The Epic Grace Workshop: Practical Ways to Better Your Writing Life, Starting Now

Make yourself some tea and settle in: We're tackling some questions that will lead you into a more kind, peaceful, and happy writing life. This is the Epic Grace Workshop. |

First things first: I am beyond amazed that this quiet little blog found a spot on the 100 Best Writing Websites for Writers in 2017 list, curated by The Write Life.

The nominations all come from readers, and so can I just say: to those of you who nominated me, THANK YOU, and I would love to just give you a huge hug and throw some confetti so that we all get it in our hair and wear it that way for the rest of the day.  

Seriously, maintaining any blog takes some work, and I make absolutely no money off this site right now: I do it as a gift and a way to give back.

All this to say, I want what I put here to be helpful. And to have it called a "best writing website" was just a huge encouragement that yes, you are finding it helpful.

So, one more time: Thank you, thank you, thank you. For spreading the word and for putting up with my ultra-long blog posts and my ridiculously low-tech approach to websites. (I promise I'll have an email-delivery option one of these years!! ;)) 

But most of all, thank you for believing a courageous and joy-filled writing life is possible, worth working toward, and worth telling people about.

So go buy yourselves some flowers or a great new notebook or something and celebrate! And most definitely check out the other writers on that listit's an incredible round up.

Okay. Cut yourself a big piece of celebratory cake, and then let's dive into this post, because I promise it's a good one...

I loved talking last time about flooding our writing lives with grace. I am convinced, from my own writing life, that grace is the best way forward when things get sticky, hard, or dark. 

Facing a block? Apply grace. Received some ugly criticism? Apply grace.

Your relatives asked you what you were writing about, and you stammered out something contorted and blush-worthy? Apply grace (and tell me about it because I have SO been there and can totally commiserate). 

When you're running behind schedule and the draft is sticking its four paws in the air and looking very dead, and you're sure you're not going to make it and you should have definitely picked a less-painful thing to do with your time ...

Apply grace. 

When you think beating yourself up will surely be what gets you back on track: apply grace and more grace, my friend.

... I believe all this firmly, but it's easy for me to type all that and then say: Um, so HOW?

How do we apply grace? Does that mean just shrugging and letting everything slide? Is it Netflix for days and hiding under the covers and just blowing off our writing?

Definitely not. I know that much.

But to be honest, I'm still learning how to do this. I spent a long time in the opposite camp, so my grace muscles are kinda tiny. 

So for today's post, I wanted to do something that's always a favorite around here: A quote-based post. I rifled through my enormous collection of writing quotes and found some that light the way toward a more grace-filled writing practice.

Here are four major places where we can immediately opt for more grace in our writing lives.

Let's give ourselves grace by paying attention to our needs. By being for ourselves, and for our process:

I'm much more creative when I've actually taken care of myself. – Arianna Huffington (in this excellent interview with Marie Forleo)

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your side. – Anne Lamott

Sometimes the mind needs to come at things sideways. – Jeff VanderMeer 

Realize that you are going to resist change. ... But if you have outgrown this self, you have to say: "I need more. I need a bigger self, one that fits who I am going to be." – Heather Sellers 

I LOVE these quotes, because they force me to check in with how I'm treating myself.

Am I getting what I need, physically and creatively (sleep, food, nature, great fiction, art)? Am I staunchly on my own side, choosing to believe in myself?

Am I letting my thinking take the path it takes—by following my curiosity, by bringing wonder into my days? Am I giving myself the grace to grow, with all the messiness that comes from it? 

Mmm. Good questions. 

How about you? Grab a few moments, maybe a journal or the back of an envelope, and a big mug of tea or coffee or wine, and let's do a little thinking together. 

  • Where in your life right now can you take a little extra care of yourself? How about a lot of extra care of yourself? 
  • What would be the biggest gift to your physical wellbeing right now? Taking a nap once a day for a week? Drinking a green smoothie every afternoon? Making time for walks, or yoga, or dance? 
  • What would be the biggest gift to your creative wellbeing right now? Watching that cool documentary you've had on your list for forever? Sneaking over to the art store and actually getting a set of paints? Plunking yourself down in the kids' section of the library and reading picture books for a few hours? An hour of stargazing (with a thermos of spiced hot chocolate of course)? 

    What would it look like? What sounds impossibly wonderful to you?
  • This is a tricky one, but hang with me: Where do you need to be militantly on your own side right now? Where are you tempted not to trust yourself? Where do you tend to assume the worst about yourself? 

    For example: I always kind of assumed I was lazy. (This cracks up some people I know, because I can also work like a maniac.) But I was always sure that, at my core, I wanted to avoid work at all costs.

    So whenever my creativity was begging for some time to refill, restore, renew, I treated it like laziness, and instead whipped myself back into shape. I'm verrrry slowly learning to recognize that inner sense of "take a break" for what it is—an invitation to strengthen creativity, and not a caving in to laziness. I'm slowly building that confidence in my own judgment.

    So what does that look like for you? Where can you recognize your deeper better motivations? And where can you just plain cut yourself some slack?
  • Where does your writing process refuse to be linear, predictable, neat and tidy? (My answer: Just about ALL of it!!) Can you let your mind come at things sideways? Can you give it the space it needs to sidle up to something, to be a little roundabout? Can you give yourself permission?
  • Finally, if there's something in you that is begging to expand, to be on a bigger stage, if something in you is ready to step out: Can you give yourself the grace of supporting that? Of clearing the space, of canceling competing commitments, of giving yourself what it takes to birth that thing

    Frankly, this is a stage that I'm in right now. I'm right in the midst of that Heather Sellers quote about moving to a bigger self. ... I know that talking about a bigger self can sound a little "woo woo," but it's absolutely true for me. This is a year for expanding and pushing forward, and I can feel the need in myself to have more internal acreage. To take up more space.

    So I've gotten very very careful about what I commit to, what else I show up for, because in order to write the novel I'm working on, and in order to bring it to its next stage, it's taking a bunch of inner energy and resources and attention. There just isn't much left over.

    And I'm realizing that it's grace that tells me: you don't have to be involved in everything! You don't have to solve every problem you hear about. You don't have to be everyone's best friend right now. It's okay to keep your schedule clear; it's okay to keep your focus. Birth this thing.

    That's what it looks like for me. 

    How about you? Where would you love some extra support? Extra resources? Do you need to learn something? Or quit something? Let yourself do that.

Oooh. Okay. I'm all warmed up now. Let's move on to the next set of quotes and what they help us do:

Let's give ourselves grace by remembering that we are not our work

This is such a common pitfall among writers and artists and makers of all kinds. It's too easy to tie our identity and our worth to the thing we make. And that's a mistake that can absolutely block you and torment you.

It doesn't work out so well, is what I'm saying. 

Here are two rather gorgeous quotes to set us straight: 

You as the writer are not the problem; the problem is the problem. – Shawn Coyne

Part of being a writer is the capacity to live with imperfection, particularly as a work of fiction first takes shape. – Thomas Farber

(This Farber quote was captured in Barbara Abercrombie's excellent book A Year of Writing Dangerously. ... My slightly wry note to myself on the ragged index card where I scribbled this says, "So—how's that going?")

I love love LOVE both of these quotes, because it is so dangerous to let our sense of worth rise and fall on the quality (perceived quality, I should say!) of the work we did on any particular day. 

So dangerous.

And yet, it can feel so noble to hate our work, to beat ourselves up, to make impossible comparisons between our day's output and the polished paragraphs of some master craftsman. It can feel like the best way to grow. 

As someone who tried to grow that way for eight years of writing, can I just report back and say: It doesn't work.

I promise you. It does not work. You cannot kick yourself into being a better writer, not reliably, not long term, and not without breaking those parts of you that just might've delivered your best stories. 


What sets us free to grow in our craft, grow in excellence, grow in perception, grow in creativity: is separating the actual problem from our actual selves. Which is why I love that Shawn Coyne quote, and as I've said elsewhere, I might have cried just a little the first time I read it. 

So. Practical grace, here we come:

  • Be gently honest with yourself: Where do you tend to believe that you are the problem? Where do you tend to say "I'm not enough, my writing is worthless" as opposed to "Hm, interesting problem, let's see how to fix it."

    The tone and the approach you use with yourself is everything, my dear. Please make a big, serious promise to yourself to stop kicking yourself when you find your writing needs more work.
  • I love the phrase capacity to live with imperfection, because of that word capacity. Because that kind of phrasing makes the ability to live with imperfection sound like a skill. And a necessary skill at that! 

    Because when we can live with the imperfections in our work, instead of flailing about and sentencing our work to execution, we can actually, you know, work on them. Improve them. Get better. Without all the scarring and bruising we'd otherwise get.

    So what does your writing life look like, if you think of it like that? If you treat tolerating the "bad" writing as a skill, something to develop? Oooh. Such good possibilities.
  • The most practical form that these two quotes/directions can take that I can think of, is a persistent permission slip. Signed by you, written to you, that lets you write badly, that lets your plot be full of holes, that lets the quality of your work be separated from the quality of you (which is fixed, my friend: you are here on this planet, therefore you're worthy. If you wanna argue, take it up with Brené Brown.)

    Yes, this kind of distinction takes work. It takes practice and repetition. It takes a lot of notes on your mirror and your computer monitor and anywhere else your eye falls.

    But it's worth it. Let's keep working to have a bigger capacity, a larger tolerance for the troubles of our work-in-progress.

    What can you do to remind yourself of this? What can you do to expand your capacity for imperfections? 

Are you getting excited yet? Because I'm totally getting excited. Let's move on to Part Three... 

Let's give ourselves the grace of time and space. The time to work, to discover our work, to improve our work. The space in which to learn.

You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination. – Natalie Goldberg

It takes time to write what wants to be written. – Judy Reeves 

One of the most difficult skills to develop as a writer is patience. – Shawn Coyne (again!)

Your writing session, your writing year, your writing life must be padded, anchored, and illuminated with time to wander, get off track, launch a different writing project, lose yourself in reading, write for no purpose, just to explore. You need leisure writing, reading, walking. You need to play. And you need solitude that is not writing time, too. – Heather Sellers

This. Has been. One of the hardest. Lessons. Ever.

Okay. It's still hard. But I've practiced trusting the process: believing that it takes the time it takes. And the hardness of this doesn't overwhelm me like it used to.

My temptation is to keep thinking I can outsmart my own learning curve. That I can superspeed my way forward while skipping huge gaps of learning.

Nope. Those gaps sneak up on me, tap me on the shoulder, and require the time it takes to learn them. 

How about you? Where are you at with this? How's your relationship with time?

Okay. Our last section. You ready for this? 

Let's give ourselves the grace of writing what delights us. Of sticking with the material we love, no matter what.

And doing whatever it takes to have a writing practice that we truly enjoy.

This is the grace that grants all other graces. This the thing that will bring you back to writing again and again. Getting this one down. 

Check out these five quotes and see what they do to your amazing, writerly heart:

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment. – Annie Dillard

I have written because it fulfilled me. I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever. – Stephen King

Taking your writing seriously doesn't mean giving up the fun of it. – Judy Reeves

Love your material. Nothing frightens the inner critic more than a writer who loves her work. – Allegra Goodman

I make it an adventure every day. – Willa Cather

  • Hear me on this: one of the biggest and best and most daring things you can do for yourself is work to make a writing practice that you actually love. If you're not there yet, it can take a little extra thinking, a bit of mental rearranging ... but it is doable and wonderful to upgrade your approach to writing. How you think about it, how you work at it. 

    So: What are the hardest parts of your writing life right now? What have you been struggling with? What does it look like if you take a deep breath and apply all your thinking, all your creativity, and all your kindness to solving that problem for yourself?

    What would be the biggest game changer for you? 

    What if you take some space and quiet to discover what you most truly need, and then get that for yourself?
  • Next question: Are you writing something (a genre, a storyline, a topic) that you completely love? If so, cool, you may pass "Go" and collect $200. But for the rest of you: it's worth digging deep for a moment and asking why. Why write something that you don't love? 

    I get it. We can fall into this so easily, right? I tried writing "good for me" kinds of things when I first started. Important essays and very serious short stories and edgy poems. But I didn't love it. I just felt like I "should." 

    It took a while, but I started abandoning what I should write, until I finally found my sweet spot with middle grade adventure. Which I LOVE. Like, love-love, a "for keeps" kind of love.

    Like if we go out for coffee, you won't get me to shut up about it. THAT kind of love.

    So what does that look like for you? Are you writing what you most love to read? And if not... why not?
  • Can we just take a moment to applaud Willa Cather for making her work an adventure every day? I love that. So much. And it begs the question of all of us: How are you approaching your work?

    Does it feel exciting to you? Like anything could happen in the words today?

    It can sound weird, but we actually have a choice in how we feel about our work. We can approach it like it's drudgery, back-breaking, miserable.

    Or we can face it like an adventure, something with an exciting destination. We might not know how we'll get there, but we know that we're going, and that's enough to get our blood racing.

    See what I mean? Grace is making your work enjoyable. So how can you bring more playfulness to your tasks? How can you bring a more adventurous spirit (of discovery, of exploration)?

    Can you value your curiosity and wonder, by investigating what you're interested in, and then putting that into words? It's worth it. Every day.
  • Finally, and this is a big one: What is your work space like?

    If you're like me, it is so easy to undervalue the feel and quality of my surroundings. To think, "Meh, it doesn't matter, right?" But oh. It seriously makes a difference to create a work environment that you love.

    I spent time sprucing mine up last summer—so now I face a window. I have a plant (and sometimes flowers!) on my desk, and there are pretty trinkets to look at, and quirky little things that make my heart happy. Candles that smell lovely, and beautiful desktop patterns to further yummy up the space.

    It can seem like a small, dismissible thing. But the happier I am to sit here, the longer I work, and with a lighter heart. 

    (Which means: More work gets done. Cheerfully.)

    Take a look at your writing space, and ask yourself: What are three things you could do, right now, to bring more joy and beauty into your writing area?

 WOW. That was HUGE. 

Seriously, that was an epic amount of thinking, journaling, and brainstorming that you just did! High five.

I hope that you found some great ideas to take into your writing life. Doable ways to bring more light, more joy, and more goodness into your days.

Remember this. When you hit a snag, a block, a rough patch: take a deep breath and come back to these practices. 

And apply more grace, my friend.

* Okay, so we need to talk real quick about Shawn Coyne and The Story Grid. If you're a fiction writer, his book is a must read. 

And I'm not just being cute and enthusiastic, I mean it's like getting a freakin' degree in story structure. And it's also all on his blog (along with lots of other great information and help), so—go there, you must. (If you need more convincing, I raved about how much that book helped me here and here.)

What's been rocking my world lately, though, is that Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl are doing a Story Grid podcast together.

Grahl is the one whose books are guiding my whole book-launch process, and Coyne's book is on my desk as I rebuild the structure of my current draft. 

So, the two of them together, explaining how to get better at fiction? I'm thrilled.

I found myself dogsitting for the last month, and that podcast has transformed every dog walk into Story University. And I couldn't be happier. 

I'm getting so much value out of every episode, but my absolute favorites so far are these: Creating Great Writing Habits; How to Write Faster; Special Guest Steven Pressfield parts 1 & 2; and Turning Pro


And if you are in the trenches of writing a novel, or outlining one, or revising (which is the trench I'm camping out in right now!), all the other episodes will also help you immensely with the gritty details of exactly what you're doing. Highly recommended. Check 'em out!

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

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

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

Um, a lot of time. 

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

Shake it off eventually. And then repeat.

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

But not so much fun.

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously. Sustainability = yum.

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

Know what I mean? 

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

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

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

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

Yikes, right? 

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

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

1: We are continually & constantly refilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here's what I've been doing: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You already knew this, right? 

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

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

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

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

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

Not worth it.

Let's not go into energy debt.

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

Track your pennies for a while.

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

What are the activities that seem to mostly drain you? 

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

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

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

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

And what kinds of things are more exhausting than others? 

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

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

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

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

Vision is good. It's so important. 

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



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

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

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

I panic. How long is this gonna take? 

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

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

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

Instead of just focusing on the very next thing

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

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

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

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

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

This. Is. Hard.

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

Know the feeling? 

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

Yep, panic.

Let's not do that, my friends.

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

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

That next step is our very best friend.

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

That's glamorous enough for me.

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

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

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

Steadiness and sustainability sound a lot more lovely.

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

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

So, where are you at, today? 

Can you take a few minutes and do three things: 

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

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

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

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

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

The One Cure for Your Biggest Idea Droughts

This is the strategy that will bail you out, again, and again, and again. |

If you do everything you can, and you're still stubbornly stuck without a good idea, the best thing to do is stop.


And go do something else.

Go play.

Or go pamper: Take ridiculously good care of yourself. 

Go move. Take a walk, a run, a hike. Dance.

However you do it, it's time to give your project (and yourself) some space.

Take a micro break. Both James Scott Bell and Julia Cameron talk about writing down a question you have at night, and then getting up and writing about it first thing in the morning. 

Wonderful things can happen in your brain overnight. And in the morning, you write 'em all down!

Mmmm. I love that kind of near-effortless idea making!

Or, take a macro break. Like this:

Once, at the end of summer, I quit writing. I was done.

Out of ideas for workable novels, out of ideas for the drafts that were waiting for me, out of ideas for how to fix anything, including myself. 

So for three months, I just read novels. (And felt a bit depressed, but we can skip that part.)

I read and read and read, and I didn't even try to think about new ideas.

And then one October night, I got an idea literally out of a clear black sky.

I was staring at the stars when the crux of a novel dropped right into my head. It fueled a beautiful, dreamy project (which I plan to come back to one day!).

Better than the new project was that feeling: of being unstuck.

Of being hopeful again. With another trail of ideas showing that the writing life was still mine.

So sometimes? Sometimes you really do just need a break.

Give yourself some grace. Do something good for yourself.

And that idea you've been desperate for? Might show up when you least expect it.

We're Going to Be Invincible Writers! (Welcome to Idea Camp.)

It's one of the best feelings as a writer. And I'm gonna get it back. Wanna join me? |

One of my favorite feelings in the writing life is when I'm just brimming with ideas.

You know the feeling?

When you feel like your mind and heart are just giving off sparks. When your creativity feels warm and flexible. 

Solving plot problems feels like a fun challenge (instead of something crushing). Creating stories feels like the best kind of adventure (instead of like bashing your face against a wall).

With plenty of ideas at my fingertips, I feel basically invincible as a writer.

Mmmmmm. It is completely awesome.

It is also completely not how I'm feeling at the moment.

(Anyone with me on that?)

The first half of this year has been more than a little rocky. And in all the chaos, I lost the knack for searching out ideas. 

Worse than that, I fell out of the habit of finding them and picking them up. Collecting ideas like the best shells and seaglass on the beach.

Without the continual practice of finding ideas, writing feels incredibly, um, uphill. As in, completely vertical. Cliff scaling.

It's a struggle, is what I'm saying.

I'm finally getting back into my draft-in-progress, and I want to dive in deep! But the idea-making-machine in my brain is rusty and cold. (Yowch.)

So ... I have this plan. 

I'm declaring June the the month of idea-making.

This is the perfect time to get back into the habit of finding amazing ideas. To practice snatching them out of the air, and spying them around corners. 

I want to pull apart all my favorite idea-gathering practices, remember everything that works, and then open my arms wide to a zillion new ideas.

Does that sound good to you?

Can we create and cultivate a healthy idea-gathering practice?

So that each of us has a huge crop of ideas that get us excited, ideas that motivate us to write and write and write?

Because THAT is how I want to spend my summer. Brimming and sparking with incredible ideas.

Mmmm. Heck YES.

Welcome to Idea Camp. Let's jump in.

Today, let's start by laying a foundation. Getting the ground of our minds ready to explode with ideas for the rest of the month.

(I'm practically jumping up and down with excitement here. Don't mind me. This is just going to save my sanity and my story, so ... let's do a few high-kicks for that!)

I'm a sucker for a definition, and, bonus, I love inventing my own. 

So, for the purposes of Idea Camp, this is our definition of an IDEA (just so we're all clear on what we're looking for): 

an appealing, useable concept with velocity.

Appealing: I am not super interested in just cranking out a bunch of so-called "ideas" that I have zero desire to work on. 

Believe me, I've done it before. I've followed prompts from creativity books and generated a list of stuff that seemed tired and unappetizing. 

That is not what we're looking for this month. 

We want ideas that beg to be used. That hit that mental sweet spot. 

Useable: Obviously. I want stuff I can plug into my writing life, my story-in-progress, or whatever I've got going on. And you do too, right? 

Velocity: When I think of a good idea, it has movement. It pushes me, pulls me, practically shoves me toward a writing pad.

I almost don't notice that I'm jotting it down, but I do feel an incredible rush of energy.

Good ideas aren't static. They have a buzz.

So that's what we're looking for this month: A bunch of ideas that you love, that suit your work, and that fizz with electricity.

Let's start by exploring the most essential part of that whole equation: You. 

Today we're going to create two lists that will be gold in our search for ideas. 

We're going to start by creating a big list of things that you find interesting, intriguing. The subjects that naturally draw out your attention, excitement, and passion.

Maybe that sounds obvious, too easy, or pointless. But here's what I've found: I can be spectacularly blind to what I love. 

Shocking, but true.

When casting around for a new idea, I can totally forget the subjects that most excite me. And then I wind up with a dud that my brain might find "acceptable, workable," but which my heart and creativity absolutely veto.

It's frustrating.

Save yourself the time and the slog by building a catalogue of topics that get your heart racing and your fingers tingling.

Woo! You ready?

Grab some paper or pull up a blank document, and just hang out with these questions for a while.

You can start at the top and work straight through, or start with the ones that seem easiest, or the ones you're most excited to probe into.

However you do it, write down as many answers as you can for each prompt.

  • In general, what intrigues you, draws you in? What kinds of situations, people, occupations, places?
  • What topics, problems, or subjects are you naturally passionate and excited about? 
  • What makes you angry? (On the news, on Twitter or Facebook, in books, in relationships...)
  • What situations, questions, or images fill your brain with interesting possibilities? 
  • What do you find yourself always noticing—in relationships, in public places, in families, in stores, in cities?
  • What do you keep taking pictures of? 
  • What themes and scenarios crop up in your favorite books?
  • What magazines or blogs are you most pulled toward? Which sections in particular? Which columns, articles, posts?
  • What documentaries are you always interested in watching? 
  • What kinds of books are you always ready to pick up?
  • What types of art just grab you? Which forms, what colors, what presentations?
  • What movies are you always willing to see? What themes or premises or genres are your favorites?
  • What are your most recent favorite ideas? (For stories, characters, other projects...)

YUP, I know. It can be hard to step out of the way you think, and take notes on your own mind. It's tough for me too!

Come back to this list a few more times, cycle back through the questions, and add to it. The longer your list, the more options you'll have later.

Because this, my friends, is an extremely valuable practice: to find out what you love. To keep studying where your best ideas will spring from.

We'll be coming back to this list again and again this month.

Whew! Shake out your hands, shake out your brain, and then:

Let's make a second list. This is the Curiosity List!

It's definitely related to the first list, but it has a slightly different flavor.

Ever since reading Elizabeth Gilbert's fantastic book on creativity, Big Magic, I've started keeping a Curiosity List.

And I LOVE my Curiosity List. 

It's pretty self-explanatory: Any time something crosses my path that makes me think, "huh, that's kind of cool," I add it to the list. (My latest entries: the dances of bees, and mimes in Paris—they even have a school!) 

Unlike our first list, this isn't necessarily stuff I know a lot about. It's not going to be the subject of a bunch of conversations of mine, or something I've diligently been studying.

I don't even have super strong emotions about any of the items.

It's just a list of little things that sort of nudge my mind. Things I'm, well, curious about. (Bats that live under bridges, Cambridge University, the legends of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, near-space travel...) 

So what good is a Curiosity List?

Well, in Elizabeth Gilbert's terms, it's a list of clues.

Clues to where your next ideas could be. Clues to what projects you'll want to pursue, what subjects you'll want to learn more about.

(I spend twenty minutes on Fridays just diving into one of the items from my Curiosity List. I just explore, I take notes or I don't, and I have a lot of fun doing it!)

Like the first list, this is a map to where some of your best ideas are going to be.

So, what are you curious about? 

What beckons you? What's intriguing—even if only slightly?

Even if it doesn't seem to have anything to do with writing, your work-in-progress, or anything you could create with?

Even if it seems "dumb" or random? Write it all down.

Push yourself to list at least twenty things that nudge your curiosity. 

Topics, stories, types of architecture, animals, situations, people, occupations... anything at all. 

Once you start, you might get on a roll. And that's great.

If you can, get fifty down. Or more. 

Keep coming back to it, during the rest of this month, and keep building it.

Try to notice when something catches your heart, makes you smile without realizing it, makes your heart leap a bit. 

Stay alert to anything that catches your interest, anything that snags your curiosity. Even just a little. Even just barely.

Whew! THAT was some seriously important work! Everyone go get chocolate, or wine, or both. (Wait, is it still morning? Cream in your coffee, then.)

These two lists are going to be super helpful the rest of the month.

They're gonna shape where and how we dig for new ideas. They can help us resuscitate ideas that aren't quite right (by sprinkling in one of our beloved or curious topics).

Best of all, they'll help us know when we're on the right track toward ideas that feel like magic. 

Ooooh, feel that?

I think my idea-making machine just gave off a few sparks.

When You Absolutely Can't Keep Writing, Try This

Has desperation set in with your manuscript? Here are your desperate measures. Four strategies to help you keep going when you thought you just. couldn't. even. |

And then. The day comes when your brain feels as lively and full of words as a rubber pancake. 

And you hear yourself saying the dreaded words: "I think I've hit a wall."

What do you do? When your eyes are buggy, your fingertips numb, and your grip on the language isn't exactly a grip?

What do you do when you can't keep writing, but there's too dang much of the draft still to go?

You throw out every single standard or expectation for this draft that you're still holding on to.

ALL of 'em.

(Don't panic. You can bring your standards back when things are moving again. But for now, you just don't need them. For now, the goal is: Unstick this word machine and get it back on track!)

Here are four tricks I use to lower the bar, shake up the draft, and get my story moving again.

1. Forget about paragraphs: Start writing in list form.

What?! Like, with bullet points?

Yes! Certainly! Why not?! 

If your story is stuck, and you have no idea what should happen next, list the possibilities.

Right there in the draft. Yes, really! 

And let your characters talk back to you about each one. Conduct a little story interview.

Explore the different options: not by thinking about them, but by writing. 

Write down what you love about the different options. Write down what draws you deeper. And when a possibility makes your heart beat a little faster, start writing your draft in that direction.

2. Don't worry about writing actual sentences either.

Judy Reeves writes about the power of creating a run-on sentence: every time you'd naturally write a period, try putting a comma, and then keep on pushing.

She says, "Follow the last word with another specific image that takes the writing further, then do it again and again." 

When I first heard that, I thought, Yeah, right, whatever.

Then I tried it, and whoa: She's totally right. It unlocks doors. And it helps me feel more like an explorer-writer, and less like a this-has-to-be-done-CORRECTLY writer.

Which is really good news for getting past walls in the draft.

3. When your story's really on the rocks, talk to yourself.

Last year, I hit an absolute wall in my manuscript. Half the characters were stranded in a farmhouse, with unknown and undefined villainy pressing in around them, but they didn't have any kind of game plan... and neither did I

I was so stuck. After a LONG time of staring at my notebook, I switched tactics: I started talking to myself about the story... in narrative form. 

I started scribbling like this: "Okay, Lucy, so they're all at the farmhouse waiting, but who wants to just watch characters wait? So what SHOULD they be doing? Is anyone getting ready for the climax? Because they totally should be. Okay. Which characters are really involved in this section, and what skills do they have? What are they worried about? Is there some narrative something I haven't cashed in yet? A subplot that hasn't gotten its due in a while? How's Claire doing? What about that one guy--we haven't heard from him in a while. Maybe I should explore... "

I know. It doesn't make for exciting reading. But I kept on writing like that. Letting my pen keep moving, asking myself questions, searching for what should happen next.

And guess what. After quite a few pages of rambling, I found it. 

I wrote my way out of that problem, and back on track. 

(Yes, some very strict people might argue that this isn't actual WRITING on my actual STORY and should therefore NOT COUNT... but let's all check our writing-a-first-draft guidebooks, shall we? It isn't about being strict.

When I revise, I'll be able to consider all the possible ways of filling that narrative hole: All my talking to myself is a giant placeholder. A placeholder studded with actual ideas.

And since my goal was finish the draft and not solve this plot dilemma right now and perfectly, this solution totally worked.) 

4. Switch your writing medium.

If you've been writing on a computer, try writing by hand. (I did all of last year's Nanowrimo by hand! I promise it can be done!) 

If you're already writing longhand, try swapping your notebook for a stack of index cards. Or even little sticky notes.

It's easier to look at a small piece of paper and say: "Okay, so what might happen next?" And even a very tired brain might roll its eyes, and say, "Well, sure, I can write THAT much."

Whichever method you try, remember this: The point of a rough draft (especially a Nanowrimo draft) is to GET SOMETHING DOWN ON PAPER.

You're getting the idea down. You're exploring possibilities. 

It is supposed to be rough. The edges are meant to be jagged and frayed. There are supposed to be plenty of holes! 

So when you feel like you can't keep going, do a quick expectations check. Figure out which standards you're still clinging to, and drop 'em! 

Don't just accept imperfection: rush out and find it! Give it a huge hug! Because it's your best friend when the writing is hard.

You can fix the holes later, I promise. And it's so much easier to fill holes in a finished draft.

Resuscitating a permanently-stalled one, on the other hand, is brutal.

Write messy. Write muddy. Fall down a lot. And keep on writing.

Can We Stop Being Weird About Writer's Block?

Are we blocked? Are we lazy? Let's get real about writer's block. |

Confession: I promised myself that I would never talk about writer's block. I mean, we've heard enough about it by now, right?

We've heard the debate: Does it exist, does it not exist. Are we lazy, are we unprofessional, or is inspiration a huge mystical thing and we haven't done the right sacrifices...

I'm tired of people saying, "I don't feel like writing today THAT MEANS I HAVE WRITER'S BLOCK, DOESN'T IT."

Oof. No. That's not what it means. 

And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are the people who shout: "Writer's block is just a construct. No other profession hides behind this. Be a professional."

I find that point of view extremely . . . unhelpful. (I'd like to hear what they have to say to a runner with a broken leg. Is that just a construct?) 

I believe that inspiration can be sought and found. I've done some excellent writing on days when I would have given my teeth to not write. Sometimes I go to my desk kicking and screaming.

But: I do think that there are times when we just can't write. There are times when your writing project cannot and will not go forward. 

The blocks that I've hit fall into three categories. And because I'm clever and subtle, I'll just call them Small, Medium, and Large. Here's what they're like, and a few ideas for how to get around them. Okay? Let's go.

The Small Blocks

What it feels like: These are the days you look at your computer or your draft, and you just feel this huge upwelling of "meh." This is your internal, "I would really rather not." It can keep you from your writing for a day or two... And that can grow into a few weeks. 

What that might mean:

  • This is hard.
  • I'm not prepared.
  • I'm really out of love with this part of the process.
  • Chocolate.

What you can do about it:

  • Writing is hard. So, this is an accurate assessment. Look around at how you're moving forward, and see if you're making it harder. Are you putting restrictions on your work that maybe you don't need right now? Can your deadline be adjusted? Is your topic too restrictive? Do you maybe need to bring in a bit more play, try to have more fun?
  • Get your tools out. Are you writing from an imaginatively dry place because you didn't research? (I do this all the time! Ack!) Maybe you need to browse a reference book or four, maybe you need to do a little Internet rabbit trailing? Or, maybe it's a writing skill that you need: grab a book on scenes, on structure, on dialogue. You can learn anything. Take the time to go for it.
  • You might be getting near burnout. Try working on a different part of the project. Try cajoling yourself back into it with some playful exercises. Give yourself an intentional, guilt-free day off to try and get some perspective. Read for fun. Take a nap. Clear your head for a bit, and then go back to it. Reward yourself for every step forward.
  • Eat the chocolate. Always. 

The Medium Blocks

What it feels like: It feels like there's an actual obstacle between you and your work. Your brain is fizzing-full of anxiety. Or, your brain is wiped clean of any real ideas. You go through your usual tricks, but the words are all coming out sideways. There is angst. Deep frustration. In spite of faithfully showing up and "trusting the process," you feel like you're just spinning your wheels.

What that might mean:

  • I'm not going to make the deadline.
  • I'm panicking.
  • The topic is wrong. Or the point-of-view is wrong. Something's just... wrong.
  • I can't keep working because I'm just making it worse.

What you can do about it:

  • Find a way to get yourself more time. To breathe. Deadlines are awesome to get you moving. But if you've taken a wrong turn, they might just help you get lost faster. Lighten your load, any way that you can.
  • It is really hard to imagine new things when you feel like you're writing your way off a cliff. Take a few days to recapture your perspective. Why did you start this story in the first place? What was it that you loved about it? Go for a long walk, and just think about the good parts of your story. Find a way to get back to the heart of what you're writing: take the time to do that.
  • A lot of what we call "writer's block" is really a huge detour sign. It's the part of the creative process that says, "You can't get there from here. You can't go that way." This is a really good thing. See it as a chance to look at all your options. Have you gone off a better, original track? Or are you a slave to your original vision, while your story wants to try a different way? Freewrite. Do a lot of freewriting. Give yourself a week to explore other ideas, other angles. Run down all the other paths for a while. Keep your grip light. When something you jot down gets you excited, keep going!
  • Perfectionism is writer's block's BFF. They show up together. You have to kill perfectionism. Really. Be merciless. Drafting is about making messes, making mistakes, and doing the wrong thing. You're going to have to redefine success. Success is: another day with words in it. Accept that your novel will not get better in a straight line. In fact, give yourself permission to totally screw it up. Write that down on paper, and sign it. Post it by your desk. I'm serious. I have to do this all the time to keep going.

The Large Blocks

What it feels like: A large block is a total inability to deal with words. (Sometimes accompanying a total inability to get up in the morning.)

I've hit this kind of block three times in my writing life. And each time, something else in my life had gone very wrong. So a large block might come calling if you're in a season of pain, depression, or a huge life transition.

What that might mean:

  • I'm in a state of total exhaustion.
  • Words are broken. I have zero faith in writing, zero confidence in my ability to write.
  • I can't write. I have nothing to say.

What you can do about it:

  • Let yourself off the hook. With everything. Take all productivity demands off the table. Put all projects on hold. This is serious: seek physical and emotional health more than any writing goal. Sleep. Sleep a lot. Binge on Doctor Who for hours (or some such thing). Do the gentlest, kindest things for yourself. Other professions let people have sick days, right? Take care of the writer; don't worry about words for a while.
  • If you've been hurt by someone (if your words have been taken and twisted and used against you), it can be really hard to put pen to paper. Really, really hard. I've found my way back to words through reading Billy Collins's beautiful poems. They're simple, charming, and moving. They got me believing again in the power of a few well-placed words.
  • In moments of huge transition, it can happen that you lose a sense of who you are. I once fell very suddenly and (it seemed) irrevocably out of love with writing. Ready to walk away, for good. So I did stop writing. Instead, I read. For two months. And then, out of the blue (it seemed), I had a new novel idea that was so precious it took my breath away. If you can read a whole bunch, I'd say just do that. Read yourself silly. Give it time. Don't force yourself to make any decisions about your writing future: just give yourself a lot of words to read. And wait to see what happens.

Dealing with blocks. You have to be your own doctor, to an extent. Diagnose yourself; discover what works for you.

If you're in this writing game for the long haul, you'll be doing this from time to time. So it's a good skill to have: you're learning to listen to your life, to look for signs of growth, signs of trouble. Keep practicing--you'll get better at it.

And you'll find your own best ways around the obstacles you hit. For me, the way around even the worst of blocks boils down to this:

Let yourself play. Stay curious. Seek health. Surround yourself with words. And give it time.

Do you have any anti-block strategies to share? Writer's block stories? Let's keep encouraging each other! 

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Beating the Writer's Paradox and How to Keep Going.