissues. Real talk, y'all.) 

And oh yeah, I didn't do any writing. Not a scrap.  

My novel has curled into a tiny little ball. Its notes look like they were written by someone else. The current draft—my epic structural rewrite—is cool to the touch, sitting there at just 7500 words. 

Here on the blog, I had prepped the Love Your Writing Life series in advance, because we knew Grandma wasn't doing well. I checked in with the posts as they published and read them again, doing the prompts that I could manage to get to.

But for the most part, I felt very, very missing-in-action with writing. 

Which is why I love today's writing quote.

Because I can say: That is TOTALLY OKAY.

I had big plans for my writing in February. But it turned into something else.

It was a month for family. I was a granddaughter, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a niece, a sister, and a friend. I sang and prayed and held hands and matched faces to names that I'd heard of for decades. 

It was a month for relationships. It was time to be the human, more than the writer. 

And if this sounds very unremarkable to you, I have to explain: in the first several years of being a full-time writer, I divided my life into Writing and Everything that tries to interfere with writing. 

That's the dichotomy that I rode for years, and can I just say: Pitting the rest of your life against your writing gets exhausting.

It turned everything into a fight. It made me bitter. It made me a resentful crazy person. 

Please don't do that.

I threw out that paradigm a while ago, and now I try to live by something else.

I want to be a really good human. Someone who pays attention to the world around her. Who catches the nuances. Who loves people first, and then remembers what they say and writes it all down.

Yes, still a writer.  A writer to the core. Believe me, I was staring at pictures of my grandma, pictures taken ninety years ago in Puerto Rico, imagining stories for the faces and the places that they showed. 

I was absolutely noticing everything at the visitation, the funeral. What, after all, do people say to you, when you've lost someone? 

I soaked up the stories that were shared. The sweet moments. As well as the surreal sense of going through the motions.

I was a family member, first and foremost. 

Here's the thing, my friends. Splitting life into Writing and Not Writing makes it hard to live well.

So I've decided to choose a better focus. Now I protect both sides of the equation (the writer, the human) by trying to live an attentive life.

Because the heart of being a really excellent human and a really excellent writer is the same: To pay attention. To love big. To notice things. To show up.

When I live like that, I get to be the kind of person—daughter, aunt, granddaughter—I most want to be. 

And, when I get back to my writing desk, I find that I have stories to tell.

I'm more calm about getting my writing in, and my writing gets richer at the same time. How's that for a more pleasant way to live? 

So this week, my mission is to get well.

To sleep a whole bunch. Eat a lot of chicken noodle soup. Use those clever essential oils, and take plenty of vitamin C and zinc. I'm gonna banish the snot and the cough.

I've also cleared off my desk. I sat and stared lovingly at the outline I have for my novel on the wall. (Oh look! Characters! I have characters! Hello, you little beauties. Next week, we will dance and dance and dance some more.)

And then I showed up in this space to write some words, and to send love to all you lionhearts, and to say:

We are writers, but we are humans first.

That's how it's supposed to be. Let's not get the two confused.

Let's be present every single day, shall we? Let's pay attention to whatever life hands us.

Let's write by being alive, first. By being attentive, first. 

And then, let's trust that when it's time to sit at our desks again, our stories will be so much richer, because we've been such real and wonderful people...

Even when we weren't writing.

This Is The Essential Holiday Survival Guide for Writers! (Part TWO.)

For starters, I want to say that I'm not taking back anything that I said in Part One of the holiday survival guide. Okay? I truly have used and loved using every tip in that post, and I mean every single one.

But.

I also really needed to say this, too.

Three things you absolutely need to practice doing, if you're gonna survive this holiday season. (And they probably aren't what you'd guess.) Part TWO of my essential holiday survival guide for writers. | lucyflint.com

This has been my usual writing practice during the holidays:

I get really psyched up about the holiday season, and I promise myself that this will be the Year of Balance and Harmony between writing and everything else.

And then I crash and burn, berate myself, and flounder around until, oh, about February. When I finally piece myself together again.

Honestly, this season throws me for a loop. And I'm finally realizing that it will just go ahead and keep doing that

I used to attack myself for how lazy I was, how undisciplined and unfocused.

I thought that a real writer would just keep on working, whatever the date on the calendar. Sure, take off for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but otherwise: I should be able to sail right through the season, full of words. 

I have spent so much time hating myself for missing writing sessions in December. 

I felt like a fraud, a hypocrite. And people think I'm actually WRITING! I'd shriek, and then flail about.

Holiday stuff, or writing stuff? Family gatherings, or character gatherings? Which do I skip? How do I clone myself already?

I spent so much time doing this. So much time being angry at myself for not managing it all flawlessly.

And now I think that, actually, all that time could have been better spent.

Instead of flailing, what if I just got back up, and learned to love writing more, learned to love my story more?

What if I just focused on getting back into the game?

Without all the blood and all the tears and all the flailing limbs.

There are going to be days (and weeks and even months) when writing just does not happen.

And I'd like to say: don't waste your time on the negative emotions. You don't need them.

Just come back and read. Come back and write.

So you've missed a day, or two, or eight, or thirty.

It's OKAY.

I just want to say that. It's okay.

Yes, you will feel rusty when you start again. Yes, you will probably think everything you're writing is crap.

Ignore the voices. They just show up after you've taken a break from writing, because they think that's their job. They are the gnats of the writing practice. Just brush them off.

That's your starting over plan: Shrug off the internal resistance. And simply paddle toward the words again.

Remind yourself of this as often as you need to, during the on-again, off-again, on-again writing schedule of the holidays.

Above all, skip the shame and the guilt.

Drowning yourself in misery because you haven't written in a while doesn't actually work. 

It doesn't make you a better writer. It doesn't make up for the time you spent away from the work. And it doesn't endow you with all kinds of discipline for the next time your work is disrupted.

I PROMISE you this.

If shame and guilt worked wonders in a writing life, then by now I'd be a multiple bestselling writer, fa-la-la-la-la-ing my way around the country on a book tour.

(Which I'm not.)

So, I've tried out that writing tactic, and I'm here to spread the word that it doesn't work. Let's try new tactics.

Let's try self-forgiveness.

Let's try getting up again and just brushing ourselves off and carrying on with the work.

So far, that's worked really well for my writing life. (And life in general.)

Yes, try to steer through the storm of events. Try to hang on to your story. Try to stay upright.

Snatch time for your work. Try all the fun suggestions from Part One of this guide, and see which ones work for you.

But also, please know this: If you do fall down, if suddenly you realize you've missed a whole month, it really isn't as big of a deal as it can sometimes feel like. 

It doesn't make you undisciplined, lazy, or a liar if your writing practice just sort of implodes during the holidays. 

It doesn't make you bad. And it doesn't mean you aren't committed.

It just means that life is big, and that stuff happens, like it always does.

It also means you don't control everything. (Which isn't such a bad thing after all.)

Most of all—and this is actually a rather exciting and good thing—it means that you and I can practice getting up again.

We can practice our agility. Which makes us resilient and strong in our writing, instead of brittle and defensive. It's a good direction to go. 

Okay?

So these are my three absolute essentials for the holidays:

1) Forgive yourself when you fall down. 

Be relentless about forgiveness. Keep giving it to yourself.

Even when you think you should beat yourself up, try forgiveness. Tell yourself it's okay. (Out loud is best.)

2) Refuse to believe all the lies about what this says about you as a writer, and about your discipline. 

The lies are totally uninformed. You don't have to listen to them. They don't realize all the other ways that you're growing as a person during this season. Down the road, that will translate to more writing and better stories.

So, ignore the lies.

3) And heck! Enjoy those holidays!!

If, like me, you are celebrating the birth of a King, then those celebrations really do deserve all the time and energy they take. And then some!

Yeah, I might not go to many parties, and I keep my shopping minimal, and I really will try to write as many days of December as I can...

But I also don't want to miss Christmas. I don't want to be over-focused on work, and under-focused on what matters most. 

So if it is a cold hard choice between participating in the holiday or writing, then choose the holiday.

And don't beat yourself up about it.

But choose that holiday with a wide open heart and wide open mind. Experience all of it.

And when it's all over, write down what you remember.

Start up again. Dust off your keyboard, your notebook, your pen. Re-establish your writing groove.

Starting over has been a consistent part of my writing life: I'm finally learning to treat it like a skill. I want to get really good at restarting. Instead of being afraid of it.

Are you on board with that?

Let's use this year's post-holiday season for practice. 

And don't forget: Kindness eases everything.

(Peppermint mochas don't hurt either.)

This Is the Essential Holiday Survival Guide for Writers! (Part ONE.)

I can't even begin to believe that it's December, so we won't start on that. Ahem.

How's everyone doing post-Nanowrimo? Fingers recovering? Brains regathering energy? You all okay? 

I love letting a theme guide each month's posts, but when I looked around for a central theme for December, nothing really fit. Instead I had a handful of posts that I really, really wanted to share with you before the year was out. Writer to writer.

So that's what our December will be: a heart-to-heart before the end of 2015. 

Sound good, lionhearts? Awesome. Let's dive in.


December can throw even the hardiest writing practice for a loop. Check out this essential survival guide for three ways I keep writing through the holiday season. | lucyflint.com

Let's be honest: with all the holiday festivities, it might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it's also one of the hardest times of the year for keeping coherent thoughts in your head.

Aka, writing novels

It is hard, hard work to keep writing in December.

I wanted to write myself a Survival Guide, just to round up all my little tricks for getting myself and my characters through the next few weeks in one piece. (More or less.)

Are you up for that too? High five.

Here are the three things I'll be focusing on to get through the month.

1. Preserving the time to write.

For most of the year, I tend to keep a pretty strict writing schedule... but everything gets messy in December.

There are ideal times for shopping, and there are times when shopping is unthinkable. Errand-running of any kind during December is usually best right in the middle of when I usually write. 

And then all the wonderful (and wonderfully exhausting) parties start up, and both time and energy for writing seems to disappear.

So it pays to make a new plan for finding writing time in this month, and letting it not look like all the other months.

This is when I start planning my writing time on a weekly basis, instead of a daily one. 

  • I'll try to group my errands together, to make the most of my breaks from work.
  • The hectic, errand-full days only get a little writing time: I'll try to work for a while before going anywhere, but once the errands start, I let myself stop for the day.
  • But on the non-errand days, I go big. I do all my good writing day things, and try to work as deeply and well as possible.
  • The day after a big party, I let myself start later (I don't regain energy very quickly!), but try to have a stellar afternoon.

Nothing really shocking here, right? The point is: try to work with your schedule, and with your own energy requirements. And just get really intentional about that, before all the chaos starts.

For years I insisted that December's writing schedule should look exactly like every other month's, and when I kept getting derailed, so much frustration ensued. 

Which isn't really what I'd like to be up to, when everyone's dancing around with candy canes. 

So let's not do that this year.

By all means, stick with your schedule for as long as you can. But when things get busy, it's time to get creative with the schedule too.

2. Finding the words.

Sometimes, though, the writing time isn't the problem. 

Sometimes, when everything gets mega-busy, it's just hard to hear the words.

Honestly, if part of your brain is working out what presents to get, and if another part is thinking about cookies and party menus, and if another part is wondering if your ugly Christmas sweater is ugly enough, and if another part is deciding which charities to give to, and if another part is realizing that your decorations are all looking a little tired, and if another part is debating what the Christmas cards will look like this year, and if another part is ...

You get my point.

Brainspace is extremely crowded this time of year. 

So even if you do plunk yourself at your desk for three hours or thirty minutes, you might not have so much actual writing happening.

This is hard. And for me, this is a lot harder (and ultimately more discouraging) than finding the time to write. 

I used to beat myself up about it. But now I've changed my tactic.

When the actual writing doesn't seem to work, I start making lists. (Yes, I've said it before, but I'll keep saying it! I've rescued myself with listmaking so many times.)

You can use lists to approach any part of your project, no matter what project it is.

It makes the best use of your time, and it also helps calm down your ping-ponging brain. It just feels more manageable than trying to sculpt paragraphs.

What kind of list? Try these:

  • Twelve things your character wants to do but shouldn't
  • Twelve things your character should do but doesn't want to do
  • Ten unusual details about the most common (or the most important) setting in the book
  • Five things your protagonist wants to say to your antagonist
  • Five things your antagonist wants to say to your protagonist
  • Twenty startling things that could happen in the very next scene 
  • Eight possible names for that shadowy minor character you just invented
  • Twenty possible titles for the novel
  • Fourteen lovely things that your future reviewers will say about you and your book ;)

See what I mean? Whatever is next, if you feel a bit blah about it, or if you can't quite envision it, no worries. See it as an opportunity. And start making lists.

Then when you do come back to work with a full brain, you'll have a lot of ideas to work from.

Honestly, I've shocked myself by being able to make lists in the weirdest circumstances. I can list when I'm barely awake, I can list in the middle of a crowded store, I can list when my brain feels full of other things. 

Use the hyper holiday energy in December to turn yourself into a list-making ninja. (Because I promise, it's a strategy you can rely on the rest of the year, too.)

Other ways to find the words this month: 

When all else fails: Read. Bring a book with you everywhere, and sneak little fiction snacks, staying as close to the flow of narrative as you can. 

Pour language into the cracks of your days, so that when all the activity dies down, your head is full of words again.

3. Getting out the nets.

Here's the really good news: If everything else goes belly-up, and you have no time to to write, and if the listmaking doesn't work and all you have is blank pages--

There is one more thing that we can all do in this crazy month.

We can turn into clever little explorers, and seek material

Here's the truth: I spend most of my time trying to be as reclusive as I can possibly be while staying mentally healthy. (It's a delicate balance.) 

December flips that formula upside down. It's bad news for my writing, but it's really really good news for my mind and creativity, when I choose to see it that way.

Holidays bring along with them all the raw ingredients for a zillion new ideas. They're a huge factory for the stuff of stories.

And if you bring along big mental nets for catching these ideas, you'll end this month with a pile of excellent material.

It comes down to paying attentionTaking notes. Jotting down what you hear, what you see. And staying alive to all the juxtapositions and paradoxes and beauties in this season.

Think like a collector. And make use of every errand, every outing, every party.

Speaking of parties, yes, I'm on Team Introvert, and every party—however happy—can feel like a slow death. Here's the idea-gathering strategy that helps me through:

Interviewing.

Seriously. Give this a try. Casually interview the people around you.

Ask interesting questions—ask about things that, as a writer, you genuinely want to know about.

Find out more about your cousin's unusual specialty, or the niche that your friend's husband is working in.

Ask everyone about their hobbies—not just what they do, but why they do it, how they got started, what the high points are, what they've found out.

Ask about the places they've been, where they've lived, where they travel to, and what it's like.

Ask about how they met the host, or how they met their spouse. Amazing stories come out of this.

These people know things, and better yet, they're usually quite happy to tell you.

Find the most eccentric person at the party, and get 'em to talk. What happens next will be GOLD, for you and your work. I promise.

Excuse yourself from time to time and go jot down notes, get down phrases, and write down how their facial expression changed, how they used their hands while they talked, or what details stood out to you.

You're a clever reporter, taking notes on life. You're a writer-explorer, doing field research, collecting samples.

And oh yes, you're also being an awesome guest, and not dying a slow introvert death.

Good plan, right?

When you see it this way, any outing can be an investment in your work. It can give you unexpected ideas, glimpses at rich characters, and snatches of dialogue.

Even though it's time away from the desk, it can at least be super productive for you.


Whoa, we just covered a lot of ground! But seriously, those are some of my best, most trusty holiday survival tips. Just going back through them helps me feel calmer about all the craziness to come!

But if you want to hear the real difference-maker for the holidays, come back for Part Two on Monday. Okay?

In the meantime, what about you guys? What's served you well during chaotic times? What keeps you grounded? I'd love to hear more from you in the comments.

Celebrate the Relationships that Make Your Writing Possible

It's tempting for us writers to think we're creative geniuses, at the center of our own little universes. It's tempting to forget (or ignore) everyone who is and has supported us. ... Let's not do that. | lucyflint.com

When you're throwing yourself into your writing work, and putting every little bit of your brain and heart into it, you can get a little... how shall we say... self focused.

To an extent, that's a really good thing.

I will always champion self-care and self-awareness and grace and rest and all those things. You're the one most able to monitor how you're doing, how you're handling stress, and if your imagination needs some oomph. You have to pay attention to how you're doing.

But it's easy to let this self-focus thing get out of hand. Right?

It's ghastly to say it out loud, but after too many days of manipulating fictitious events, I can start thinking that I'm the creative genius at the center of the universe.

That's not a habit I want to develop.

And if you've ever met anyone with a runaway ego, you know how ugly this can get.

We can all see how disgusting it is when someone forgets how many people have helped them, supported them, sacrificed for them.

Yikes. But it's a cautionary tale for us writers.

Because it is so easy to get caught up in our work.

It's ultra absorbing, making worlds out of our brains! It's easy to take for granted the people we rely on--whether they're helping our households run more smoothly, or dishing out emotional encouragement, or helping us financially. 

It's so easy to forget what other people are doing for us. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a person, or a few people, or--let's dream big--a whole tribe who thinks that what you're doing is Okay, and who support you in any way--

Then how about celebrating them this weekend?

Whether with gifts and flowers, or a long coffee date that is not about all your writing dilemmas, or maybe some good old-fashioned public acknowledgement of everything that they've done to help you. Of what you owe them.

Thank them out loud.

Sound good? 

Here, I'll go first.

I know it's cliché to say that my mom is my number one fan, but, well...

My mom is my number one fan.

I'm super fortunate in that the rest of my family is awesome and extremely supportive as well. But my mom is the person who actually modeled writing for me. 

For as long as I can remember, she had a writing desk with story ideas posted above it, as well as a growing collection of books about how to write. She talked about her stories, her characters, and her work, which taught me that this writing thing was Normal and Okay to do.

She always encouraged my sisters and me to read, helping us haul our library loot home and back again. She read out loud to us at night. She made up stories on the spot when we were bored.

She gave me spiral notebooks and story prompts when I was in second grade, she read my first attempts at poetry (eek!!) when I was in fifth, she was one of my first readers of my honors thesis in college, and she's the first one I'll let read my ramshackle rough drafts now.

We share books, tips, conferences, and anything we're thinking through. We talk about process and structure; we share writerly woes and writerly joys.

We're in this together. 

I literally can't imagine what my writing journey would look like without her. Especially without her saying, from day one: 

  • You can do this. You are a writer.
  • Being a writer is a GOOD thing to be.
  • And also, you always double the amount of chocolate chips in a recipe.

We add books and words (and maybe chocolate) to the difficult places in our lives.

So clearly, I owe her a lot. And I'm realizing that I don't say that enough, out loud. 

It's her birthday this weekend, which is partly why I've been thinking about how much she's inspired me and how much I still depend on her encouragement.

And how I'd probably not be sane trying to write without her.

Who is that person for you? Who is it who gave you encouragement during a hard time, or who modeled reading or writing for you, or who believed in you early on?

Let's be bold in our appreciation. Let's celebrate the people who have supported us.

I'll be making my number one fan a cake this weekend. How about you?

How to Live with Humans and Still Write.

How to live with humans and still write: a discussion about balancing work and people. | lucyflint.com

When I was at college, I didn't have much trouble with priorities. I knew how much money it cost to be there, so my whole plan was academics first, friends second. Not to say that I didn't have fun. I found a wonderful group of friends that I cherished. But I knew that I was there to learn, to grow, to get a degree. All that stuff.

Fast forward to post-graduation, and coming back home. I came home to write, full-time. And I thought that giving writing top-priority status would be fairly simple. I'd spent four years putting my brain first: I knew how to do this. Right?

Not so much.

When it came to family versus writing, I found myself in decision-making, priority-clarifying agony.

My family members are my biggest fans. Hands down. They are the ones who champion my work, believe in me when I don't, and pick me up when I've had a crappy day. So it's not like they were intentionally jeopardizing my schedule. 

But I deeply internalized the idea that writers must be strict about the time they spend writing. They need to make a commitment to get the words down, and then honor that commitment, no matter what. Even when they work from home, they need to be as accountable as anyone in a 9-5 office environment.

And there's a lot of truth, still, in all of that.

But I began to put everything in my life into two groups: Things That Help the Work Get Done, and Things That Don't.

That looks very cold blooded typed out, but I knew that 1) I was absolutely called to do this work, and 2) if I didn't get my writing in, the book stopped existing.

If I didn't think about my characters, they evaporated like smoke. My ability to have a career one day in this massively competitive field depended on me becoming the best novelist I could.

I came across this quote from the golfer Ben Hogan:

Every day you don't practice you're one day further from being good.

I posted that above my desk and let it torment me.

The pressure was on.

But I love my family like crazy.

So there would be days when minor (or major) emergencies would strike. There would be out-of-town guests who would be visiting right during working hours. There would be impromptu afternoons of errands where my opinion was needed. 

I seemed to be in a constant state of guilt.

I felt guilty when I skipped my writing to entertain guests for four hours. I felt guilty the next day when I felt too drained from visiting to think a single clear thought. Any time family won over writing, I felt like a bad, lazy writer.

But when writing won out, and I didn't help when my family could use the help, or when I didn't spend time enjoying their company or building our relationships, or when I kept myself from joining in too many activities (because I felt overly drained, and knew I wouldn't be working if I participated)...

Well, then I felt like a bitter, hysterical, self-focused shrew.

And I'm guessing I acted like one, too.

And nothing keeps me from writing like a sense of guilt.

I don't know if you find yourself in this kind of circumstance at all.

It always haunted me that on paper, I could easily portion my days: Family gets this amount of time, work gets that amount. 

But for years and years, I couldn't do that. I couldn't stick to it. And I felt like a mess.

Perspective Shift

Two things have helped change my perspective on all that.

First, my younger sister got married and gave birth to the three cutest kids in the universe. And I learned that, if you give me a choice between playing with a cute kid and writing a difficult scene, I almost always choose the cute kid. (Even though I'll get food in my hair.)

But the even bigger change was this: During the last two years, my family was struck by a series of bewildering difficulties, lost jobs, injuries with lonnnng recoveries, and serious illness. And I became deeply, seriously exhausted. Like--I broke.

I stopped doing everything.

And I really didn't care about how many hours I needed to work, or how many pages I needed to write.

So, writing wasn't my full-time job for a long while. Trying to on my feet again: that was my full-time job.

And after I'd done that, I focused on my family, not my words. Real, living people needed me far more than my characters did. I worried--a lot--about what that meant for my writing. I was barreling toward my thirtieth birthday, and no novel deal, no agent, nothing even ready to send to readers.

But at the same time, being present for my family during incredibly hard times, and throwing over my work so that I could spend time with my nieces and nephew--that has all profoundly changed my heart, my character, and my sense of what's truly important.

Donald Maass says, Success as an author requires a big heart. | How to Live with Humans and Still Write, on lucyflint.com

I'm a different person. With different--better--stories inside me.

Yes, I gave up a lot of writing time. But the ironic thing is: when life calmed down a bit, I cranked out two new novels at an astonishing pace.

For example: I've been writing a trilogy (all the first drafts done, hooray!) And the core idea for the whole thing leapt into my mind four days after my first niece was born. I was staring at her small baby fingers, and thinking about what it felt like to be an aunt.

It was like something sliced through my heart and shook my brain inside out. And--because I'm a writer--I had a new character in my head. And because of that new character, I have three books where she plays the main role.

Loving my family, being present with them, strengthening those relationships... well, friends, it all actually goes into the work.

So is balance a myth, or is it attainable? Do you see life as family versus work? Does one win and the other lose?

I don't have a perfect answer all hammered out. But here's what I've decided.

I do have a commitment to my work. And I do want to do all I can to become the best writer possible. 

But I don't want to do that at the cost of my heart, my most important relationships, or my character. During those early years of debating between writing and family--I didn't really like myself. I didn't like all the resentment I felt, for one commitment over the other. I didn't like the guilt.

Lately, I've chosen to see them as not in conflict with each other. My family, and their lives mingling with mine, drive my stories. My stories are my job, the thing I've been given to do, what I care about, one of my greatest passions. My family relationships: well, they're another. 

I've decided not to see them as "in competition" with each other. Instead, they're two of the main forces that make me who I am. 

It still isn't an easy thing to wrestle with. And yes, there's definitely a time to enforce a strict routine (which I usually do keep to), and to talk about boundaries, and all those healthy things. And we'll definitely be talking about all that later on the blog. 

But for now, here are a few questions I ask myself when things get tricky (because of course they still do sometimes!):

1. Where am I most needed? 

When family is sick or hurting, writing just takes a back seat. Period. I bring books and small writing exercises to waiting rooms, or I'll read out loud as I keep people company, but the family member comes first. And I refuse to feel guilty about not working. 

Likewise, if writing has a really rough week, and the family commitment or errand or request is something that can be shifted, compromised on, or rescheduled: then writing prevails.

2. Is doing less actually okay?

I tend to think that I have to do all or nothing, and that mindset limits my options. 

Sometimes, sitting at my desk for a good thirty minutes, on a difficult-to-get-to-the-writing day, is a lot better than nothing. On days when life is butting in, I set a small task and commit to finishing it, before doing what I need to with family.

It goes the other way too: sometimes, if I just have twenty minutes for a FaceTime date with my nieces and nephew, I'll be honest that that's all I can do right now. I go all out during those twenty minutes (make all the silly faces, sing all the silly songs), but then I go back to my work. And I don't let myself feel guilty.

3. Don't aim for perfect.

Frankly, I don't always know what the right call is. Sometimes the lines are blurry.

Sometimes, "they're going to my favorite coffeehouse for a long afternoon of conversation!" is really worth ditching writing for the day. 

It's too easy for my nature to be obsessed with making the right decision. With picking the thing that I can perfectly defend to myself.  But sometimes the best decisions wouldn't necessarily pass the grim panel of judges that reside in my brain.

Sometimes, you need to chuck your work for the day and go to the apple orchard with your niece and sing to the goats at the petting zoo. Sometimes, when someone is hurting, you need to take a week off of work to be the full-time support staff in your own home. Sometimes, that's just the most important thing.

So when I am tempted to panic, when I think that "I'm one day further from being good," I remember this other quote (infinitely more helpful):

"One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that." -- Michael Bishop

That sounds like the absolute right way to look at the whole question. The right focus to have. 

I'd rather be a good human than a perfect writer.

What lessons have you learned, about balancing work and family? If you're working from home, do you have any special tricks or mindsets that help? Chime in down in the comments!


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Wanna keep reading? Check out Empty All Your Pockets and Beating the Writer's Paradox.