34 Ways to Deliberately Grow Your Writing Practice (and Meet Your Edge!)

If you want to improve your writerly skills, without trading in a happy writing practice, I've got your back. Here's how to meet your edge, with grace and goodness. | lucyflint.com

Hello, my lovely lionhearts! Welcome back. We kicked off this month by getting excited about how we, as writers, get excellent at our work.

In other words, we talked about deliberate practice

If you missed it, here's the idea in a nutshell: Deliberate practice is about leaning forward in our work. Not just going through the motions, or merely putting in the time. It's about making each minute count.

My gut response to that idea is: Sounds awesome! But then I have to ask: Will this turn me into a very stressed out, jittery, grim sort of writer? Because if so, no.

Fortunately for all of us, there's a simple way to make deliberate practice sustainable. A way to bring as much curiosity and playfulness into it as we do perseverance and intentionality.

The key to it all is this little phrase: Meet your edge. 

As a process, it looks like this: Seek out the rim of what you are used to doing. Find the place where you would naturally want to give up, where you hit the limit of what's comfortable. 

Then take one step out of your comfort zone—not fifty steps out, not even ten steps out, just one step outside your comfort zone—

and work there.

THAT is how growth becomes doable, sustainable, practical, and, oh yeah, super dang effective.

Excited yet? Me too.

Now, because this kind of thing doesn't work at all if it isn't practical, I've brainstormed a bunch of ways to put this to work, right this minute, wherever you're at.

Most of them are pretty small moves, designed to make one aspect of your writing game a little bit sharper. And how you use them is up to you: You might take just one and focus on it for a week (or a month!) and watch yourself steadily improve.

Or grab a handful that seem to fit you, and work with them. Or try a new one each day, for more than a month of deliberate, edge-expanding practice. 

(Of course, everyone's "edge" is different, depending on where you are in the writing life. But take a look at each suggestion anyway, because getting even better at the basics is one way we can all meet our edge!) 

... Oooh, do you hear that? The next level of writing excellence is calling.


Here are 34 ways to practice writing deliberately!

1. Internalizing Story Structure: After finishing a novel or a movie, take five minutes to jot down the key structural points of the narrative. (I like using the three-sentence Story Spine model that Shawn Coyne describes at the beginning of this article.)

2. Dissecting Scene Structure: While reading a novel or watching a movie, pause after an especially loaded scene and take a moment to break it apart. How exactly did it begin and end? How did the writer build it to a climax, and what did it change for the overall narrative? Sketch out the skeleton of the scene to see how it was achieved.

3. Honing Dialogue: Copy out the guts of a dialogue exchange (just the stuff in quotes, without any of the extra descriptions or tags). Read those spoken words out loud, and get a sense for how dialogue sounds—especially the rhythms and beats behind a really good exchange. (This is great to do for published works you admire, or for tightening your own work.)

4. Analyzing Wordcraft: There's something about copying out someone else's work by hand. It helps you go from merely reading it, to seeing its nuts and bolts. Grab a work you admire and copy out an especially well-constructed paragraph. Study it phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. (But obviously, um, don't take credit for someone else's work.)

5. Sprucing Vocabulary: Shake up the words that you tend to rely on by doing a deep dive into a book of poetry, a children's reference book, or your favorite dictionary. Savor the new mix of specific nouns and verbs, and push yourself to use a few in your next writing session.

6. Surveying Novel Skills: Grab a few favorite novels and check out how each author handles something you're having difficulty with. Try comparing story openings; chapter openings; chapter endings; dialogue; descriptive passages; or action scenes. Get really clear on how each author is choosing to address that area, and how effective their choices are—why they work, why they don't. (And there's nothing like forcing yourself to write down one clear sentence describing what you've learned, to be sure that you're actually figuring it out. So scribble down specific notes as you go!)

7. Clarifying What Didn't Work: When you encounter a novel or a movie that you hate (or even just felt meh about), push yourself to pinpoint exactly what didn't work for you. Where, precisely, did they fall off track? What could they have done differently to improve the whole story? The more specific and comprehensive and relentless you are with this, the more you build your own story-rescue muscles.

8. Taking Action: I don't know if you're this way, but it's easy for me to read helpful writing books without taking any real action. Next time you find some helpful writing advice, instead of nodding and then maybe forgetting about it (though with great intentions, of course!), challenge yourself to take whatever extra step is required to put part of it immediately into practice... right away.

9. Listening for Cadence: Read your own work out loud. This is common advice for a really good reason—the ear can catch what the eyes sometimes miss when it comes to pacing, rhythm, and overall coherence.

10. Improving Description: Take an extra five minutes to sharpen a descriptive passage in your work. Challenge yourself to choose extra-clear nouns and vivid verbs. Make each sentence as specific as possible.

11. Interviewing Characters: Take the character who feels the weakest in your project, and give them five minutes of your undivided attention. Imagine them sitting with you in the room. I mean, really. Try to bend reality. Freak yourself out a little. And then jot down anything that they decide to say to you. (The more I come back to conjuring up my characters, to making them real and alive and right next to me, the more amazing my story becomes.)

12. Expanding the Brainstorm: The next time you need to brainstorm something, push yourself to come up with twice as many ideas as you think you'll need—in half the time. Try fifty ideas in five minutes. You just might astonish yourself at how creative you get in that last minute.

13. Sharpening Observation: Take a familiar object and come up with five new ways of describing it. Try using senses you don't usually apply in this case. Brew new metaphors; create an unusual significance.

14. Noticing the Details: After you've been away from your writing desk, challenge yourself to create a clear, accurate, two-sentence description of something you've just experienced: maybe the quality of light in your kitchen, a summary of the conversation you just had with friends, or the feel of the weather outside.

15. Enlivening Setting: Challenge yourself to make a list of what makes a place (real or imagined) feel unique. And try to work the senses that you tend to forget about—maybe the quality of the air, the less noticeable sounds, the textures, the smells. 

16. Visualizing Specifics: Sketch a five-minute map of one of the settings that you're working on. A piece of storyscape that you haven't mapped yet: maybe a road, a section of a city, or even a room—in as much detail as if you were going to literally build a set for it.

17. Defining the Problems: When you're facing a story snag or other problem in your work, take a few minutes to very clearly articulate what's wrong. Force yourself to get specific and succinct about exactly what isn't working and why. (It's too easy to have a vague sense of unease and then rush off to fix it, without being certain about what has gone wrong. But finding clarity can be half the battle!)

18. Stimulating the Imagination: Take five minutes to think about how well-fed your imagination feels right now. What are you missing? What are you craving? Brainstorm a mini list of creative inputs that sound amazing—do you need a great nature documentary, a trip to an art museum, a visit to the best bakery in town, a travel book with tons of pictures, or a TED talk festival? Get clear on what you need, and block out time soon to do it. 

19. Nurturing Curiosity: Grab a reference book at random and browse it for 5 minutes. Let your imagination get excited. (Seriously, do it. You never know where your next incredible idea is going to come from. It could be waiting for you in that reference book!)

20. Journaling Your Life: One way to keep growing as a writer is to take notes on your own life. If you don't yet have a journaling practice, try writing just one page a day—maybe first thing in the morning, or last thing before you go to bed. (If that's too much, try half a page. You can seriously handle half a page.)

21. Redirecting the Overplan: If you tend to fall down the overplanning spiral of hundreds of to-do items on dozens of lists, this is your deliberate practice! The next time you catch yourself overplanning, go ahead and finish your list. Then walk away—into another room or just outside. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind for a sec. And then decide, from your gut, what the top three-to-five items should be. The things that honestly, truthfully, you-know-it-in-your-core matter the most. Write those down on a tiny slip of paper. And begin by working only on those things. (This works for me every. single. time.)

22. Accepting Rest: It is impossible to work well for long when you're overtired. If meeting your edge means showing up for your work well rested, then take a nap. If it means napping every day, then nap every day! 

23. Revolutionizing Your Mindset: Take five minutes at the start of every writing session and practice believing in yourself. (I know. It sounds hokey, but it could literally change everything for you, especially if you've been struggling. Read the second half of this post if you need more convincing.)

24. Protecting Boundaries: Step back from one thing this week that you know will drain your energy/creativity without giving much back to you. Practice saying no. (You have my permission to get addicted to this: protect your writing time and energy, my friend!)

25. Deepening Self-Kindness: If it's easy for you to be harsh with yourself, then meeting your edge is gonna look a lot like practicing grace. Take two minutes to write yourself an encouraging note, and post it by your writing spot. Work on consciously agreeing with it when you see it. High five yourself.

26. Focusing Consistently: Do a little distraction clean-up. What tends to slice into your focus while you're working? Texts? Music? Internet? Notifications? Whatever it is, eliminate your pet distraction for a week. (And then another week. And then another...)

27. Bettering Your Work Space: What's the one thing that bugs you the most about your writing space? Is there something that's just a little out of place, that keeps slowing you down, that needs a little extra organization or cleaning or attention? Take five minutes to make it better.

28. Braving the Blank Page: Teach yourself to conquer the blank page by practicing with five-minute segments. (No kidding!) Pull out a blank sheet of paper. Commit to having no standards whatsoever for the quality of the writing you're about to do. If it comes out all wonky, that's great. Seriously. Set a timer for five minutes, and the moment you start the timer, just write. It can be about how your day went; it can be the secret history of every little knick-knack on your writing desk;  or it can be about your favorite character in your current writing project. Anything. Write till the timer stops. Repeat, until blankness no longer scares you. This has actually worked for me, I promise. (When we stop being afraid of the blank page, we become literally unstoppable as writers. Think about that for a sec.)

29. Holding Space: Practice accepting the truth that the writing process is messy. It just is! Allow a bad sentence (section, chapter, subplot) to exist in a draft for now. Let yourself be okay with the roughness of a rough draft, instead of tumbling into a hyper-perfection-seeking cycle. 

30. Refusing to Be Bullied: The next time you feel like comparing your work with someone else's work, or comparing where you are in your writing life with where someone else is: Stop. The next time self-doubt comes prowling and wants to sharpen its claws on you: Stop. Comparison and self-doubt do not have your back, and you don't need to listen to them. Be on your own team. Take a deep breath, and accept yourself and where you are. You are exactly where you need to be, my friend! 

31. Increasing Your Writing Stamina: Start adding a little more time to your writing sessions, or working a smidge past your usual stopping point. Maybe add 50-100 more words than you normally aim for, or working 5-10 minutes longer at a stretch.

32. Knowing When to Pause: If you tend to work yourself too hard and burn your brain to a crisp (you know who you are!): one way to meet your edge is to give yourself an honest-to-goodness break in the midst of your work. Take three-to-five minutes and step away. Close your eyes, or give yourself a chance to stretch, or go outside and stare at something non-digital for a while. 

33. Extending Attention: Instead of giving in to the impulse to rush (we all fight it!), try sticking with a writing project a little bit longer. Maybe spend five more minutes on a paragraph you're tempted to hurry through, or one extra week on a development stage that you're itching to skip over.

34. Releasing Finished Work: And sometimes, the thing we most need to practice doing, is letting something be done, instead of endlessly nitpicking at it. Everything on earth has a flaw in it, my friend. What is it truly time for you to release?


Deliberately Practicing Deliberate Practice

This all comes down to being on the lookout for your own edge. Where do you feel yourself shrinking and saying, Nah, no, not today, not feeling it, not now

Where is it easier to slump right now—in your craft, in your emotional health, in how you set up your work? How can you encounter that edge of yours, and work there?

Again, this is not about leaping way past our edge, about doing things that are unwise, or working where we are honestly not ready to work.

Instead, it's about noticing where we want to dodge something that feels a little too hard, a little too real, a little too taxing. Something that's a bit uncomfortable.

And instead of skipping over it, we focus in.

Take a deep breath. Choose to smile through it. And work right there.

Where can you bring extra curiosity, attention, playfulness, and grit, into your writing work this week? If you have more ideas for ways to "meet your edge," I'd LOVE to hear them, so please post a comment!

Grow Better: Let's Own, Nourish, and Celebrate the Writing Phase You're In

Writing projects have life cycles, just like any growing, fruitful thing. Which season are you in? Here's how to embrace all it has to offer. | lucyflint.com

I've spent nearly my whole life in the midwestern United States. And though we aren't a farming family, I'm used to marking the seasons by what the fields are doing.

Right now, at the start of summer, the bright green corn plants are coming up through the dirt, showing off their first few leaves. 

Over the next month, they'll rocket out of the ground, becoming bold walls of dense leaves, perfuming the air—a sweet, dusty, corny smell.

At the end of the season comes the goldening of everything. And suddenly the walls disappear as the machines march through.

In winter the colors all fade, and fields are quiet under November mud or January snow. I'm used to this, my whole life: it's how things work.

Seasons. Seedlings sprout, grow, ripen, disappear. Quiet takes their place. And then it starts again. 

The other day I was reading The Sound of Paper, by Julia Cameron—a meditative book of short essays about the creative life and creative droughts. (I'm really liking it, but that's no surprise! It's a lovely and helpful book.)

When I hit the chapter called Seasonality, I sat up straight. Her words illuminated something that's been troubling me: 

     There is a seasonality, a cyclicity, to creative work. There are ripening times of midsummer, when our ideas bob in our heads like a good crop of apples. There is fall, the time of harvest, when we take those ideas down and collect them. There is a wintertime, when our ideas feel ice-locked and dormant and we must wait them out ... and then there is spring, the stirrings of new ideas and new directions.

You get that? 

Our creative projects have a time of blooming, growth, harvesting, and dormancy. 

Oh, I loved this so much! Because instantly I saw myself, exactly where I was: deep in a creative wintertime, and no way of knowing how to claw out of it.

Restless, irritated. Like a bear who forgot to hibernate.

Here's what I think: We novelists need to understand this. We need to recognize these seasons in our creative lives, just like we midwesterners do. (If you only have one or two seasons where you are, you'll just have to kinda imagine with me.) 

Because once you wrap your mind around the idea of having a creative season, there's a lot that becomes clear, a lot that carries over in that metaphor.

Go with me on this, okay?

In real life seasons, each seasonal shift requires some prep.

There are things that this season is really, really good at—seasonal strengths. (Even the ugly seasons have strengths!)

And then there are some major weaknesses that come along, with each one. (Even the pretty ones.)

That's a reminder that I need to get squarely in my head, because here is my confession: 

I have idolized the creative seasons of Summer and Harvest.

Seriously, I love, love, love these creative seasons. I want to live in them forever.

I want to be producing stories at the blistering rate of corn plants (which grow so fast you can literally hear them grow).

And I want to be harvesting like the massive combines that go charging across the land, converting everything to piles of grain—quick, efficient, relentless.

Mega-growth. Mega-production. That's what I've fallen in love with.

That's when it's easier to say out loud, Of course, yes! I am a writer! When faced with inquiries from friends and family: it's so easy to sum up my progress in these seasons. I have something to report.

Everything is growing, growing, growing! I'm writing so fast, and the characters are talking quickly, and it's all going so well!

Or, for harvest: I'm starting the blog! Or, I'm wrapping up the draft! I'm sending it out to readers; I'm planning my publication! Confetti, cheers, marching bands!

And we all get to leave the conversation cheerfully. 

But.

You don't have to be an agricultural whiz kid to know: fields can't just go from summer to harvest and back again. It doesn't work like that. 

And our creative seasons can't do that either. Our projects don't jump from mega-growth to mega-production and then back to growth again.

We have to go through spring, and we have to go through winter.

Can I be honest? It's hard for me to enjoy a creative springtime. It's such a prickly sort of creative season: how do I explain it, to others and myself?

The idea-seeds are in the earth. I'm watering them (brainstorming!) and watching them (freewriting!) and checking the soil (tending the imagination!).

I'm afraid to breathe too hard on the little ideas. I get nervous when it storms. Is there too much sun, too much shade? Did I plant a bunch of duds?

Everything feels fragile and nebulous, and I'm trusting that the little roots are shooting into the ground, that the stems are straightening, somehow feeling the tug of light, the call to come up, up, up.

Creative spring is hard for me. But what keeps me going is hope: there are seeds, so there is the hope of growth. And maybe something will come out of this, even if I don't know what it looks like yet.

Hope helps us hang on.

... And then there's creative winter.

The seaons that comes along with big, obvious challenges. The other seasons have challenges too, of course. But winter, with its ice and its blizzards and the way it starves your eyes of color—that's the one with the real problems. The light is short, and the dark is long. 

It's winter that leaves me speechless when people ask how the work is going. It's winter that I find impossible to explain out loud, or even to myself.

What is there to talk about? What is it that's happening, anyway, when things lie dormant, when everything looks abandoned? 

But this is why seeing it as a season is actually really, REALLY helpful. Seriously. It helps, when you call it winter. When you own it.

That little shift helps reframe the whole scenario. It reminds me of what I'm actually dealing with. Because all seasons, however long, do shift. They pass. They change. 

And every season has strengths, as well as challenges. Even winter.

No matter which season you're in, it's important to see it as clearly as you can. To name it. And to own that season. 

Because here's what happens, to me anyway, when I choose not to own the season: If I'm not intentional about this, I'll try to push myself to be in another season (preferably summer or harvest!).

And when I'm actually, truthfully, in the midst of a creative spring or winter, then this pushing can be downright deadly.

You can't force midsummer growth on a tiny little seedling—it can't sustain it.

You can't harvest before the grain or fruit or story is ready—it will be ruined.

And you can't scout for seedlings when everything is meant to lie fallow—you'll only find frustration.

Let your season be your season. Anything else will bring burnout, immature work, destroyed confidence, and heartbreak.

Look closely at your work right now. At the project you're facing. What season is it in?

Are you doing the seedling work, nurturing little ideas and hoping that they sprout? Are you shoveling fertilizer and sunshine and water over rapidly-growing stories?

Are you making the plans and gathering the resources for a harvest, a launch, a publication? Or are you in the season in between, the one that can seem like nothing is happening. (But oh, my friend, something is happening!)

Oh, and just to keep us all on our toes: you can be in several creative seasons at the same time. One project might be wintering while another is twisting out of the soil, or one might be in the thick of harvest, while secret seedlings send out their first roots with another. 

What creative seasons are you in? 

Once you know that, here's the exciting part: How can you take specific, concrete steps to support yourself, and care for yourself, in the midst of that season? 

Read on for some ideas:


If you're in a creative summer...

Congratulations! Summer is a super-exciting time. Send off some fireworks! Let yourself celebrate!

But keeping up with that pace of growth is no joke. It's important to keep yourself creatively nourished, and to stay connected to the people and rituals that will ground you.

Summer is when I'm tempted to make a habit of overwork. I have to insist on taking breaks, on making sure I get up and go for a walk, play with the dog, or stretch it out with yoga. 

In a creative summer, it's easy to burn out wrists, back, eyes. To fall back on crappy snacks that don't really help our brains come up with good stuff. To neglect sleep, and then poison ourselves with waaaaay too much caffeine.

So check in: 

More than anything, seek to enjoy this time. Growth is exciting; and watching a story come together is one of the most delicious experiences in a writing life!


If you're in a creative harvest...

First off, have yourself a little party. Even just right here, as you're reading this post: wave your hands in the air, and imagine a whole bunch of confetti falling down on you, because this is awesome. 

Harvest means taking your stories, your words, your article—whatever it is that you've bloomed and grown in your head—and setting it out for other people to experience. 

That is fantastic. So dance!

... And if you're stubbornly staring at this screen saying, Are you kidding, Lucy? I don't feel like dancing. I feel like throwing up!, then I get you too, because harvest can also kind of, oh, shred your soul a bit.

There is no creative season where Fear leaves us alone, but it has an especially good case to make when we're harvesting. Fear shows us what other people might say, how our work might be received, who's going to stop speaking to us, and so on, and so on.

A million nightmare scenarios, storming through our minds. And it can be enough to make us call off the harvest. Forget about it. Let's just not.

Harvest isn't easy. 

But crops don't wait forever. There is a time when it's just right to publish, to post, to hit "send." 

So check in: 

Harvest is nerve-wracking, but it's also incredible. It takes guts. Whether your harvest is tiny (sending an email, posting a comment, sending a newsletter), or big (publishing a book, landing a writing job), you owe it to yourself to celebrate

For serious. Go get that cake.


If you're in a creative springtime...

Oooh, spring! The butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of tending a lot of tiny ideas, caring for them with an equal feeling of hope and nervousness.

It's a time of unbridled possibility, and that can be exhilarating! Enjoy it!  

But spring has its challenges too. We can get discouraged. Spring calls for patience, patience, and patience, as we deliberately brew our projects, as we watch the teeny roots take hold. 

We have to learn how to keep a steady hand as we fertilize the soil, as we keep weeds and harsh conditions at bay.

So let's check in: 

  • Perfectionism loves to visit in the spring. It pretends that we can sit and imagine our perfect blossoms, instead of diving in and risking failure. It'll whisper anything to keep us from writing those messy drafts! But creative spring is a time to embrace the mess: don't hold back.
  • Our fledgling ideas can sprout better with the help of a solid routine, or a good structure around them. If you're just coming out of a creative winter, it can be hard to get back into a groove. Time to rally your best practices, and build a solid working structure for yourself. (Need inspiration? I've got you: here, here, and here.)
  • As you get into the rhythm of springtime, you have to promise yourself that you will not compare your new growing ideas to anyone else's writerly garden. Okay? Comparison is one of the silent killers of creativity. It's not worth it.
  • Keep breathing. Growth can be slow. It takes patience.

Real spring is one of the most beautiful times of the year, and a creative spring is no less beautiful. Celebrate the joy of seeds becoming stems becoming buds becoming blooms. (And maybe buy yourself some flowers for your desk?) Keep encouraging yourself, and keep on keeping on.


If you're in a creative winter...

This can be the hardest place to find yourself. Winter is tough, and it can last a lot longer than we'd like. It's easy to focus on the ice patches, the blizzards, and long darkness.

But we can stay warm in the midst of creative winter when we choose to be gentle with ourselves. When we do things that are good for our souls and happy-making for our imaginations.

Find ways to endure the cold by lighting candles for creativity, and cutting cheery snowflakes out of bright paper.

Here are a few ways we can find our trusty boots, our beloved mittens, our best soup recipes. Here's how we can actually winter well: 

  • Right now, make a decision that you will not beat yourself up for being here. Winter is just a thing. It happens. It doesn't make you a bad writer, a bad creative, or any other shamefilled label that we might want to assign ourselves. Take yourself off the hook. Give yourself grace.
  • One thing that winter is really good for is naptaking. I'm serious. This season is when you can catch up on rest, both physically and creatively. Take super good care of your body. Take all producing pressure off. (Sometimes we actually need it to be winter, for exactly this reason!)
  • Nourish. Use winter as a time to put into your imagination, indiscriminately. Since you don't have to research for a specific project, you can just follow your own curiosity. This is actually a gift, and you're allowed to treat it like one. :)
  • Read. Read a lot. When I decide to really embrace winter, I usually end up reading a TON. Go to your library and check out more books than you can carry. Binge-read fiction for a few weeks. Grab stacks of non-fiction titles that intrigue you. Plunge into new subjects, rediscover old favorites.
  • Play. I know. It can be hard. But sometimes you need to just cut loose. Find ways to love your creative self by playing games, by picking up a different artistic skill for a while. Try your hand at collage, or calligraphy, or watercolors. Or get messy with sculpture, or repaint every room in your house. Stir it up.
  • Fertilize your soil, and ready your tools. You can keep learning your craft, even if you aren't working on something actively, by reading good books on writing. (Steer clear of angry, cynical books. Only grab the yummiest sort.) 
  • Let me just say this one again: Be relentlessly kind to yourself.

It can be hard to love winter. But when you really and truly let yourself off the hook, it can be a beautiful time. It can point you back to places you might have been neglecting: deep rest, deep refilling.

You're allowed to investigate creativity for its own sake, instead of so that you can meet a deadline, or crank something out. You're allowed to run down the path of your curiosity, without it needing to pay off immediately. 

So choose to give yourself a gift in your creative wintertime. Embrace rest, embrace care. Spread a little love over your writing life. 


Wherever you are, my friend, consider this: What does it look like to truly honor the season that you're in? To embrace its strengths, and gently account for its weaknesses? To accept it for what it is, and to celebrate it—difficulties and all?

For me, after an on-again/off-again winter that lasted a year and a half (I'm not making that up), I am in the midst of a springtime: there are so many little seeds in the ground right now, fresh growth on some older projects, and I'm excited! Committing myself to patience, and dancing with hope!

How about you? 

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?

Why I'm Embracing Total Inefficiency (In Other Words, How Do You Do Your Best Work?)

When we try to learn the way *other* people learn, it doesn't always work out so well. Here's a bit of encouragement for embracing your own natural process. | lucyflint.com

Welcome to April, my friend! I don't know what the weather's been like for you, but where I live, it's been cloudy and stormy and cloudy again—both outside, and inside my own writerly heart.

I've found myself slogging through waves of discouragement, some internal dark, rainy days. So I thought: Why not? Let's spend April tackling two sources of deep discouragement in the writing life. 

I'm calling it our Anti-Glum First Aid Kit. *high five*

First up: I've been struggling with the way my learning-to-write path has looked. For starters, it's LONG. And it's darned hard to explain, when someone asks me why I'm not published just yet.

How about you? Has the learning process been smooth sailing all the way?

No? Great, we can keep each other company. ;) Let's tackle this together, my friend, and shed that discouragement.


I've always admired people who seemed to learn in a straight line. Who could understand something fairly quickly and reproduce it. People who manage to absorb foreign languages, or who can do math in their heads.

I love that. I think it's awesome. And I keep trying to learn like that: in a quick and orderly way. 

... But that's just never been me. 

My mind tends to waltz up to something sideways. Or it comes wandering around, behind the solution, and then stumbles into it. And that's usually after passing it by three or four times. 

Take math: I've never been able to do math in my head and I never felt natural or easy with numbers. But it wasn't obvious to my classmates in school, because I took serious math classes and did really well in them.

The key to my math success? TONS of scrap paper. 

If you gave me enough scrap paper, I could figure almost anything out. Of course, I'd fill every sheet, and I needed time to meander all over the map before I got to the solution, but I usually did get there.

And it wasn't just math. That's how I learned anything, in any class: with a lot of paper, and a lot of time.

When I studied for finals, I would get a huge stack of scrap paper and rewrite the highlights from the whole semester's notes. And then I read them through, highlighted those, and rewrote the most important parts again.

And on, and on. I distilled and re-distilled. Lots of paper. Lots of time. ... Then I'd go ace the finals.

It was a crazy process, but it actually worked.

The more I look at my learning history, the more I see evidence of this—the roundabout path I take toward the right answers. 

It's how I make friends, how I make changes, how I learn any new concept.

I always, always take the long way around. I cycle past the truth a few times before coming to rest on it. I need to learn and relearn before it takes, working it through and summarizing, again and again.

... I've been thinking of this because I feel like I'm learning to write novels exactly backwards.

For one thing, I started at the wrong end of the whole enterprise, obsessing about what comes last: money! fame! ... Okay, okay, I mean: Publication. ;)

I wanted that result. I spent so much time flailing around to try and figure out how to get there, and—until recently—I didn't spend time learning how to do what comes first: building habits, working on great ideas, figuring out how creativity works, structuring a solid story.

And now that I'm finally focused on those good things, I find myself processing and reprocessing the best way to do each one.

I look over my learning-to-write path, and I'm chagrined because it's not a clean, clear path.

It is so not how anyone would recommend learning how to write.

It's all patchworky. It's a mass of scribbles and backtracks, broken ends and do overs.

And I was kicking myself over this—over all the time I've wasted and all the wrong directions and how long it's taking me—when suddenly I realized: 

Huh. Sounds familiar.

Sounds like how I've learned a lot of things.

Sounds like how I did math. Flail around, fill tons of scrap pages, take way too long, but then—I do finally get to the good stuff. 

Well, shoot, I thought. That's not exactly what the productivity blogs say to do. Flailing isn't efficient. Bad Lucy.

But then, but then, I thought: OH, WAIT. This is actually good news. REALLY good news.

Because, inefficient or not, it actually works for me. This is how I got stellar grades. Top of my class in high school—not that I'm bragging, because it was flailing and scratch paper all the way.

Which means, no matter how weird it looks—backwards and forwards and backwards again—in spite of all that, this is what it looks like when I'm learning

My roundabout learning-to-write process doesn't mean I'm doing a terrible job, it means I am doing my job. It means I'm working my process. It means I'm finding my way, because this is how I find my way!

No wonder I keep taking a zillion notes on how my process is going, and why I distill them, again and again, into this blog. This is just how I learn.

I've never been able to take the shortest distance between two points. I have wanted to—oh, so much—but somehow, that's just not how my mind works.

And each time I try to beat my own brain and take a shortcut, the path zags yet again. And it's still the long way around, baby.

I am, alas, never going to be the poster child for anyone's productivity system. I convolute. It's my natural process. 

But even though the path I'm taking looks bizarre, I'm actually on my way to the center of the maze. And given time enough and paper enough, I have a history of making it to the center of a lot of mazes. It's never elegant, but I do get there. 

... Realizing all that has calmed me down these last few weeks. Filled my pockets with courage.

My job isn't to try and learn like other people learn. My job is simply to learn. The way I learn.

So here's my question to you, oh lionhearted writing friend: What's your usual learning process? And are you beating yourself up for learning how to write the way you best learn?

Are you comparing your own process—however it looks—to anyone else's process, and feeling like a failure as a result?

How do you learn? It can be hard to spy on ourselves, so think through your own history: how have you learned hard things in the past? Especially anything that had a lot of steps in it, a complicated array of systems all working together. What did that look like for you?

What happened in your head, with your hands, how you thought? When did you get your best results?

How can you work with your natural process instead of against it? How can you be your own best support? 

Release the idea that your process has to look the same as anyone else's. No matter how much you may admire them, they're not you. 

Here, check out this lovely encouragement from Bernard Malamud (taken from the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, ed. Mason Currey). When discussing work habits, Malamud told an interviewer:

There's no one waythere's too much drivel about this subject. You're who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. ... You suit yourself, your nature. ... Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you. 

That quote just fills me with optimism. We will learn our own best way! (And I, for one, will be rocking out the eventually part of that line. Just keep that scrap paper coming, and I'll be set.)

However it looks, embrace your own process, my friend.

Lean in to how you best learn.

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! 

Let's Get Adventurous. (An Announcement From Me + A Challenge For You!)

If you listen really hard, what is your writing life telling you? Bonus: Can you muster up the courage to *do* whatever it's asking for? That's what we're looking at, over on the blog today. | lucyflint.com

One of the skills that I've tried to improve this year is listening. Not just to the people around me (though that's hugely important!), but also to my own instincts.

Especially my instincts about my writing life. 

Not my fears, but my honest observations, my true best-self sense of how I'm doing and where I'm at. 

Every time I really focus on this and check in, I'm rewarded, big time. It's why I've written about it here, here, and kinda here too. ... I am smitten with the power of pausing the noise and listening to the truth of what's really going on, underneath everything else.

I have never regretted doing this.

And near the end of September, I started listening in again. (Something about whenever the seasons shift: I always want to do a big "How'm I doing?" check.)

I set aside my productivity schedules and wildly important goals and self-care strategies and I listened. And, yep, sure enough, my writing life was saying something. Over and over and over. 

It said, "Help me, I'm starving."

Wait, what?!

I've been doing all this stuff in earnest, after all. I've been working to help my imagination and writing life recover from a really tough year. Which is why we've been talking self-care and strength building here in the blog. 

In the last two months, I've rebuilt my writing practice and honestly, I've found a really sweet routine. My writing space is the prettiest, coziest, and happiest it's ever been, and I'm reading novels on the regular

I'm treating myself well in so many ways. And everything feels lovely except that when I've been drafting, I feel like I'm stripping myself dry.

Like I'm mining something that isn't there anymore. 

So I kept telling myself it was just a matter of time before my imagination really caught up and my writing got all juicy and self-propelling again.

Only . . . 

Only it hasn't. 

I've done all my usual tricks, I've applied the best that I knew to do, and I still feel like my imagination is gasping.

So why isn't everything fixed? 

I had a few days (actually, it was more like a week) of total consternation. 

And then I picked up the book The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry. (Like so many other good things that come into my life, this one was a recommendation from my mother. Thanks, Mom!!)

I read it in a whirlwind of excitement and hope.

Amidst the many helpful concepts and ideas, there were two that especially leapt out to me: 

1) Todd Henry's idea that creativity follows a kind of rhythm, and 2) his concept of creative stimuli, creative nutrition.

It hit me that my crazy year had deeply disrupted my own creative rhythm. No surprise there. But in rebuilding my routine, I was only working on half the problem. The externals are all back in place, but that internal rhythm of creating? That hasn't fully come back.

And, to fix that, I need to go deep into the world of creative nutrition: taking in the best kinds of things, so that my creativity can thrive.

Okay. So, good creative stimuli = brain food, which is the sort of metaphor I can get pretty happy about. 

To camp out on this for a moment: As I read Todd Henry's ideas about how to take in better creative nutrition, it really hit me. I'm a big fan of eating well, and taking in nutrient-rich foods, especially as a way of getting healthier. I've seen it happen in my physical body, so using the same principles for my mind and creativity gets me pretty happy and excited.

Here's the thing: sometimes, when you need an infusion of health, it makes sense to take a superb daily multivitamin. Sometimes, it means you commit to having a daily salad or green smoothie.

Yay. Good effort, good work, good food.

But sometimes it means that you go on a radical course of overhauling everything you eat. And flooding your body with superfoods, with all the best nutrition, all. the. time. 

And that, my friends, is exactly what I need now.

My earlier attempts were the creative equivalent of upping my vitamins and adding in more salads to my days. It's good, and a great way to maintain health. But when a total overhaul is required—and when there's nothing there to maintain—it's just not going far enough.

And this is what was brewing in my mind when I wrote about commitment last week. 

I want to go all-in with committing to my creativity. 

I've listened hard, and I've decided that I have to do whatever it takes to flood myself with creative nutrition. I'm pretty dang sure that this is the missing piece, the thing that bumps me back into a good groove.

Thanks to Todd Henry's book, I have a much better grip on where to go next. He has a great section called, "Stimuli: What Goes In Must Come Out."

I'm taking that tagline to heart, and I'm preparing for a mega fueling session. Here's the scary-exciting adventure that I'm planning for myself: 

For the whole month of October, I'm doing a creative nutrition immersion sabbatical festival extravaganza.

All right, so I haven't figured out the name yet. ;) 

I'm turning my full writerly attention onto soaking up the best kind of inputs.

I'll be listening to quality podcasts and TED talks and documentaries. I'll check out the good fiction that gets my inner eleven-year-old all excited and swept up. And I'll take plenty of artist dates. 

I'm planning on more art, more nature walks, more luscious music. More excursions, and more solitude.

More of anything that's gonna fill my parched creative reservoirs.

But in order to do this at maximum, I'm going to take a break from productivity. I need to stop producing for a little bit, so that I can regenerate what I produce from.

Because what I said in the last post is oh-so true: I want to commit to creativity in a bigger way. I want to nurture it, so that I can show up fully. I want to live in wonder and curiosity. 

And this is the big creative obstacle that I'm focusing on: I can't dream up a book if there's nothing for me to dream with.

What this means for the blog is, 
I'm going to take the month of October off. 

Yep.

In the blog world, that can be a kind of yikes decision to make.

But I've thought it through, and my deal with you is that I owe you my best.

If I keep chug-chug-chugging along without taking this month to consume a huge amount of creative nutrition, I'll just start repeating myself, or blogging on autopilot. And I wanna write my best stuff for you—it's what you deserve, and it's what I signed on for.

So: this will be my only post this October. (At this point, I'm pretty sure I'll be back in November to cheer you on for Nanowrimo: so check back in with me then.)

In the meantime, three things for you: 

1) Check out The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice, by Todd Henry. Because it's lovely and helpful. It blends so much good wisdom together, and helps you apply it in a rhythmic way.

If you needed one more reason besides my jumping up and down: He calls himself an arms dealer for the creative revolution. How amazing is THAT?! I'm so on board.

2) Check in with yourself. Take a little time and listen in to your heart of hearts. What do you, my dear lionheart, need most from this October?

Where are you craving a bit of a sabbatical yourself—but it sounded too wild, or you feel like you're supposed to just be productive all the time?

Where do you need permission to unplug?

What's aching for some better care, some deeper rest, some quality nutrition?

And, especially those of you who are gearing up for Nanowrimo, can you do the crazy thing and give yourself some space to fill up your reservoirs?

3) Finally, if you're in need of a pep talk, inspiration, or some extra encouragement while I'm off refueling, check out my brand-new Archives! The link is up at the menu bar at the top of the page—the Archives is all spruced up and ready for you!

Every single blog post is here, from September allllllll the way back to my first wee efforts.

So please do check it out! Find a series that you missed, browse through the older posts, or just be slightly astonished at my obsession with really really long blog titles. *facepalm*


Okay. So, true story: I feel excited for this sabbatical in a totally new way. Like an impossible weight on my writerly shoulders has just tumbled off. 

I'll miss y'all, but I can't wait to come back with fresh ideas, richer insights, and so much more creative oomph. 

(I have been seriously missing my oomph.)

Til November, then. I love ya, and happy writing!!

Pssst. Go do something so gorgeous for your creativity that it scares you a little and excites you a lot.

Maybe that means taking a course in flower arranging, or reading through your favorite childhood novels for three days straight, or sketching a handful of paintings while roaming an art museum, or writing in the dark under the stars.

Or something else even wilder. Okay? Okay.

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.

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.