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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's like your fairy godmother just showed up.

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

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

Ready for your transformation? Here we go:

1: Set yourself up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I answered those questions in the form of rituals.

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

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

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

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

And so I dive in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2: Go for steady.

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

This is why I love everything to do with goals:

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

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

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

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

Those landings are a real blast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3: Head toward the heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you love.

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

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

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

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

4: Respect your source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Use Your Writing-Life Magic Wand (Or, Finding Your Groove, Part One.)

How to find and use that most powerful of things in the writer's life: the creative groove. | lucyflint.com

Sometimes I am all about balance. I want to work in that exact rhythm of nurturing all parts of my life: getting good work done, but also seeing plenty of friends, discovering new places in the city, and being an all-around good citizen.

Sometimes, I do whatever I need to in order to stay right in balance. 

And other times, I'm ready to help balance straight off a cliff.

There's this mad, maniac side of me that would really like to disappear completely from the world and drown myself in work.

Probably this is not very healthy.

But I've been thinking of it because I read Susan Branch's delightful memoir, Martha's Vineyard - Isle of Dreams. At one point, she describes how she began working on her very first cookbook—an intense project, because it featured not only her own recipes, but also watercolor illustrations on every page, and, bonus, she hand-lettered the entire book. ALL the text.

Mind = blown.

Her creative process was all-consuming. She started getting up at four or five in the morning, working all day in her pajamas, eating whatever came to hand while standing up in the kitchen. (Tater tots seemed to be a fave, which just makes me like her even more.)

And then back to work, and then early to bed, with her cats for company. 

She was warning all us readers that this isn't especially wise, and isn't anywhere close to balanced, and that there are much better ways to live...

But, crazy me, I was reading that and thinking, That sounds WONDERFUL!

I mean, I can see what she means about quality of life over the long haul. Yeah, probably not a good place to stay for long ... but in short spurts, perhaps? 

Because this is where I am, my friends.

I'm at that exact point in my creative process, where my deepest desire is to become a total hermit.

I've written too much about sustainability to believe this urge for long. And I've known burnout too well not to recognize the road that goes straight toward it. All this stuff about staying healthy and stable—it's legit, and I know it.

But still ... that little hermit-dream persists.

Which is what got me thinking: okay, okay, not a total maniac.

But what's the next best thing? 

I got my answer by going back to one of my favorite books on creativity, Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit.

Lemme read you her gorgeous description of a creative groove: 

When you're in a groove, you're not spinning your wheels; you're moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You're unwavering, undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose. 

A groove is the best place in the world. It's where I strive to be, because when you're in it you have the freedom to explore, where everything you question leads you to new avenues and new routes, everything you touch miraculously touches something else and transforms it for the better. 

Let's all just gaze at that with heart-eyes for a minute. 

All right. If I can't be a total hermit right now, the next best thing I can do is generate a groove. Put myself in the sweetest of sweet spots with my work. 

I want to be unwavering, undeviating, and unparallelled in my purpose. Yes, please!!

But according to Twyla Tharp, there are no guarantees with what will exactly work to launch someone into a groove. There's no exact formula. And dang it, I like exact formulas.

So I did some looking around at my favorite writing books. And I thought through what's happened around the grooves I've found in the past.

And I cobbled together all those things and figured out some characteristics, common traits that, if I pursue them hard enough, just might help shove me not off a cliff, but into a good, strong, writing groove. 

And I'm EXCITED. 

Because best practices like these are kinda like a magic wand. Wave 'em around long enough and hard enough, and I think some magic just might happen.

Maybe transformation.

And not into a raggedy bearded hermit, but maybe into the next best thing: A bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, ink-stained novelist working her groove.

Want to come along? Cool. Because unlike the hermit, I don't mind a bit of company.

(Oh, and this will be a two-parter, so check back in two weeks for the second half of our groove-making work. Perfect.)


1: Save your environment.

Where do we begin? With the stuff that's right in front of us: Our place, our time, our space. Our work environment.

Because the first thing we need to do if we want a groove is make room for it. 

What kind of space, what kind of schedule, what kind of environment, would help you to write the most deeply and consistently? What would let your imagination have the freedom, space, and support, to just run wild? 

Oooh. 

This might mean adding in more beauty, comfort, or quirkiness to your writing space. (Never underestimate the power of quirk.)

It might mean adding encouraging messages and reminders around your desk. Putting pep talks on Post-Its, and sticking 'em to your computer screen.

Or, maybe it means you need a blank slate, go minimal, pare everything down til it's clean and spare and fresh.

What would help you go deeper into your work? 

The other half of this question is: How does your time look? 

What is the best time of day for you to work? How long of a writing session feels optimal to you? 

I've had months where the yummiest writing work got done between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., and I just went with it.

Now I'm on the other side of the spectrum—for some reason, waking up at 5:30 a.m. gives me such a sense of expanse and freedom and clarity that I dive into my days feeling full of promise. (And okay, maybe planning a nap later, but nevertheless.)

When is it best for you to write? Not for other writers, not for other people—when is it best for you? When do all your creative juices get going, and when do you feel that release from other obligations? 

Speaking of obligations: You're already heard me say this, but I'm gonna say it again. One of my favorite practices is clearing out commitments. No, this isn't easy. Yes, you might feel like you're stepping on other people's toes. 

But it is so helpful to do this from time to time. Check out everything you've been participating in, and if something is draining you more than it's feeding you, give it a very stern look.

And see if you can get out of it. If not, try to soften it, or lessen the impact of it in some way.

This could be something as tiny as unsubscribing from an email newsletter that's stopped being helpful. Or it might be stepping back from some small weekly thing you've been doing for a while. Or you might turn down a bigger commitment that you've been having second thoughts about for a while. This is the time for it to go. 

You need to free up that creative energy, my friend! 

So cancel some things, take a good look at what writing times work the best for you, and give your space a good sweep.

... I think that writing groove just moved a whole lot closer.

(If you want some more cheerleading or ideas for how to do this, check out these three posts to build a "moat," lighten your load, and shake up your space.) 

2: Build a food pyramid.

It is really hard to work in a groove if all your wells have run dry.

There's no way to sustain continual, deep, yummy work if you have nothing to draw from, nothing to paint with. If your imagination has shut off, gone cold. That's the way to get into a rut or a block, not a groove.

Which is why it's worth figuring out a good, reliable answer to this question: 

How can I continually feed my imagination what it needs?

What kinds of things do I need to take in on a regular basis, for my creativity to be strong and ready for anything? 

This is one of those habits that is ESSENTIAL to working well and working sustainably. It's also one of the first things I cut.

(This is why you hear me say the same things over and over, y'all. I have to keep re-learning these lessons myself!) 

Feeding the imagination is one of those vital but seemingly unimportant skills. And in order to get into a good, rich groove and stay there, we have to find ways to keep the nutrition flowing in.

So: what do you need?

For my imagination to thrive, I need it stocked with a lot of odd fascinating facts that don't necessarily have a place in my immediate writing.

That's why I'm smitten with the randomness of dictionaries and encyclopedias, why I swoon over amazing, comprehensive wonder-sites like Atlas Obscura. It's why I need to keep reading widely, why I have to keep learning. 

Because all those little images and facts and tidbits and impressions and shards of atmosphere and tiny details—they're all the building blocks of what we make, right? They're what we invent from.

They're like the amino acids of the creative process. They're essential.

Last fall, I ran out of steam, out of juice, out of everything. So I blocked off a whole month for a sabbatical. The goal? To stop all output, and focus only on input. Getting those amino acid levels up again.

So I thought about what my imagination and my writerly heart were most craving, and I drew myself a little food pyramid of what I most needed.

At the bottom? Books, books, and more books. I wanted to read a ton of fiction, but also some really yummy non-fiction, and on top of that, some of my favorite reference books. 

Then I also wanted to see movies that would capture my excitement, as well as gorgeous documentaries (I am so not over Chef's Table, btw). 

And then I wanted to watch a bunch of TED talks, I wanted to do a lot of painting and art-making, and I wanted to watch and read interviews with other makers—not just writers, but calligraphers and musicians and anyone who does any kind of art. 

That was my pyramid: what's yours? 

What do you need an enormous amount of right now? Give yourself permission to take it in. Maybe you need a bunch of creative, stimulating, exciting outings. Maybe you need to take a lot of pictures, or visit an art store and then get paint in your hair.

Or maybe you need to make a ton of tea and grab a stack of library books and just get lost in pages for a while.

Or maybe the thing you most need is actually silence.  

Listen in. See what you're saying, down deep. And then go after it. 

(Want a few more ideas for nourishment? Maybe give yourself a distraction detox, go looking for wonder, or take a revolutionary writing pilgrimage.

3: Apprentice yourself to a master magician.

One of the qualities of a good writing groove is that you can solve the problems that arise without too much bleeding.

You know what I mean? Sure, you'll hit an obstacle, but you're all warmed up and ready to tackle it, and you find inventive solutions. 

The more flexible our skills are, and the more skills we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to find ourselves working from an excellent groove.

Without craft and skill, the wheels will keep coming off, and we'll get stuck.

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp tells how she found herself in a mega-groove of choreographing one excellent dance piece after another.

What triggered it? A leap forward in her skill as a choreographer.

Through inventing one piece with a specific kind of style, she learned an entirely new dance vocabulary. And that breakthrough unlocked so many possibilities that the next several dances came together with a special wonderfulness. 

This makes total sense, right? When we get better at the raw skills of what we do, everything gets a little easier. We're more flexible, quicker at solving problems, and we can reach for more creative solutions. 

Everything clicks along more happily.

So where do you want to give yourself a skill upgrade? Where would you appreciate a mini-class, a workbook session or two, or just some solid time practicing?

Who do you want to learn from? What's the next step in your apprenticeship?

For me, it's learning story structure in a deeper and deeper way. I've been hard at work on all things Story Grid, listening to the podcast and applying it to my draft. (Whew! So much good stuff to learn!!) I'm especially working on shaping scenes.  ... I want to become a scene NINJA. Seriously.

What does that look like for you?

(If you want more craft and skill pointers, check out these posts on escaping miniature writing ruts, tiny craft improvements, and creating your own master class.

And then, if you want to get REAL serious about learning from the best, raise your noveling skills to epic status by checking out the resources here, here, and here.)

4: Put on your workout clothes.

Here we go: The most glamorous groove-inducing method of all.

Hard work.

Sweat.

A run-a-marathon level of effort. 

(Paired with rewards, kindness, naps, and dance parties, of course! I promise I haven't forgotten sustainability already!)

True story: sometimes a groove has to be earned.

Like one of those "buy 9 cups of coffee, get the 10th free" cards that I treasured in college: sometimes you have to put in a lot of effort before you get the free stuff.

Sometimes it takes me two weeks of super hard work, slogging straight up hill, yowling the whole way. And then, suddenly, momentum kicks in, and I'm sailing along.

If you've ever done Nanowrimo and found a real sweet undertow pulling you along late in the process: you've experienced this too. 

This is the power of the marathon mindset. Having that keep moving mindset can vault you over so many obstacles—through sheer momentum. 

Let me tell you: momentum can be your best friend.

The best thing about this one is that you can create a marathon on your own. Hard work is totally free. All it costs you is time and sweat.

You don't need Nanowrimo to come knocking, and you don't need a special event or a class.

All you need is a target of words (or exercises completed, or pages written) and some kind of deadline (just to spur you on—and to let you know when you get a big break!).

Maybe it's a full draft in 6 weeks, or 50,000 words in 30 days, or it could be 366 10-minute exercises in 8 weeks (what can I say, it was fun!). 

The things that make a marathon rewarding and valuable for me (as opposed to miserable and burnout-inducing) are:

  • maintaining a tone of utter kindness;
  • focusing on the quantity of work instead of nitpicking about the quality;
  • and just keeping myself entertained in the words.

If I hold to those three things, a writing marathon becomes my best friend.

So give it a try. What kind of parameters could you put in place to let loose a hard work marathon in your writing life? And ooh, what might it catapult you into?

Make yourself a fun chart (or am I the only one who thinks the graph is one of the best parts of Nanowrimo?), set up some lovely rewards for yourself, and dive in.

(Want a little bit more of a push before committing to a marathon? You've got it. Check out my best stuff on the Nanowrimo mindset—here and here—plus dealing with marathon-level fear, and keeping your body happy while you write so much.

... Plus one more post on the delirious, let's-all-sing-sea-chanties word drunkenness that happens mid-marathon. Yup.

This is why I'm telling you that hard work doesn't have to be miserable: it can be incredibly blissful as well. And it can be easier to keep writing than it is to stop... and that's exactly where I want to get to again!)


And there you have it: four of my best tools for launching myself into a better writing rhythm and a deep writing groove.

Whew!! I'm excited to dive in and apply the heck out of all four of these things. Thanks for staving off total hermit syndrome with me. Seriously, it was about to get real weird here. ;)

Check back in two weeks for the second half of the post... and till then, good luck finding your groove. Go make some magic.

The Person You Will Be at the End of This Year

My two best tools for reaching incredible, impossible, transformative goals. | lucyflint.com

Here's the thing about focusing on a few goals that profoundly matter to you:

If you go after them earnestly, you will change.

Period.

I mean, there's no other way around that, right? 

If you've picked goals that will stretch you, you will stretch.

If you've chosen goals that represent a place that you aren't at right now, then you'll grow to get to that place.

You will end up changed.

Personal growth is kind of like the goal under the goals: To level up in every way. To upgrade our courage and our vulnerability. To gain stamina and broaden the reach of imagination.

To see ourselves differently: more capable, dreaming bigger dreams, and working consistently toward what we want.

That kind of growth is a pretty incredible process, but also just as challenging (or maybe more so!) as the goals themselves.

To help us all out with that, here are two powerful tools that I'm leaning on big time as I reach for my goals this year.

1) Let's recharacterize our old buddy Fear.

When you aim for a big goal, Fear shows up.

It's a guarantee. 

Maybe you've already felt this happening? Because I definitely have!!

Like . . . okay. Seriously. Early last week, I had a little meltdown. Without even realizing it, I was slipping back into old, fear-based ways of working. 

I started treating my work habits with deep suspicion. Cutting the time I usually spend nurturing creativity. Rushing myself through each day, and then beating myself up for not accomplishing 50 hours of work in a single work day.

Yeah. Those old habits. 

But here's the lovely, encouraging sign of growth (thanks to ALL the hard work and emotional heavy-lifting we did together last year!): I realized that I was running scared after only a day and a half in that crazy-making mindset.

It used to take me weeks to pull out of this (or to crash-land out of it), but last Tuesday afternoon I realized what was going on and I had a good laugh. Then I asked myself: Do you really want to spend the rest of the year working like this, even if it means achieving those goals perfectly?

I heard a resounding HECK NO. I tore up my manic scheduling efforts and my hyper-controlling time sheets, took some deep breaths, and reset my course: 

Steady action toward my goal. Building momentum, one day at a time. And honoring the power of systems over the power of daily goals.

And when Fear shows up—because it will—I'm taking a new tactic. I'm not gonna let fear push me into scheduling every single minute in my day. (Fear pretends it's to optimize productivity levels ... but it never works.)

Instead I'm recharacterizing my fear. 

And I'm calling it a lane departure warning.

You know, those fancy systems that tell drivers (through beeping or buzzing or, I don't know, maybe a Dr. Seuss-esque gloved hand that pops out of the ceiling and smacks them) that they are leaving the lane that they're in

That they are drifting unintentionally. That maybe they aren't safe.

Because usually, that's what Fear means when it shows up for me.

It's crying, GAAAAA, Lucy!! You're leaving the lane you were in!

That lane was cozy and safe, and yeah, maybe you didn't always like it, but you knew it, and now you're talking about doing really big things!

That's a WHOLE DIFFERENT LANE, girl, and I don't know, it's pretty freaky! So you need to stay put!

Here, I'll run around screaming, I'll put you on a ridiculous kind of time schedule, I'll make you shut down or burn out, because I'll do whatever it takes to keep you from leaving this lane.

Because who knows what will happen if you leave it?! Who knows what's out there?!

Ahem. 

Get what I'm saying? 

It REALLY helps me to think of fear in lane departure terms, because then I understand it. I know to expect it.

And I can say, Look, Fear. This year I am publishing my novel.

Yup. I know. HUGE lane departure. I haven't published a novel yet, so I know you're going to be blinking and honking and shrieking at me.

So here's the deal, Fear:  

You do what you do. And I will take your voice and your presence to mean two things: 

1) That I'm doing what I intended to do: switch lanes.

2) That I have a chance to check in and reaffirm my commitment. You are essentially asking, Am I sure this is what I'm intending to do? Am I committed? Do I really want this? 

And in that way, your voice and your jumping up and down are going to be really, really helpful to me in this upcoming year.

So thanks.

... But you'll need to sit down and strap yourself in, because we are DEFINITELY changing lanes.

I can't tell you how helpful this metaphor has been for me. It keeps me from fighting fear (which is exhausting). It keeps me from seeing it as a 100% enemy. It's just an over-active safety device.

So I don't have to freak out and react and slam on the brakes when it shows up. Instead I can keep my eyes on the road, and keep moving toward my goal.

How about you? Is there a lane departure warning going off in your life as you look at your new goals?

How does it show up for you? (And am I the only one who turns into a manic time keeper when fear's around??)

Try seeing it as an indicator that you are doing what you meant to do: creating change, striving for new things, and growing. 

And all Fear is saying is that, you're heading for a new lane.

... I know. That can be easier said that done. And it takes a lot of practice. Which brings us to the other tool that can HUGELY help when approaching these new goals: 

2) Let's change what we believe about ourselves and our work. 

In order to reach my three goals for 2017, I've started this one amazing habit: Every morning, I spend thirty minutes practicing what I believe about myself.

Sounds weird? Yeah. It does. 

But it's been the most essential habit of my new year.

I discovered this kind of belief work because I was reading Book Launch Blueprint, by Tim Grahl. (I'm relying on it and on Grahl's Your First 1000 Copies to shape my whole process for selling my book this year. Aka, #2 of my Big 3 goals. Woo hoo!) 

Right near the start of Book Launch Blueprint, Grahl says this amazing, insightful, and totally petrifying thing. He writes:

The one component that separates the successful launches from all the others is this: 
     In a successful launch, the author believes that buying their book is actually a
good thing for people to do. ... 
     You have to believe, in the deepest part of your soul, that it is a
good thing for readers to buy and read your book. 

Okay. Whoa. 

So: What I believe about my book is going to dramatically impact my sales.

What I believe about my story
is going to affect how many people
get to read it.

That is a very, very big deal, my friends, for all of us who are hoping to publish and sell our writing.

To be honest, my first instinct was to kind of freak out about that, pretend I didn't believe him, and then skip to the next section. "Great, yeah, solid advice, thanks. Now where are the charts and graphs and practical stuff?" 

The trouble is, I've been listening to enough of Brooke Castillo's work that I'm realizing: Looking hard at what I believe is incredibly practical. 

She has me convinced that our beliefs drive everything else in our lives. They're at the root of what we think, feel, do, and achieve.

Pretty dang practical.

So when Tim Grahl pointed out that believing in your book is essential for a successful launch, I had to dig into my beliefs about my own story.

Do I believe that buying my novel is one of the best things someone can do?

Oooh. Kinda yes. Kinda no. And those kindas are gonna trip me up in a really big way if I don't deal with them.

So—how to do that?

I did what I've been doing a lot of lately. I dove in to the backlist of the Life Coach School podcast and I found this incredible, beautiful, life-changing episode on How to Believe New Things.

Bingo. 

I know that I keep going on about this podcast, but ... you guys. You have to listen to this one. (Your future book sales just might depend on it!)

So I took notes. And then I did what Brooke Castillo recommends:

  • I listed (brain-dump style) everything I believe about myself in regard to all three of my goals. You know. Those seemingly random, nasty little thoughts that dart by when I'm working.
     
  • Then I took a closer look at a few of them and what they set loose in my life, just to see them in action. How did those crappy little beliefs make me feel? What did I do when I felt that way? And how did that end up? (Usually, not well.) Proving that yes, beliefs impact results.
     
  • Okay. So then I listed the things I wanted to believe about myself and these new goals. Not gushy, goofy, impossible things, like "I'm the best writer ev-ah!!" Instead, I worked on coming up with things that I did, at base, believe about myself. Or that I could believe about myself. 
     
  • And now I practice them. Every morning.

As in: I sit at my desk, and I look at the belief typed out in a super-big font so it takes up my whole screen. I say each belief out loud, and I work on actually believing what I am saying.

I remember when I've proven it in the past, I affirm all the parts of my character and habits that line up with it, and I just believe that it's true. 

And on to the next, and the next.

Does it seem a little hokey? Maybe. 

But does it work? ABSOLUTELY YES.

I can practically feel my courage rallying, my spine getting stronger. I've been feeling less panicked, less doubtful.

My friends, you've gotta try this! It is absolutely worth the time and the effort. 

And if you've ever been interested in practicing affirmations, Brooke's podcast episode explains them beautifully. Her version of creating beliefs has been even more helpful than the written affirmations I'd been doing—it kinda picks up the same concept, but then turns it into a superpower tonic.

Which is just what we want for 2017, right? ;)

Not sure where to start? Here, these are my four favorite all-purpose beliefs to practice so far: 

  • I am capable of immense courage.
  • I know the very next step I should take, and that's enough to go on for now.
  • I will do whatever it takes.
  • No matter how this turns out, I will have my own back.

Those are four that I've been working on to get ready for all the work of this year. They kind of throw a switch on in me, activating all my best traits. 

And, I promise you, when I'm believing all that, I can face my somewhat daunting day with a lot more courage and conviction.

From that place, I have compassion on myself when Fear shows up. I remember how to redefine it, and how to move ahead anyway.

That is the kind of work that's going to make me—and you!—a stronger and more courageous person by the end of the year.

How does that sound to you?

Honestly, when I think about sticking with these goals, and these beliefs, and this practice of moving forward in the face of fear—that's the kind of stuff that gets me very excited to see who I'll be by the end of 2017.

And who will you be, my amazing lionhearted friend? Where will your writing be, if you've been believing the best about yourself and your work, all through the year? And departing your old lanes like crazy, aiming at new and wonderful directions? 

Ooooh. I can't wait to find out.


PS: February, aka the month of all things love-related, is coming up in a few weeks! Which means now is the time to start planning a big date with one of the main loves of your life...

Your writing! 

Yep. It sounds cheesy when I read it too. But that's okay. It's February. Valentine's Month. Cheesy is totally allowed.

... But I'm also kinda serious, and if you want to add a big dose of love and commitment to your writing days, I've got you covered! 

Last February I did a series of daily prompts, all to help you fall deeper in love with your writing life.

YES! Yes, you. Yes, your writing life.

Wanna check it out? Here's your link buffet:

Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, and the finale

Happy writing, and happy loving how you write! 

The Strength That Supports the Others: Tending Our Commitment to Writing

If we're not committed to our writing--mentally, emotionally, and creatively--we're just not gonna go very far. How to forge a stronger commitment? Check out this list. | lucyflint.com

As we wrap up this month's series on building strength, I want to finish by digging into what might be the biggest, most vital strength of them all.

Without it, all the other strengths will eventually derail or atrophy.

I want to think a bit about what it looks like to strengthen our commitment.

YES! Our commitment to our work, our commitment to the overall shape of our writing lives, and our commitment to our own health as writers.

Right?!

Without commitment, we're anchorless.

When our enthusiasm runs dry (because it sometimes will), and our imagination is out of gas (yup, it happens), and our routines go belly-up, and our focus is shot to pieces—what is going to be the rallying force that brings everything together again? 

What's the thing that sends us looking for better answers, for new ways back into the work, for growth and freshening our skills?

What makes us discontented with our apathy, and motivated for change?

Our commitment. To ourselves, and this crazy-wonderful writing life, and our precious works-in-progress.

So basically, at the end of this Building Strength series, I just want to do a little check-in. For you, and for me. 

How's your sense of commitment lately? 

On a scale from Ugh to Obsessed!, how's your attachment to your writing life looking? Are you hovering around a Meh, or is your heart beating a little faster these days?

... Before we go much farther, I hafta say: I'm not approaching this whole commitment thing like it's something you or I have to muster up out of thin air. We can't just generate it.

We have to grow it, fertilize it, tend it carefully.

It's essentially our root system, the thing that holds us in place in our writing lives, no matter what crazy storms blow up. And when those roots grow, we grow. 

So if, in your heart of hearts, you're feeling a serious amount of Blerg toward your writing life right now, I totally hear you.

And I think that the most important thing you can do for yourself is 1) Listen to that, and 2) Start looking for ways to honestly encourage a bit more excitement.

Not fake excitement. But things that would actually nourish and guide you back to more readiness and enjoyment of your writing work.

So! To that end, here's a kind of Commitment Scan. This is what I want to check in with, and what I want to know about my own writing life right now:

Are there practices that I've forgotten about, or worthy habits that I've let slide? Are there toxic mindsets that I've somehow absorbed, or burdens I've picked up without noticing? 

Where have I been having a hard time lately with writing, and how can I swoop in there and fill those places with more creative nourishment, more genuine excitement? 

THAT is what I want to figure out today. And I'm guessing that the results ... could be rather transformational.

Let's dive in.


For starters, what does it look like to commit to your writing life, your writing project, mentally? To have your whole mind on board, committed, excited?

Here's a quick checklist on what it means for me:

  • Clearing all distractions. Yep, I know, you're already convinced: Distractions are Creative Enemy #1. And it's a sure sign for me, that when I'm letting distractions invade, I'm not really committed to whatever's going on.
     
  • Bringing the focus. High quality focus is the best way to make use of the time we have for our writing. But if I'm approaching my desk lackadaisically, the thoughts zipping through my head aren't so focused about work. They're more of a collage of everything that's been going on the past week. It takes intentional effort to narrow my thoughts, but when I do, I can start to really engage with the material I'm working on.
     
  • Rallying mental resources. When I'm fully committed, I'm ready and willing to do what the work requires. The thinking, the decision-making, the learning. This means clearing the time and space when I realize that I need to do a brainstorming session, or when I need to scout out better research material
     
  • Working on the skills that it most needs. When my work-in-progress or my writing life as a whole is telling me that I need to learn more about story structure, or character development, or I need to enrich my vocabulary: this means I put a plan in place to grow and learn those things.

Mmmmmm, that sounds good! Those are the four areas where I want to develop my mental commitment to my writing work this autumn.

How about you? Which ones stand out? Or are there other signposts of mental commitment for you? 


Next on our check-in: What does it look like to commit to our writing work and writing lives emotionally? 

  • Not sniping about it. Ever notice how our commitment, or lack thereof, leaks out of our mouths? When I'm excited about something, everyone around me knows because I will not stop talking about it. (Oh, you noticed that?) And the reverse is also true: when whining and complaining are all that's coming out of my mouth, you can tell: my heart is not on board with this. It sounds old-fashioned, but when we steer our speech a certain way, our actions follow. I wanna commit to my work by what I'm saying.
     
  • Ousting Resistance. OH yeah. Seriously, I had no idea what a huge burden Resistance had been for me, until I started consciously choosing to drop it, and to relax into the task at hand instead of maximizing its difficulty. This is one of the biggest game-changers in my emotional health lately, and it has been huge!
     
  • Practicing gratitude. For a couple of months now, I've been jotting down at least three things I'm grateful for every night before I go to sleep. It's been a really wonderful practice—a way of reframing the day, no matter how difficult it was. I'd love to get even more intentional about bringing this gratitude mindset into my writing life specifically. The Amazing Brené Brown points out in Daring Greatly that without gratitude, we can't know joy. And I don't know about you, but I want to keep bringing joy into my writing life!

Wow. YES. These are three practices that I've just started working on in general, and basically, I'd like to crank up the volume on all three this autumn. By, um, a LOT.

How about you? What's going on in your mind and heart when you're deeply committed emotionally? And how can you bring some of those practices into your writing life right now?


And then, what does it look like to commit to something creatively?

  • Showing up with your imagination. Even when your imagination is rusty, sticking with it, and trying not to just write on automatic pilot. ... Let's be real: I totally get that some days, we all just put words down instead of having a rich imaginative experience as we do. Sometimes, that's where we're at, and we're just getting through. But the more we can nourish our imagination and bring it fully into the game, the richer our commitment is going to be. And then everything gets better. ... More on that next week!
     
  • Nurturing your creativity in every way. We owe it to ourselves and our work to be growing creatively. Even when, and perhaps especially when, off the clock. Being creatively committed means that we're always putting ourselves in the path of inspiration. Going on those artist dates, reading widely, and learning about more things than just writing. (Again, more on this next week!)
     
  • Staying alert to obstacles. When our creativity is gasping, that's an important warning sign. And keeping our creative commitment tuned up means that we take those warning signs super seriously. They give us the essential chance to ask: what's not serving the work, what is getting in the way, what's not working? And then, commitment means we reach for our courage, and go find the answers to those hard questions. (Um: yep, more on this next week.)
     
  • Staying in touch with wonder and curiosity. One of the best ways to keep our creative commitment healthy and thriving is to always be seeking wonder, always be awake to our curiosities. Whether they overlap with the work at hand or not, we have to keep in touch with those things that get us excited, that make us lean in. Our creativity depends on it. (Pssst. Next week. Yep.)

This section, even more than the others, is what's got my attention right now. This is where I need the most work, the most time, and the most relentless self-compassion. Mmmm! But good things are coming, my friends. 

How about you? How's your creative commitment these days?

Does your imagination feel nourished, or slightly starved? Is it full of good nutrients, or has it been binging on junk food a leetle too long, and that's starting to show a tiny bit?

How can you nurture it like crazy this weekend? Can you grab an hour or two for a fabulous little artist date? And what are the topics that give you that zing of excited curiosity? Can you go chase after one for a while this week?


If you've been hanging out on this blog for a while, you probably know by now: I have ZERO interest in being an incredibly prolific writer at the cost of my health (whether that's physical, emotional, or any other kind of health we can think of!).

Nope. Not doing it.

So, as you and I think through all those questions above, let's also ask this: What does it look like to be committed to your own health?

  • Physically, this means sleeping, getting those veggies (my two favorite cooking blogs, if you need veg inspiration, are this one and that one), drinking plenty of water (let's do it like this!), and seeking fun ways to move throughout the day.
     
  • Creatively, this means pursuing non-writing hobbies. SO important. And it also means making your environment—where you live, where you sleep, and especially where you work!—pleasing and inspiring and yummy in every possible way.
     
  • And then emotionally. This means pouring truth into yourself, healing old scars, surrounding yourself with positive people. This especially means that you remind yourself over and over, that you are not your work. You are WAY more valuable than whatever it is that you do each day. This is essential to know no matter what, whether the writing is going well or poorly. 

I keep coming back to this over and over, because if there's one thing that my writing life has taught me, it's this: if the writer isn't doing well, her writing's going to suffer. A lot. 

And it becomes this horrible little spiral of suffering that does no good and also doesn't write a lot of books.

SO. What's one way that you want to commit more deeply to your own health and well-being? How can you make sure that you're getting the support and fuel you need, so that you're strong enough to commit to your writing work?


Welp, I'M all excited. I hope that those questions helped stir some ideas for you.

Where do you most want to start? What little practice could you add in this weekend, and work on next week, that would strengthen your commitment to your work, your healthy writing life, and your amazing lionhearted self?

(And if you're looking for a few more ideas about this kind of thing, check out The Enormous Virtue of Showing Up, and Finding the Energy to See Our Writing Through. They'll be right up your alley!)

Here's to more health, excitement, vitality, and commitment this autumn.

Dealing With Our Kryptonite: Recognizing and Overturning Writing Life Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

WOW. So, you feeling those muscles yet?

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

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

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

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

Skipping breaks.

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

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

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

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

This is a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Overthinking.

Overthinking has been my lifelong nemesis.

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

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

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

Obviously, there are times for deep deliberation.

Equally obvious: Not EVERY time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. It gets ugly.

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

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

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

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

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

She sums it up by saying,

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

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

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

Cameron adds,

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

I love that straightforwardness. Yes!

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

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


Treating myself harshly.

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

This can be hard, hard, hard to shake.

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

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

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

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

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

So that's half of the battle.

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

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

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

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

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

SO HELPFUL those monkeys, aren't they?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, this has been huge.

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

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

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

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

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

This little sequence has been a game changer! 

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

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


Resistance.

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

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

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

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

He goes on, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know. That sounds simplistic.

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

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

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

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

So I'll get rid of you.

And I'll stop resisting the task.

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

So, try it. Identify your real enemy.

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

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

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

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

And then see if that makes a difference.

The Key To Everything Is a Crazy Amount of Focus.

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

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

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

Focus. It's a big deal.

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

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

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

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

Where do we begin?

1) Develop a deep work ritual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport says,

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

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

Let's not do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport defines shallow work like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Doesn't that give you shivers?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both are important, no question.

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

How much time per week should we spend doing each?

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

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

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

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

Make sense? 

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

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

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

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

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

And you pretend it's all in fun.

Nope. Not okay anymore, Distraction.

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

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

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

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

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

Ya gotta go.


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

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

Near the book's conclusion, he says,

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

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

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

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

This is rocket fuel, in other words. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woo! I'm getting chills.

So I'm on board with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all want high quality writing, yes? 

So this is our next thing to learn.

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

Eye-opening, and oh-so helpful.

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

He has this equation that I just loved: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book is for you.

It's for all of us.

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

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

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

Definitions first. Newport defines deep work as: 

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

What does that mean for all of us writers?

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

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

So that's why it's seriously important.

Deep work means that you're writing valuable things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep work is worth pursuing.

... But then we hit a few snags.

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

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

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

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

And we're gonna have to change some things.

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

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

Yikes.

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

And ... it gets worse:

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

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

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

And attention residue can last for ten to twenty minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is going to take training.

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

For serious.

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

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

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

Why is it so important to know this?

Because the breakthroughs are on the other side of perseverance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He points out,

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

That resistance? Super important. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, it means:

Sounds simple, right? 

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

Yes, really.

And here's why that's so cool:

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

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

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

Newport says it like this: 

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

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

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

What does the unconscious do? Newport continues:

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

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

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

You too, right?

Let that sink in for a second.

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

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

Your unconscious mind is your hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says, 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Which, honestly, is super empowering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um, a lot of time. 

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

Shake it off eventually. And then repeat.

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

But not so much fun.

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously. Sustainability = yum.

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

Know what I mean? 

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

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

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

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

Yikes, right? 

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

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

1: We are continually & constantly refilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here's what I've been doing: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You already knew this, right? 

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

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

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

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

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

Not worth it.

Let's not go into energy debt.

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

Track your pennies for a while.

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

What are the activities that seem to mostly drain you? 

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

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

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

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

And what kinds of things are more exhausting than others? 

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

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

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

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

Vision is good. It's so important. 

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

Absolutely.

AND YET.

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

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

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

I panic. How long is this gonna take? 

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

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

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

Instead of just focusing on the very next thing

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

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

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

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

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

This. Is. Hard.

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

Know the feeling? 

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

Yep, panic.

Let's not do that, my friends.

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

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

That next step is our very best friend.

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

That's glamorous enough for me.


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

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

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

Steadiness and sustainability sound a lot more lovely.

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

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

So, where are you at, today? 

Can you take a few minutes and do three things: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know what I mean?

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

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

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

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

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

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

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

Imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No bueno.

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

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

So ...

So, how do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT.

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

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

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

Be. In. The. Scene.

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

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

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

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

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

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

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

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

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

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

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

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

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

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

1. Be willing to move slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

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

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

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

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

Right? 

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

But it's still worth it.

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

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

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

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

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

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes: 

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

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

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

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

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