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.

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?