You Know That Voice That Says You Can't Write? Today We Take It Down.

There's that voice in our heads that says we're not good enough to be writers, or who do we think we are to try big things. The good news? That voice has a definite source, and we can learn how to take it down. A better internal message starts right here. |

You know that feeling of being hit between the eyes when you read something: hearing your own life in someone else's words? 

For me, it was equal parts electrifying and clarifying, when I read this in The Artist's Way:

If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art will be fraught with internal shaming.

WHOA, I thought. That sounds ... eerily familiar.

I kept reading: 

Many artists begin a piece of work, get well along in it, and then find, as they near completion, that the work seems mysteriously drained of merit. It's no longer worth the trouble.

How did Julia Cameron know what I'd been doing with my writing projects for so long? How was she so dang accurate??

I felt stunned, glued to the page. And she didn't let up:

Often we are wrongly shamed as creatives. From this shaming we learn that we are wrong to create. Once we learn this lesson, we forget it instantly. Buried under it doesn't matter, the shame lives on, waiting to attach itself to our new efforts. The very act of attempting to make art creates shame.

This is the part when I put the book down and staggered around my house, saying, "Everything makes sense now!!"

And this is when my sister told me about Brené Brown's work on shame and I began devouring everything I could find about it. 

Because those paragraphs were talking about me. My childhood.

And the mega-frustrating cycle that had trapped me, one work-in-progress after another. 

Each project seemed to blow up in my face, just as I got to the halfway point. And I went back to the drawing board, convinced down to my toes that I needed forty more skills (and at least five more how-to books) to write the work in question.

I thought I was the problem—too skittish, too perfectionistic, too lazy, or just too stupid. I couldn't tell: one of them, or maybe all four. 

Whatever the root cause, I was getting really, really tired of people asking me, "when will your book be done," and my falsely cheerful reply, "Not sure, but thanks for asking!"

But now, thanks to Julia Cameron, I had a way in. There was some shame lurking in my past, something that I'd buried deep. And somehow that was part of this problem.

And thanks to Brené Brown, I could figure out what to do next.

... And since I know I'm not the only one dealing with this stuff, let's talk it through.

Let's have a little heart-to-heart about shame in our writing lives.

Brené Brown says that shame (she calls it "the gremlins") has two main messages. It's the ugly voice in our heads that says, "You're not enough."

And it's other main message is, "Who do you think you are?"

MEAN, isn't it?! Ack! And if I'm having a slightly off day at the writing desk, that's what I get in my head.

How about you? Any of that sound familiar? 

If I'm not careful, I can hear that whining, nagging voice start up:

Your book isn't good enough, interesting enough, important enough. Your characters are flat and foolish and your dialogue is all dumb. The settings are cardboard. You're not good enough at social media. Your website is super dull and basic and you keep saying you're going to fix that and then you don't. There are a thousand things you could be better at right now. You'll never...

And on and on and on.

It boils down to this: Lucy? A writer? Pah. She's not good enough to pull that off.

On the other hand, if I'm doing okay, and if I'm working on the plans for revision and educating myself about the publishing process, then the other voice starts up.

Oh? Oh really? Publishing, hmm? You were a boring kid, a boring teenager, and a boring college student. If you ever had talent, it's definitely gone by now. Why would anyone want to hear what you have to say? Who do you think you are?

... Is that familiar to you at all? 

Let's all take a moment to blow a loud blast on the airhorn of clarity. Because this, my friends, is not the voice of truth (though we TREAT it that way!).

It's the voice of shame.

Which is why I am steeping myself in the book Daring Greatly. Because Brené Brown is talking all about a process she calls shame resilience. 

This is the process by which we can encounter shame, deal with it, and, as she puts it, "come out on the other side ... with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it." 

Whew!! That sounds amazing to me.

Okay. Field trip: Take two minutes and check out this lightning-quick video on how to combat shame. (If you'd like a more thorough description of how to move through shame, with an example, check out this great article on Brené Brown's blog as well.)

Shame resilience. I love those steps. I am super new to this process, but I'm learning and practicing it, one baby step at a time.

Let's go through them:

Understand what triggers shame for you. And reality check those messages of shame.

What are the gremlins saying in that moment? What are they telling you you should be?

And then, is that message even true? Are those values your values? Does this even apply to you?

Stare very hard at the voice, the message, and say: Is this legit?

I love this next one. She puts it beautifully in the book. She says in the midst of a shame attack, she needs to:

"Talk to myself in the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I'm trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown."

I love that. I love that. 

We would NOT say: You're right! You're a really boring person! And you're terrible at writing! These paragraphs are a mess! Have you ever heard of topic sentences?! 

What would we say instead? 

Think of who that is. Who brings out your tenderness, your compassion? Who would you never be harsh with?

What would you say to that person in this situation? 

I'm imagining my oldest niece, coming to me and saying that she feels like she's a bad writer, that she'll never be any good, that she has no talent.

And I can feel all my righteous aunt-ness rising up in me: Drafts are supposed to be messy, darling! They're supposed to be imperfect. You are doing wonderfully. Let's take it step by step. 

Use those same words you'd give to someone you love. Use that kind, compassionate tone. Use them on yourself, in the face of the gremlins.

Tell your story. Connect. Reach out. Own your story.

She makes the very good point that you share your story with someone who has earned the right to hear it. Not someone who will shame you further, mock you, or use it against you. So, wisdom is definitely called for here.

But I love how she describes owning our stories in Daring Greatly:

Don't bury it and let it fester. ... I often say this aloud: "If you own this story you get to write the ending." ... When we bury the story we forever stay the subject of the story. If we own the story we get to narrate the ending. As Carl Jung said, "I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become." 


Okay, friends. How are you feeling? Is this hitting a chord?

As I dove into learning about shame, I also started excavating my past. Digging up the dirt, looking around, scouring the area for any hidden messages, any gremlin outposts.

And it's been incredible. SO freeing. So clarifying. And I'm learning to have so much grace for myself.

I processed old stories out loud with my Brené-Brown-loving sister. Then I journaled about them and dug even deeper.

I'm learning that basically anything in my work can operate as a shame trigger: quality of writing, genre I'm working in. Productivity, networking skills, habits. 

It's pretty clear: the gremlins loooove to get their hands on anything to do with my work, and to hold me to a perfectionistic, unreachable standard.

It seems like their favorite thing to do is keep me quiet. I've mostly snuck past them with this whole blog thing (yay!), but when it comes to the novels, they dig their claws in deep.

They are sending me a very clear message, and lately I've realized that it's linked to one particular episode from kidhood.

And because I would love to blow the gremlins up (and also because this is a perfect example of how buried shame messes with us), I'm going to dive into this a little bit.

Do you mind coming along with me? I want to own this brief, but long-festering story from my past:

It was fifth grade. My school's administration was really trying its best, I'm sure, and it didn't know it was consigning me to a special little hell...

But when the standardized tests came back and said I was "gifted" (sounds like something out of dystopian YA, yes?), I got to leave class once a week and hop on a bus with a handful of other "gifted" kids, and go to another elementary school, where we could, apparently, all be gifted together.

There were about nine of us on the bus, and I was the only girl. One week, we were supposed to bring our rulers with us.

And I don't remember provoking anything (because I'd already learned to be mouse-quiet). 

But for some reason, the boys spent our trip slapping me hard with their metal-edged rulers. All of them. Against mouse-me, in the back of the bus. 

Eight versus one—I didn't even try to fight back. Instead, I did what I knew to do: I tried to hide.

I wedged myself between the hump of the wheel well and the overhang of the seat, so that they'd have less of me to hit. And then I literally just rode it out, protecting myself as best I could.

When we got to the school, they filed out and I tried to get up. But fear had done its work, and I was snugged in there pretty tight. 

In my memory, it takes a shame-filled eternity, but it probably only took a few moments to wiggle my way free.

(What the heck was the bus driver doing all this time?? I'd like to time travel back and tell him to get with the program. Ahem.)

I went into the school feeling very shaken, foolish, and ashamed somehow.

I didn't tell my teachers. I didn't say anything to the boys. I didn't tell friends. 

I tried to pretend it hadn't happened.

I wasn't bruised or cut. So I just sat and learned about whales and nautical charts and used my ruler to work on my map. And then we rode back home.

No big deal.

But it was a really big deal.

There were no marks on me, but I had changed that day. And I received the message, loud and clear: Your gifts are not wanted.

And: This is what happens to gifted girls.

... And that is why, when I read Cameron's words about learning that we are wrong to create, and forgetting it instantly, and saying "it doesn't matter," I heard my own voice. Saw my own story.

That's the same message I hear in myself, halfway through every novel project. When I suddenly feel stricken, exposed: I'm an idiot, what was I thinking, why am I doing this, no one wants to hear this kind of story! 

All the encouragement I've received over the years boils away to nothing, and I'm still that fifth grade girl, alarmed at something she doesn't know how to fix, ashamed of gifts and creativity that somehow make her unworthy.

Well, GEEZ. No wonder it's hard to get things done around here!!

So, this is what I love about shame resilience: I get to own this story. 

This is me. I am that girl in the ruler story. And I'm also this woman typing.

There is more to my story than that one day, that long-internalized message. And I'm going to write the ending to that ruler story by continuing my work. 

By publishing a trilogy that puts evil in its place and gives an eleven-year-old girl a voice and the courage to fight back.

Antidotes and Cures.

I'm not sharing that story as a ploy to receive hugs. I'm sharing it because Brené Brown has convinced me of a few things.

So I wanted to talk about the bus and the rulers because I want to speak my shame story—to pull it out of the dark and let it wither in the beautiful sunlight.

But also because of the power of empathy.

Empathy is the thing that says, You are not alone

And I know I'm not the only person that this has happened to. Maybe it wasn't rulers on a bus. Maybe it wasn't eight against one. 

But I know that there are stories out there like this one, that sent the same message. A message that shows up right when you most need to believe in yourself, and find that you suddenly can't. 

I want to reach out to the others who were told to shut up.

I want to send up a flare for the people who got really, really good at being silent, at hiding, at escaping notice.

I want to connect with the people who found out that gifts get you hurt, and it's safer to hide them. 

I want to look you all in the face and say, I have been there, I have cried those tears, and you, my friends, are not alone

I love Daring Greatly and Dr. Brown's other work because she shows that there are tools we can use. There is a proven process. There are resources.

We can learn how to do this!! We can learn to speak to ourselves with love and self-compassion. To practice authenticity.

So, raise your hand, wherever you are, if you've encountered shame in the midst of your writing life. If there's something in your head saying that you're not good enough, or fill-in-the-blank enough.

Raise your hand if you've ever heard in your head, Who do you think you are, to write a tweet, a blog, a novel? Who do you think you are, to share your voice, to write from your perspective?

Who do you think you are, to say anything to anyone at all?

This is when we remember our steps. When we practice them, like the new and special dance they are:

Talk to yourself like you are someone that you dearly love.

Reach out to someone you trust. 

Speak your shame. Tell—and own!—your story, so that you can write the ending.

In Daring Greatly, she gives this great example of how we can talk back to shame. She writes:

Shame whispers in the ear of the woman who's out of town on business, "You're not a good mother because you're going to miss your son's class play."
     She replies, "I hear you, but I'm not playing that tape today. My mothering is way bigger than one class performance. You can leave now."

I freaking LOVE that.

And so I'm practicing.

I'm trying to catch that smothering sensation when it comes, that feeling that silence and hiding are the only things that can keep me safe. Because who am I, to dare to have a voice?

And I'm saying, "Shame, I hear you. But I'm not playing that tape today. I'm choosing courage as a value. Courage is even more important to me than the suffocating safety you're offering. And that means I'm showing up and speaking up. You can go now."

... I may or may not seal that with a little heck-yes dance move.

What's your version? What can you say back, when that nasty gremlin voice shows up? 

What can remind you of self-love and self-compassion? What can bring you back to authenticity?

Who do you trust to tell your shame stories to? And what old stories is it time for you to own?

This is a tough battle, my friends. But it's one that we can (and must!) learn to win.

Because the gremlins are lying. Because we really are enough, just as we are. Because we all have voices and stories that need to be heard, to be written, to be read.

Don't let shame silence you.

WHEW. Yep, I just spilled my guts all over a webpage again.

But seriously: thank you for being a place where I can be real, authentic, and honest, even when I'm typing with shaking fingers.

You lionhearts are amazing folk, with sturdy courageous hearts, and a willingness to grow, and I LOVE that in you. You inspire me.

Thank you for listening, for hanging with me.

Because, geez, what was I thinking with this blog series?! Why didn't I pick something a little less rough on all of us?

Maybe our next series should be about, I don't know, cloud gazing. Doesn't that sound lovely? Mmm. :)

Responding To That Insidious Lie People Still Tell About Fiction

I keep meeting people who believe this. You probably meet them too. What to say, what to remember, when someone tells you fiction doesn't matter. |

So, HERE'S some good news. The more I throw myself into reading these novels, the more I want to keep reading. 

It's that lovely truth: You can re-develop a taste for good things. It happens to me when I start drinking more water, eating more veggies, exercising steadily, or, for the past couple of weeks, falling headlong into one marvelous story after another. 

So, if like me, you've been away from fiction for a while, I hope this is encouraging!

The more I practice giving myself permission, and the more that I start my day with reading, the easier it gets to keep going. 


I'm a good two-thirds the way through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Oh, I love a good fairytale retelling!

There's always that delight of seeing how your expectations are handled—which events feel familiar, which ones are stood on their heads, or fleshed out in completely unusual ways... Mmmm.

It also reminds me of my struggles with the first novel that I seriously tried to write. For five years, I beat my head against an ever-expanding saga that I invented around the story of—brace yourself—The Princess and the Pea. 

More specifically, it reminds me of how hard it was to talk about the fact that I was writing a fairytale retelling.

All those conversations with the skeptical people who asked, "So what are you writing about?"

And I would perform whatever linguistic contortions I could to avoid saying, "Uh, there's a princess and a curse and an impossible test and the threat of madness and a huge journey and interactive memories and definitely a love interest and a fair amount of violence? Can we talk about something else?" 

I'm having better luck now, talking about my current work-in-progress. In part because I've learned my lesson, and I'm making sure that I love what I'm writing about

But also, I believe even more in the power of fiction. 

Any kind of fiction.

So "even though" I'm writing about an eleven-year-old girl going on an incredible, fantastical adventure in another world, with a crazy cast of characters and daunting challenges and mysterious spiders and possibly telepathic lizards and brain washing and aristocratic assassins...

I'm much more certain of its importance.

This book matters. I'm sure of it.

But some people don't really get how valuable fiction is.

Have you noticed this? Have you run into these people before?

The ones who will state—loudly and with a kind of bravado—"Oh, I don't READ FICTION."

Not in the contrite, confessional, okay I'm burnt out and what do I do about that kind of way. Or even the, I just can't seem to get to it lately way. Or the ones who say, I haven't found an author that really grips me yet. 

I get all that. That's totally fine with me.

I'm talking about the people who are essentially saying, "I don't need such fantasies to survive, thank you very much." 

It's smug. There's this belittling tone. As if they could say, "You poor children and your silly stories." 

In other words: Fiction is worthless.

When confronted with this attitude, I used to scramble for a response, feeling vaguely ashamed of myself, trying to find the scraps of my dignity.

As if I'd just invited someone to watch my homemade puppet show, only to receive a scathing response.

Or as if I'd just made a public announcement that I was, in fact, an idiot. 

Now I see it very differently.

And I've settled on a new reply.

So the last time someone told me, with a very superior grin, "Oh, I don't READ fiction. I've NEVER read a novel," I just took a deep breath, looked at him with all the pity I could muster, and said,

"I am so, so sorry to hear that."

As if he just announced that he'd had an amputation.

Because that's how I feel about it.

People who cheerfully choose to avoid all novels are literally cutting themselves off from a certain kind of understanding. Of a way to see other people, a way to connect.

Novels get to a place that movies and most non-fiction can't quite reachBecause there's an intimacy in fiction, an immediateness.

You see the characters' minds plainly, you hear their motivations, you're right up close to their struggles.

I think that what this man wanted me to say was: "Oh, wow, so you're not as frivolous as the rest of us, we who fill our heads with dumb lies. Good job, you superior person, you!"

Instead, I saw someone who was brittle and maybe even a bit scared.

Someone who didn't want to risk all the emotions and connections that happen when we put ourselves into the flow of stories, into novels. 

Someone who has no idea what he's missing. Or who he might be, if he let a stellar novel get under his skin.

I've mentioned a few times that I've been reading Brené Brown's amazing work. If you're familiar with her at all, you know how much she talks about the power of empathy.

Empathy—the statement that you are not alone

She's totally opened my eyes to how we need connection to other people. How we need to treat ourselves with compassion. How we need courage to live a Wholehearted life.

Guess what.

When we read novels, we get a sense of how other people share our struggles.

Have you had that incredibly powerful feeling, when you're reading a novel, and the main character experiences something similar to what you've gone through?

Whether it's an event, or a subtle feeling, or even a line of dialogue that you've said before: There's that shock of recognition, right?

Like you've suddenly caught your face's reflection in an unexpected mirror.

You are not alone.

Whew! That is powerful.

Novels have a unique ability to get in close to us, to wait until our guard is down, and then to say those life-giving words:

You're not alone. Someone else has been there. This writer gets it.

And then—there's a chance for a conversation. Maybe with the writer. Maybe with other people who have read it.

Suddenly there's connection, there's courage, and there's hope.

Maybe something that was shameful is now brought into the light where it can heal. And maybe there's some good self-compassion, as you realize that you're not the only one struggling. As you accept who you are and where you've been.

Dang it, I get all excited just thinking about this!! 

And as a writer, this is incredibly motivating to me.

I want to be honest in the story I'm writing.

I don't want to shrink from telling the truth about what it feels like: to risk big, to worry about your family, to face danger. To hope for change, to face day after day when you don't know what will happen, to heal broken relationships.

Besides. I owe fiction a debt. 

As an incredibly lonely kid, I saw people like me in books, even when I couldn't find them at my church or my school.

That sustained me during some really hard years. It helped me trust that there were other kids who felt like me, who understood me, who had been where I was.

Who survived

Like I said, that's powerful.

It makes me wonder, what is fiction about, anyway, if not connection? 

And are any of us actually above the need to be connected to one another? Above the need to belong?

Spoiler alert: Nope. Brené Brown is a very smart woman, and she says that the data says that we all need these things.

No one is exempt from this stuff. From these needs.

Which is why I'm convinced that to intentionally snub fiction is a sad, sad thing. An emotional amputation.

Let's not make the mistake of undervaluing the incredible novels that we read and write.

Instead, let's celebrate how they connect us, challenge us, and empathize with us. 

And if you're spending your time writing such things, good for you. It is a vital gift to other people. 

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't let the smug fiction-abstainers get you down.

Keep going.

Who knows who you might be giving courage to with your words? 

What about you? Have you seen yourself in fiction before? Have you had that shock of recognition, that sense of being understood? 

And have you run into people that don't seem to understand the value of fiction? What do you say to them?

The Secret Weapon: Why You Really Don't Need to Talk about Your Writing Yet

There's the courage to do the work, and then there's the courage to *talk* about the work. Let's not get those confused. |

I'm about to make a lot of high achievers really, really mad at me. Because I'm going to go right against one of the most common tips on reaching your goals. (Something about Mondays. I always get rebellious.

On just about every "How to Set a Goal" article flying around the Internet, you'll see this tip: Make your goal public. 

Find a group of likeminded people. Get someone to hold you accountable. Post about your progress. Get others on board.

I don't have a problem with that in general, okay? I promise. So if you love the whole "be accountable" thing, then go for it.

But here's my counterargument. 

Sometimes, we might have just barely enough courage to do the New Difficult Thing, whatever that is. 

And maybe there's not quite enough courage left over to tell other people about it. To hear their comments mid-process. To check in with them. To let them challenge you. 

Oooh, I have SUCH a good solution for this problem. You ready? 


I mean it. Don't tell anyone!!

Start your crazy new project and keep absolutely quiet about it. Do your writing on the sly. Scribble away furtively in your closet. 

No one has to know about it right now.

That wonderful secretive silence gives the new idea some safe room to rattle around in your head. It gives you time to freewrite about it, explore the possibilities, refine your thoughts, and even play a bit.

At some point, you can definitely get other eyes and ears on the idea. Eventually, you can run a later draft past a few people.

But not yet. Not while it's soft; not while it's growing.

I'm convinced that there's more than one kind of courage at work in our writing lives. And it trips us up if we think that they're all the same, all the time. 

Don't confuse the bravery of doing the New Difficult Thing with the bravery of Telling People About It. 

You really don't have to be ready to tell people what you're up to at the same time that you are up to it

So, if you're feeling overwhelmed and not brave enough to do a goal that you'd really like to go after: I give you permission to zip it. Don't say anything. Keep it a secret.

What you might find is that secret keeping generates its own energy, and—what's really cool—its own bravery.

When I'm working on a story that no one else knows about, I feel like I've gotten back to the absolute heart of my writing: telling myself a story. Just for the heck of it. Just for the thrill of the tale.

That is a wonderfully exciting, pure, and yes, courageous place to work from. 

So don't feel like you need to muddy it by talking about it too soon. 

Keep it a secret for as long as you can manage. You'll be building your bravery as you develop your relationship with the project. You might be able to hear it more clearly, and work on it with more boldness.

And then, when the timing is right, you might find that you're actually ready to tell someone.

You were building the courage to speak up all along.

How to Survive Writing Life Culture Shock

If you're having a hard time adjusting to this crazy writing life, you're not alone!! You have culture shock. Here's what to do. |

When you dive into the writing life--especially if you're going full tilt, full time--you might experience culture shock. And frankly, it might be severe.

Wait a sec, you might be thinking. Isn't this taking the whole "travel" metaphor a bit far?


When I was in college, I spent a semester studying in England. We were prepped with a discussion or two on culture shock before we left. 

Okay. Things will be different, I thought. So I went with my teeth gritted a bit, expecting to enjoy my host country, but also to face a bit of culture shock as well.

Guess what. I had absolutely NO culture shock symptoms at all. I wanted to stay there forever. (Sniff. I love you, England.)

But fast forward to, oh, about 24 hours after college graduation: I developed a major case of culture shock. Which lasted about seven years.

Learning to check my instincts before crossing a road was SO EASY compared to navigating the full time novelist's life!

Culture shock + the writing life. Let's talk about it. 

I love this description of culture shock, from the University of North Carolina - Greensboro. (Not my college, but they do an awesome job of discussing symptoms and adjustment.) 

They define culture shock as "the way you react and feel when the cultural cues you know so well from home are lacking."

What do you think, lionhearted writer? Did your cultural cues shift when you started the writing life?

All the things that made sense in your normal job, or in school--when they disappeared and were replaced by the writing life's cues... how did that go for you?

I found that I was desperate for a syllabus. I wanted someone else to have a plan for my writing life. I missed feedback at every step of the way--from fellow students, from professors.

And I couldn't figure out why working all day and night was burning me out instead of getting stuff done. The harder I pushed, the worse things got.

Here's what I found: All the skills I had developed to do really awesome work in school were the exact skills that set me up to do really badly as a full time novel writer. 


So did I get some major culture shock? Yup. 

And not just metaphorically. I had the symptoms

Check out that list on the U of NC page: I developed a BUNCH of them as a full time writer!

This is a little embarrassing, but seriously, I checked pretty strong on: tiredness, irritability, depression, crying for no reason, homesickness, and (ahem) hostility toward host nationals. (I hated hearing about other writers doing well. Like I said: embarrassing.)

I have finally crossed through that stage, but I think I could have passed through it much MUCH faster if I realized what the heck I was dealing with. I could have learned to adapt, I could have thought like an expat, instead of just fighting it all.

I love the tips for coping on that study abroad link. Seriously, these are GREAT for writers. Let's translate them into writer-speak:

Learn as much as possible about the writing life. 

Not just the writing craft, but the writing LIFE.

That's a huge part of why I have this blog in the first place: because all the books on craft weren't helping me get better.

It was only when I learned more and more about how other writers  survived, how other writers tick, how other writers navigate productivity and creativity... only then did I start to calm down, and figure this stuff out.

So what can you do?

  • Read writer's memoirs! Books about how other writers deal with this funny writing life. (The Writer's Desk is a gorgeous and very pick-up-able intro to the writing life.)
  • Gulp down interviews with other writers. (The website Writer Unboxed has an incredible archive of interviews. Read 'em all!!)
  • I will crawl over shards of glass to hand any writer a copy of Page after Page or Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers. More than any other books, these helped explain to me what it feels like to be a writer. 

Find logical reasons for the cultural differences.

So, the writing life doesn't look like a bunch of other kinds of lives.

It is not the same thing as a full time student life. Or full time work with a boss and clear instructions. Okay? 

If you've only ever been a student, or if you've only ever worked with fairly clear guidelines--you might feel like your identity has gone all shaky on you. 

You might feel like you've been tossed in a lake with a pen and paper. (And if so, yup, that's right on track.)

It's a fluid kind of life, with room for creativity and curiosity. You learn how much discipline you need, and how to keep discipline from choking creativity. (And creativity from choking discipline!) You learn how to push yourself and how to let yourself rest. 

And it's darned hard! 

I spent so much time highlighting the differences between the writing life and my former life. And then I reinforced  those differences by fighting the writing life. And fighting hard.

I kept thinking: it shouldn't be this way. It should be a lot more like college.

That kind of thinking didn't help me. At all. It kept me locked in culture shock for a long time:

I shouldn't have to have an apprenticeship. I should be able to write a perfect novel in a year. Other people should understand exactly what it is I do (and be encouraging, for pete's sake).

Creativity should follow neat, organized paths. I should be able to stay perfectly on my predicted schedule. Every day should be productive in a quantifiable, check-off-that-box kind of way.

That kind of thinking helped me graduate with honors. I did really great in school. So, yay. Yay for that. But it was time--past time--to let that thinking go.

To tuck those ideas, that way of working, in a box with some tissue paper, and put a freaking lid on it.

If, say, creativity followed neat and organized paths, guess what. IT WOULDN'T BE CREATIVITY. It might be, say, website coding, or architecture, or algebra. But it wouldn't be CREATIVITY. 

See what I mean?

What about you? What are your biggest arguments against the creative writing life?

Maybe it's time to acknowledge that this kind of thinking helped you do whatever it is that you did before. Maybe it even helped you do really, really well. And that's great. Really.

But it will strangle your writing life. Time to let it go.

Don't whine about your new culture.

Ahem. Right? We need to resist the temptation to get together with other writers to have a big moaning festival.

I'm only one week into my No Whining Challenge, but I'm already discovering three great benefits to refusing to whine: 

1) If I can't vent about something, I find that I can laugh about it. And not just in a bitter way, but I can genuinely find it funny. It's like all that whining energy puts on party hats and makes me laugh. I can't explain it. But it's a good thing.

2) A bigger sense of gratitude. When I'm not clouding my general outlook with a lot of complaining, my vision is clearer to see all the good stuff. Which has been pretty cool.

3) If something's really bugging me and I can't whine about it, I channel all that energy into just fixing it. Shocking, right? Instead of griping, I can, you know, DO something about it.

So instead of whining about the writing life (the instability! the disorganization! the many tempting chances to go insane!), find what's funny about it. What's genuinely humorous about the writing temperament, the quirkiness of what we do, the way writers talk and think.

See the freedom with gratitude. 

And if something's really nagging at you--try to fix it.

Talk to someone who has acclimated to this new culture.

YES! Meet other writers! Seek friendships with the non-whining people who are navigating this life, and who are doing a decent job of it. Find 'em on Twitter, on Instagram, through other social media channels...

Or hey, talk to me, I'm right here! Ha ha! But seriously, leave a comment or catch me on Twitter @reallucyflint, and say hello. We can talk about this totally unusual writing life!!

Talk with your new writing friends about how your old cultural cues worked and how these new cues are so different.

Talk about how your sense of expectations changed, how success is totally different, how freedom sometimes feels like it's strangling you, how all those books on creativity make you feel squirmy.

And learn about how this other person has made their adjustments, what mindset tricks they use, how they think about it now. This can be so so helpful!

Know that you can make it.

You really can. (Heck, if I can do it, I'm pretty sure anyone can!) 

If you're writing at all, if you're drawn to the writing life, then some part of you, somewhere in your personality and psyche, some part of you really will thrive in this life. Some part of you is urging you to jump in.

And the rest of you? The rest of you really can catch up. I promise.

The writing life is a pretty broad and forgiving thing, when you get used to it. There's a lot of room for variety. As you adapt, you'll find ways to make it your own. One day you might wake up and find that you're right at home, talking and giving directions like a native!

It helps if you aren't super strict with yourself as you adjust. Give yourself so much grace. Don't demand perfection. Don't try to push yourself harder when you're still learning the ropes. 

That study abroad page has a list of character traits that are good for helping you adjust and cope: And even though they say that they're helping you travel to a new culture, I think that they are IDEAL for a writer's toolkit!

A tolerance for ambiguity? YUP.

Open-mindedness. Flexibility. Curiosity. Sense of humor. Ability to fail.

Yes to all that.

Look, friend. If you really want to be a writer, but are having the hardest time adjusting, I totally hear you. 

Try this. It really is more than just a nifty metaphor this time. Try thinking of it as culture shock. You learned how to survive in your old culture, and you probably were really, really good at it.

But this is a new place. 

Don't beat yourself up. The new culture simply won't look the same as the old, in so many ways. The cues are not the same.

Don't hold yourself to old standards when you're in a new land. At the very least, you'll be uncomfortable. At the worst, you'll be a bit of a wreck, kinda like me. 

What is the thing that you trip over the most, the cultural cue that is the most frustrating and infuriating? The thing that makes you snap, and holler about how much you hate writing, you hate this crummy life? What is that thing?

Try to see it in light of this new culture. Maybe there's a reason things are different here. Maybe the reasons are even understandable, even good somehow. Learn how other writers made that adjustment. Make friends with writers who are adjusting right alongside you.

Practice flexibility. Practice your sense of humor. Let yourself fail. 

And become a citizen of a new (and ultimately super wonderful!) culture.

What is the toughest part of adapting to this new culture? Or what are you overcoming; what have you overcome? Let us know in the comments. Let's be a writing community that supports each other! 

How to Build a Moat Around Your Writing Life

When normal life threatens to overwhelm your book project, learn how to build yourself a moat. |

Novels-in-progress are incredibly fragile things. Can we agree on that? 

When you're walking around with a novel in your brain, you're carrying this precious ethereal bundle of impressions and insights and ideas--scraps of dialogue, exquisite gestures, emotional through-lines, motivations, pacing--

And the rest of your life clamors around with air horns and parade bands.


Here's what we have to do, if we really want to write these novels. If we really want to give birth to the ideas in our brains.

We have to build a moat around our writing lives.

Twyla Tharp calls this The Bubble. Heather Sellers calls it Surround Sound. And I'm thinking in terms of moats full of alligators and very dangerous-looking algae.

But whatever metaphor you want, it looks like this:

When you're inside it, you can hear your novel's voice. You can hear it breathe. You're insulated from all the other things that you have to pay attention to or care about in a day. And for now, it's just you, and the living book.

It's a magical place. You feel like you can stop fighting. It's a place of nearly-pure focus.

Listen to how Twyla Tharp talks about it:

"You are coming close to an ideal creative state, one where creativity becomes a self-perpetuating habit. You are linking your art. Everything in your life feeds into your work, and the work feeds into more work." -- The Creative Habit

How seriously beautiful is that? 

Here's how Heather Sellers describes it:

"Think of writing a book as like buying one of those speaker systems that envelop you in sound. No matter where you are, you are surrounded. Similarly, you must allow the book you're writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren't literally putting words on paper in your studio." -- Chapter After Chapter

But how do we create that kind of environment? How do we get there?

I found my way into a well-moated writing life because I was having trouble breathing. 

I don't mean that metaphorically. I mean I had pneumonia. So for a couple of months, I was stretched out on a recliner, with zero physical energy and crud in my lungs.

I canceled my commitments, scrapped my plans. Realized that I would be pretty much useless for anything or to anyone.

And I was all set for some major self-pity wallowing... when it hit me that I had just found the ideal writing life.

Right? I couldn't go anywhere or do anything except hold down that recliner, nap, and scribble. 

So that's what I did. 

For the actual writing, I got my sick little fingers on a bunch of index cards. (I LOVE writing on index cards. They're so portable, so approachable. Not nearly as daunting as a spiral notebook.)

I balanced them on the arm rests of the recliner, and I wrote a daily quota of eleven index cards, front and back. I could fill a card; take a nap. Write another one; take another nap.

In the evenings, when the day's cards were full, I read books about writing. I took notes, talking back to the books. I thought of it as my own, private writer's retreat.

All the small parts of my day seemed to surround the book, and shelter the process of working. 

I wrote an incredibly solid first draft of that novel. And in spite of all the gasping, it's one of my favorite-ever drafting experiences.

Hopefully you don't have to wait for a case of walking pneumonia to create a writing bubble, a writing moat.

All you need to do is find a way to stay more in the work than out of it. 

How can we do this in miniature?

Well, it doesn't have to be big and dramatic: no lung x-rays required.

Instead it might be a string of little habits, little triggers, little writing rituals, that create a benevolent moat--protecting your one and only writing life.

- Surround yourself with things that make you think of your book. Words, sure, but also pictures photographs of characters or related imagery. Little trinkets and touchstones. Quotes from your characters. 

- Start writing when you get up, just a few sentences. Write before you fall asleep, a paragraph or two. James Scott Bell recommends writing down a question, whatever it is you're stumped on, before you fall asleep, and see if your brain has come up with an answer for you when you get up.

- Turn your lunch break into a writing bubble by reading bit of writing advice, writing a poem or a mini-essay, and then reading a bit of fiction.

- Stay connected to the writing world by listening to essays and podcasts about writing as you clean, as you cook, as you go for a jog.

- Have a collector's mind, everywhere you go. Look at the weather, at the scene outside your window, at the faces you pass by. Consider the sound of voices, the feel of words spoken around you, the incidental noise. Measure and taste everything that comes your way. Think in terms of what will I use, what goes into the book? 

- Or, you could go big and dramatic. You could block off a four-day weekend, be unaccessible to everyone, and just bury yourself in your work. Warm up with writing exercises, take long walks with your notebook, spend your afternoons diving deeper into your work.

... You could even diagnose yourself with a case of writer's pneumonia. It's a very serious sickness, and the only way to heal--and breathe freely again!--is this: To write your book. 

(I'm just imagining all of us turning down commitments like this: "No, I'm so sorry, it's a very worthy cause and all, but I have this book in my brain, and it's spreading to my lungs, and so I can't breathe. Maybe in a few months??" ... Actually, I'm pretty sure this is a legitimate disease. It sounds familiar, doesn't it??)

Whether you make a big dramatic moat around your days, or whether you find small bubbles of time that protect your book, it comes down to this:

Aiming ourselves at stories. Pointing our energy and our time toward words, toward writing, toward creativity, rather than away. 

Ooooh. Just think what would happen if we did that. Just think what we could write!

The seclusion illusion.

The seclusion illusion.

My life is full of so many lovely people, so many good relationships. And I couldn't survive without them. But sometimes... 

Sometimes there are so many voices, so many conversations, and so much activity that my solitude-craving inner introvert just flips out a little. And I start to crave a getaway.

Right now, I deeply desire a bit of isolation.

Now honestly, this doesn't work so well in practice. I spent most of two weeks on my own once, and ended up crying into the carpet. I need people. 

So I cultivate the idea of isolation instead. I snoop through photos that conjure up a mood of loneliness, that feeling of a big fat moat between me and the noisy world. And if I borrow enough austerity, maybe it will bring my mind back to a clear, calm, focused place.

I did some online exploring and rounded up seven places where I can imagine myself into a solitary writing getaway... Which one tempts you the most?

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