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.

This Is Gonna Ruffle Some Feathers, But: Discipline Doesn't Belong At The Center Of My Writing Life Anymore

There's something stronger, wiser, more powerful, and more reliable than discipline. I know, I know--it's a switch for me, too. But it definitely works. | lucyflint.com

Here is the truth of where I'm at.

It's a painfully familiar scene. I'm looking down at the white sheet that's draped over my work-that-used-to-be-in-progress. It's lying on a metal table with a tag around its toe, and I'm trying to nerve myself to make the decision. 

Do I resurrect this thing? Or stick it in a drawer and walk away? Or just get on with the autopsy? 

After a draining summer, I don't have much creative energy. My mind hasn't been in my work—which is the whole reason why I'm even at this table. So my general exhaustion wants to vote hard for the walk away.

But my heart and my gut are agreed: I love this story to death and back, and so resurrection it is. 

And here's where things get tricky. Here's where my fledgling Artist's Way instincts face a big challenge.

Because, like I said, this is painfully familiar: I've done this before. I've zapped projects to life again. I've brought them back from the grave. And I have a method for this kind of tricky operation. 

It's a three-step process. 

1) Send my brain into overdrive. Think incredibly hard. 

2) Make an enormous list that covers every single aspect of bringing the project back to life and from there, to completion. Reread it and add even more list items. Leave no cracks.

3) Proceed to work through the list.

I have a very deep love of this method.

It's so sleek and shiny and disciplined. It's like a perfect ladder back into the heart of my work: I look at each item like it's a rung on that ladder. If I put my feet on each one, I'll get to the top!

THIS LIST WILL SAVE ME.

It's proofed against all whims, all moods.

Come rain, come shine, come high water, hell, or handbaskets: this list marches on.

... That's what I think. That is the grand seduction of the perfect list.

And then, when I'm at the third item on the 200-item list (or maybe, if I'm really cruising, when I'm at the seventh one), something comes along and unsettles me.

Intuition floats over to my desk and says in its low lovely voice, "Actually, there's a better way."

"Ack!" I cry. I bat it away.

I have to stick to this course, right? If I take my eyes off the list, then all my moods and whims will come along and sweep me into a Neverland of Netflix and ice cream and sweat pants. The book will suffocate! I'll disappear into mindless oblivion!

I stick to my task list. I grind through the next item or two.

But intuition is persistent. She tugs at me and whispers at me, and when I finally listen, I do so by overhauling my list and creating a new one, now going in a slightly different direction.

All while railing at myself for being so wishy-washy, so unfocused, so undisciplined.

We repeat this extremely awkward and uncomfortable and grumpy dance step a few times, jerking and stumbling toward the next draft of the now resurrected (if slightly confused) work-in-progress.

And that, my friends, has been my usual process.

That's what I know to do. That's what has somehow gotten my fingers moving over the keyboard again.

But—shockingly—that's not the course that Julia Cameron recommends.

And if The Artist's Way has been right about so many other things... I've gotta believe that she's right about this, too. 

Which means that this resurrection sequence is going to have to go a little differently. (Eeep!)

The Force that Trumps Discipline

It's funny, looking back on it, to realize that I trusted in my lists so hard.

Even though I've never made it through one, even though I've never even made it to the halfway mark—there's still this drive in me to make them. 

The course that Cameron advocates is, surprise surprise, something much more kind, squishy, and weirdly enough, more reliable.

I believe in it. I'm just super new at practicing it. So it still feels a little shaky under my feet.

Here's how she says it: 

As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. ... The part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower. ... Our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond. 

WHAT.

She goes on in this essay to recommend the following as replacements for discipline: enthusiasm, "a loving surrender to our creative process," play, joy, "love of secret adventure," a play date, goofing around, play, fun, play, fun, play, and joy. 

Yes. I repeated the words a bunch. But I need to get that mindset into my head. (Plus, she says play and fun a lot in her essay. I'm learning from the best.)

When you're as much of a strict (if hapless) devotee of discipline as I am, this is downright alarming.

Never mind that my experience lines up with what she's saying.

Never mind that I've loved my work most and come to it most happily when it felt like playing.

Pfft. Play? Enthusiasm?! It's not dependable, right?

Nothing is dependable except a bunch of numbers with a bunch of concrete tasks next to them. With action verbs in front. (I'm so good at those action verbs.)

... For the record, she is not saying, "only come to your work when you feel like it." Not at all. She's very clear throughout the book that we make time to work regularly. 

I think that what she's saying here, more than anything, is that it's not our schedule or our sense of what should happen that brings us to our desk.

It's our well-stoked love and sense of play and excitement about the work. That is what magnetizes us to the creative process.

So, if anything, the thing that we should be "disciplined" about is putting ourselves into the flow of that play. That joy. That sense of fun.

We make that our focus. And then we pay attention to see what would be fun and joyful to do next.

So what am I doing about that project of mine on the metal table?

Yeah. I did it anyway. I made a list. 

But it's a really really short list.

Of half a dozen things that would entice my heart back into the work. Of things that feel like playing and might even be, dare I say it, FUN to do. 

Each entry on this teeny little list sends my discipline-devoted brain into shudders. 

Because—real talk, y'all—I DREW HEARTS ON MY LIST.

I wrote the word love on it in big loopy letters. I used other words like doodle, bloom, dream.

And I'm even audaciously balancing these list items with time that I've blocked off for "refilling the well."

I'm buying new markers for my coloring book. (I love this one, if you want a recommendation.) I'm choosing some parks in my area for nature walks. I'm looking for recipes that call for a lot of "mindless" chopping.

Not gonna lie: This is challenging, my friends. It feels so weird to prioritize joy in my process. 

But I can also see the logic of it, the truth of it.

When I'm in love with my book, I dream it up almost without effort. I can drop right into flow when I'm drafting.

I see it on the backs of my eyelids when I'm supposed to sleep. I come up with new paragraphs of dialogue in the shower. 

When I love my work, I see it everywhere. And it absolutely lights me up.

So why should I suppose that a cold, heartless list of businesslike action verbs will bring me back into that state? 

My short little resurrection list is built for joy. For resuscitating not the project but my heart's connection to the project. 

And in spite of my nerves, I'm incredibly excited. Kind of giddy, really. Because it sounds really fun!

And actually...

Actually I'm going to just go dive into that. Because I can hear my book calling me. Gotta go.

How about you, my lionhearted friend? What does it look like, to stoke your own sense of joy and enthusiasm and play?

What if that lovely trio is what beckons you back to a regular writing practice? What if we send discipline to the sidelines, and instead trust that joy will be a better, more reliable motivator?

I know. It's scary. But it also might be the game changer you were looking for.