Friday Favorites: TED Secrets for Writers

janav Creativity, Friday Favorites, Resources, Writing 0 Comments


I’ve been reading Carmine Gallo’s book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Since I teach, learning how to be a better presenter of material is always a good idea (even if I’m not giving a TED-caliber talk every week). Many of the ideas are applicable across creative disciplines as well. The “secrets” Gallo mentions, and how they apply to writers, are:

Unleash the Master Within – Or, be passionate about what you write. With mastery of your material comes confidence that allows your passion to shine through. Nothing takes the place of having a real passion for the story you’re telling. And if you don’t have a passion for writing itself, for communicating your ideas through the written word, you will give up easily.

Master the Art of Storytelling – Stories are compelling to the human brain. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, using stories to make your point allows audiences to respond to what you’re telling them. Stories are how we communicate our experiences as human beings, to other humans.

Have a Conversation – Be natural. In writing, this is called “voice.” What is your voice? Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t try to write in another writer’s voice. Readers pick up on such inauthenticity and reject it.

Teach Me Something New – We love to learn something we didn’t know before. In writing, it might be some new information on a historical period, or how something works, or about the human capacity for love, or redemption… the possibilities are endless, and in reading we often unconsciously look for new knowledge or insight. We’re gripped by wanting to find out more.

Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments – The surprise, the unexpected twist, the ramping up of stakes… these are what keep readers turning the pages. Readers love to find out what what happened next, or how the “heroes” can possibly get out of this big mess. Deliver moments that grab (and keep) their attention.

Lighten Up – Use humor, or at least find ways to moderate the tension. Even thrillers, where the idea is to ramp up the tension throughout, work in “breather” moments, which allow the next tense moments to have a bigger impact.

Stick to the 18-Minute Rule – Or, the paradox of constraint. Sometimes this is the constraint of form (such as a particular poetic form: a sestina, villanelle, sonnet,,,). Sometimes this is in length. We’ve all read books that we later think could have used major pruning by an editor, where the author wandered over a hundred pages with nothing of major import happening. Sometimes, this means that we can get more done in, say, a focused 18-minute writing session than in 6 hours of noodling around, spending most of that time on Facebook. Embrace the constraints and work within them, to produce better, more creative work. (I believe procrastination gets a bad rap: sometimes procrastination is our brain’s way of creating a constraint, thus pushing us to come up with things we might never have thought of without the time pressure.)

Paint a Mental Picture with Multisensory Experiences – This is a no-brainer for writers. Use all your senses to create your story. We tend to hone in on the visual, but we can create richer experiences on the page through judicious use of the other senses as well. This also goes for variety in general: vary your sentence length, your vocabulary, your syntax to keep the reader engaged.

Stay in Your Lane – A.k.a. Write What you know. Or at least, what you’ve learned well enough to convince us of your authenticity. What do you need to know to create a vivid, believable world on the page? Or a character that resonates with us? To me, this goes hand in hand with passion. You don’t need to be all things to all people, and you shouldn’t try to write to trends that don’t evoke any meaning for you. Be you, and write what you care about, from your own unique perspective.

If you’re a visual artist, photographer, or work in another creative form, how might these insights apply to you?

Rise and Shine!

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Writing 0 Comments


Happy Chinese New Year! Specifically, the Year of the Fire Rooster, very appropriate for this blog. (For a fun picture book about Chinese New Year, check out my friend Andrea Wang’s The Nian Monster).

I haven’t been posting as much lately because life outside my blog has been a little crazy – in addition to the MFA residency, I’ve been focusing on the new semester starting, and I’m teaching two courses: Intercultural Communication and Grant Writing. I love my students – they are smart, engaged, and really want to learn – so it’s pleasurable work, but it has left less time for other things.

Also, I received some sad news: Bev Down, the President of the Creativity Coaching Association, passed away recently. She was also my mentor coach through the certification process. It’s a huge loss to the coaching community, and I’ll miss her wisdom and guidance. She brought a combination of warmth and a spiritual focus with a laser-like ability to see through to the real issue at hand. Like the best masters, she made it seem effortless. I hope my coaching skills develop to that level someday!

We’ve reached the end of January. How are you progressing on your goals? Do you have goals that focus on creating new work? Or goals that focus more on revising and completing current projects? Do you go back and forth? Both take different types of energy, and it can be good to trade off so that you don’t get burned out on one project.

One of the most important things about accomplishing goals, of course, is tracking your progress. This in itself can be motivating. Tracking your progress effectively, however, is crucial. For some goals, a simple X marking that you did it that day is sufficient. For long-term and larger goals, however, you need something more sophisticated. It can be helpful to set goals for each week, and then each day, and do a check-in at the end of the week to see how you did. This isn’t meant to punish you if you don’t meet your goals; it’s meant to make you more focused on reaching them, and help you identify blocks that may be preventing you, both internal and external. If you start to set realistic, concrete goals and achieve them consistently, that will give you a sense of accomplishment and motivate you to continue. And if you’re lagging, it gives you a place to figure out what’s really going on. Is it truly a time issue? Or are you stuck because there’s a difficult scene you need to write, and you can’t seem to force yourself to tackle it?

For even greater accountability, you can share your tracking journal with a coach or friend – someone you can trust to encourage you and also help you figure out those “stuck” issues.

Whatever you do, don’t just state a goal that you’ll achieve long term, and then not set smaller goals and track your progress along the way. Large, vague goals lead to endless procrastination and likely failure. Prime yourself for success from the start, and you’ll go a long way toward achieving them!

Goal-Setting for the New Year Part II:

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Today we’ll continue talking about the process of effective goal-setting, as we focus on our goals for the New Year.

If you’ve come up with your list of 3-4 things you’d like to work on, and refined it until you know what accomplishing that goal really means and the steps it will take to do it, then you are ready for the next step.

Here I want to note, however, that ONE goal is perfectly fine. In fact, some research suggests that we do better focusing on one thing at a time, versus multiple things. Research also says that it takes about 66 days to make something a habit. So, if you’d like to do one thing at a time – make a goal for 66 days – that is an excellent way to build habits toward a larger goal.

It can help to write it as a SMART goal:
Specific – specific goals motivate you better than vague ones
Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved it?
Attainable – is it a stretch, but still possible? (Too easy and you’ll be bored. Too hard and you’ll be discouraged.)
Realistic – are you able and willing to work toward this goal at this time?
Timely – set a timeframe within which you plan to reach your goal

Whatever you do, I suggest that you get a notebook (if you haven’t already) so that you physically write down your goals, and keep track of your progress. How you do this is up to you, but the physical act of writing down your intentions for each day is a great way to focus and keep you motivated. And yes, I suggest doing this by hand. There is a vital connection between your brain and your hand moving a pen on paper, that cannot be replicated on a computer. It slows you down, and activates a different part of your brain.

Habit-tracking apps are also good to track your progress. I use Habitbull, but there are many out there. Try one or two to see which suits you best. These are great for “not breaking the chain” as you generally check off or otherwise indicate whether or not you’ve achieved your goal that day. I like Habitbull because it’s very flexible. You can create any type of goal, and put down how often you’d like to do it, and it reminds you if you haven’t checked in that day. If you prefer to use a big wall calendar and check off the days with a big red X, that’s fine too! Whatever you do, make sure you can see your progress. Or lack thereof – sometimes seeing 10 blanks in a row is as strong as motivator as seeing 10 X’s.

Get a buddy: try pairing up with someone (or several someones) for mutual support. You don’t all have to have the same goal. You can check in (I recommend weekly) to stay motivated. Support and accountability are key to creating habits that lead to accomplishing your goals.

So, what are your goals for the New Year? Do you have a plan? I have some things that are short-term habits (take vitamins daily) and some longer-term (revise one of my novels and send it out). I like to put down next steps, e.g. “work on my novel 30 minutes per day.” It might not seem like much, but the idea is to be realistic about the time I have. If I have more, I can write longer. My steps will change as I go through the process.

So, if anyone cares to share their list, let us know in the comments!

Your True North – Goal-Setting for the New Year

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Many people, myself included, are setting some sort of goals or intentions for this year. As we look at all the things we want to change in our lives, it’s easy, in the rush of enthusiasm and optimism of the New Year, to overdo our ambitions. Or to think that we should.

That word, should, is a telling one. When I set goals for myself (or help other people with theirs), I first write down everything I’d like to do differently this year. I usually put them under larger umbrella categories, like “Health” or “Creativity.” I just get it all down on the page, and don’t worry about actually doing them.

Then, I have to go through and get specific: what does achieving that goal really mean? What would I commit to, if I set that intention? Does “finish my novel” mean writing 3 pages per day? 15 minutes per day? If you’d like to try this, make the list, then go through it and identify anything vague, and make it specific. Again, you aren’t committing to anything yet. Do this for everything you listed.

Now, survey your list. As you were writing the specifics it would take to achieve a particular goal, you were probably aware of the energy around each one. Some got you excited: Yes! I can’t wait to do this!. Some, however, may have left you feeling deflated, or anxious, or numb. These are your “shoulds.” Think about these carefully: where do these come from? Are you not excited because they constantly crop up on these lists, and you’ve always failed at following through? Is there a dream you’ve had for a long time, but now no longer feel excited about? Are there things you think would please someone else, but you don’t, in your heart of hearts, want to do?

Cross them off your list. Yes, now. Be brutal if you need to – some may go down screaming. But also remind yourself: they can return. They are not banished forever. If, six months from now, you decide they are worthy of your time and energy, you can put them back on. Maybe by then some of the things you have on your current list will be ingrained habits, and no longer need a lot of time or energy to do (I kept “Meditation” on my list for over a year, marking it down as “done” every day, before I felt satisfied it was an ingrained daily habit).

Get your list down to no more than 3 or 4 things, preferably not all of equal weight. Daily Flossing can go with Finish Your Novel. But if you have Finish Your Novel, Finish your PhD dissertation, and Climb Mount Everest, you may be overreaching a bit (or not, this is your list, after all). I encourage you to think of tiny changes though, to start. If those three are your Big Goals, start small: write 15 minutes a day on your novel, 15 minutes on your dissertation, and exercise for 30 minutes. You get the idea.

The point is, you have to be excited about them, or at least really want to do them. If you’re already, on Day 1, feeling a big heavy weight dragging you down and leading you to check Facebook for the 334th time that day rather than what you said you’d do, you’re in trouble.

Also, having just a few priorities in mind means you won’t get overwhelmed. Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s a sure recipe for failure, and giving up. We only have a finite amount of time, energy, and willpower each day. Decide what you will do, and commit to that, no matter what.

There will be two posts this week, since next week is the MFA residency, and I’ll be… busy. Next time: how to set SMART goals and stay focused.

“Brutal” Truths About Creativity?

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Several people have forwarded me this article: 11 Brutal Truths About Creativity That No One Wants to Talk About, wondering what I think. See? They say. Creativity is hard! As though I’m some creativity magical-thinking Pollyanna. Yes, it is hard. It requires effort and attention. The best things in life do.

I winced a little at the word “brutal” in the title. Creativity, it seems to me, is not best served boot-camp style. But the tone of the article is positive overall, and I agreed with its points. All of us are born creative. Some use our creativity more than others. Some give up at the first hint of “failure” i.e. when the world responds with a yawn or a criticism.

And that is what is brutal about creativity, in my mind: that often, we’re just doing it for ourselves, because even what we truly hope will resonate with people doesn’t always. We can work hard, but when we put our work out into the world, we cannot predict its welcome. Even if we’re not looking for fame or fortune, exactly, we’re looking for validation, or connection. And many of us are looking to make some sort of living from our creative gifts. And yet, the outcome is unpredictable: we experience failure (it doesn’t work) or rejection (no one likes it, or no one cares).

Which is why I often liken creativity to meditative practice. You have to show up, and do the work, no matter how you feel, or how it seems to be going. We focus on process, more than product, even as we may harbor hopes that this will be our breakthrough. One of the “truths” in the article is “it doesn’t get easier.” This can be dismaying to those of us who think if only we work hard enough, we’ll find the magic formula to make brilliant work on a regular basis. But those creatives I’ve spoken with who are “successful” in the sense of being published, or showing their work in galleries, and so on, say the same thing. “I always thought it would get easier, but every time I start a new project, it’s like starting from scratch.” To me, that’s uplifting news. I get to experience “beginner’s mind” all over again. I never arrive, but I’m always on the journey.

As we close out this year, make a commitment to your practice. Embrace the process. Be vulnerable. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Recognize that you have just as much to say about the world as anyone else, and just as much creativity to express it. Get support, set your goals, and allow your creativity to flow.

A Little Creativity Each Day

janav Creativity, Writing 2 Comments

Creativity through cookies!

Creativity through cookies!

I came across this article the other day: Feeling Down? Scientists Say Cooking and Baking Could Help You Feel Better.

It was the subtitle that caught my attention: A little creativity each day goes a long way. The article touts the benefits of the sustained burst of creativity in cooking a meal or baking something, and the effect of focusing and immersing yourself, similar to meditation. The writer of the article is referring to the the concept of flow, a state where you are so absorbed in what you’re doing that the outside world falls away, and you are fully present with the task at hand.

Of course, you don’t have to cook or bake to get this benefit. There are a number of ways to include a little creativity in your life each day. Adult coloring books, which have exploded in popularity recently, are a great way to slow down and become absorbed in using color to create beautiful, often intricate designs. This can apply to any visual art – you can spend the time finger painting, sketching, or whatever you like, as long as it is something you can do without too much preparation or thought.

Freewriting is another way to simply get in the flow of the process and not worry about the product. Set a timer for 5, 10, 15 or however many minutes, and just keep writing, preferably by hand (not on a keyboard). Don’t lift your hand from the page. Don’t censor yourself. You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Dancing in your livingroom is a fabulous way to connect with your body and the music. It requires privacy, of course, so you can really let yourself go without wondering who might be watching. If dancing isn’t your thing, taking a run or even a walk can inspire a similar state, although there is generally less creativity involved. If you’re unsure of your choreographic skills, buy a dance workout DVD and learn the routines. They are usually not too hard but you do have to focus to keep up, which is the point here.

Any form of sewing or knitting, or crocheting, etc. can also work well to keep you busy and absorbed in a creative act. Anything where you are engaging your hands and your brain – working with clay or wood also come to mind – also works well.

To get the benefit of flexing your creative muscle, you should think not just of “relaxing” things to do, or hobbies, but ones that specifically involve your creative brain – things that force you to make choices relevant to the work at hand, toward the completion of a specific goal. If we do too many things that either involve “work” tasks (i.e., our jobs, or the stuff on our endless To Do lists) or passive, reactionary tasks (watching tv, playing online games) our energy is drained rather than replenished. Including a little creative play somewhere in every day helps fuel our overall energy and well-being. It also helps remind us that we are creative beings, and “keeps the engine running” until we can get to our larger creative projects.

Gift Ideas: Best Books for Creatives

janav Creativity, Resources 0 Comments

‘Tis the season, when many people are thinking of buying gifts (and if you sneak in a little something for yourself, why not?). This list of 10 of the Best Books on Creativity from Signature is a great place to start.

I would also add some of my favorites:
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron (she has a number of books on the subject, but this is the classic.)
The Creative Journal, by Lucia Cappacione
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg
The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women, by Gail McMeekin
The Path of Least Resistance, by Robert Fritz
The Nine Modern Day Muses (and a Bodyguard), by Jill Badonsky
Simple Abundance, a Daybook of Comfort and Joy, by Sarah Ban Breathnach
Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman, Carolyn Gregoire
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael J. Gelb

Of course, I also have a ton of books for writers in particular – but sometimes it’s good to just read something focused on creativity in general. And in the case of several of the books above, there are exercises and activities that force you to actually do something, not just think about it. Stepping out of your particular creative niche in order to expand your creative mind and skills can be a wonderful gift to yourself (or a creative you love who could use some inspiration), especially as we head into the new year.

What books would be on your list? Let us know in the comments!

The Power of Awe

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Check out my article in the latest edition of Creativity Calling, the newsletter of the Creativity Coaching Association! I’ve talked about awe in our lives before, but this is an expanded version of earlier thoughts on the subject – needed now more than ever, I think.

What Writers Can Learn From Dancers

janav Writing 0 Comments


This isn’t my idea. Read this terrific essay by novelist Zadie Smith in The Guardian, “What Beyoncé’ Taught Me,” about writing, dancing, high art, popular art, race, gender, and the joy of self-expression. She draws many lessons on writing from different types of dancers, twining the two art forms together in fascinating ways.

Writers, who live so much in their heads, can also learn from the physical expression of dance. Writers need to move, to get the blood and ideas flowing. When the words are stuck, try moving the body. It doesn’t matter if you’re “good” or not. Just expressing your creativity through a more physical medium can loosen your mind as well as your body. After all, our minds and bodies are connected. So feel free to just dance in your living room, or wherever you can. And don’t worry about whether you’re producing high or low art, in your writing or your dancing. Find your own joy, in whatever form of self-expression you choose.

Friday Favorites: No Plot? No Problem!

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As we approach N-Day (November 1, or the start of NaNoWriMo), I wanted to give a shout-out to the book behind the write-a-novel-in-30-days concept. No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days , By Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month. This little book is a humorous, practical guide to getting started on actually writing that novel you’ve been dreaming of.

From preparation, gaining allies, figuring out your physical space, creating incentives, getting food… and actually getting through the 1,667 words per day, and dealing with the mid-month slog and other challenges (illness, lack of support, sudden time crunches), this book takes you through the entire month of novel-writing drama. I highly recommend reading it before NaNoWriMo, so you can appropriately prepare. You can, of course, just show up on Day 1 and start writing, but knowing about and planning for the inevitable setbacks and challenges will help you keep to your goal.

I like the just do it! approach, and think it can work well for those who have spent too much time waffling, or talking about writing without actually writing. The caveat is that you may end up with a mess. When you’re just thinking about making it to a challenging word count each day, a lot of other stuff flies out the window. It can be a good thing: you may surprise yourself and come up with characters and situations you never expected. However, you may, when you are done, have to spend a lot of time figuring out how it all fits together into a coherent whole. And a novel is a big, messy, unwieldy thing in any case (that’s sometimes the reason people give up in the middle – it becomes a hydra-headed, multi-tentacled beast the writer despairs of ever taming).

Outlining can help, of course. And whether you’re an outliner or not, the habit of just writing through whatever challenge you’ve come up against can be a good one to form. Rather than crashing to a halt and abandoning the project for weeks, you just keep writing past it, and resolve to figure it out later.

So, even if you’re not planning on officially doing NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to pick up this book. Plan your own Writing Intensive, on your own or with friends. Modify, if you need to: if 1,667 words per day feels impossible, try an even 1,000. Try it for 66 days (the amount of time some studies show is optimal for creating a lasting habit). I’m a big fan of doing a little each day, but it can also be good to push ourselves once in awhile, and do more than we think we can.