True Grit

janav Creativity, Time Management, Women 1 Comment


My friend and mentor, Pat Lowery Collins, has a fantastic blog about aging and the creative process. She’s a writer, painter, singer and actress (many of us would like to have one of those talents to a professional level). Her latest post really resonated with me. She writes about having spent years creating in a house with a husband and five children, with frequent interruptions and distractions, and often wishing for some solitude and quiet to produce her work. Now that she lives alone, she is having trouble adjusting to all that quiet and time. In particular, she says, “I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect my entire process or how hard it would be to find the support I need within myself.” That sentence compelled me because it’s the battle I fight every day as a single person living a creative life. Many might think my position enviable: no husband or kids to distract me, my time is my own (aside from work, running a coaching business, and taking care of my mother) – and it’s true, I have planned my life that way. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Many of us have difficulty using unscheduled time effectively. I find that sometimes I get more done when I know I only have an hour to work than when I have all day. I have to find it within me to do the work. I talk about internal motivation being more compelling than external motivation, but let’s face it: the power of deadlines and external support means we often get much more accomplished when we take a class, attend an MFA program, or hire a coach, than we do on our own. Ultimately, we need to care about our work enough to do it no matter what, or no amount of external reward or support will keep us going for long. But in those moments when we feel overwhelmed by self-doubt, or feel like we have nothing to say or are afraid to say it or don’t know if we can ever truly communicate, it can be tremendously helpful to have something to push against, or to push us past our self-imposed limitations. We can find excuses for not doing the work no matter what our life situation.

In my comment to Pat, I mention those things that seem to be constraints can be looked at as the “grit that forms the pearl.” We can learn to be grateful for whatever circumstances we have when we realize that if we had no conflict in our lives, no boundaries of time – in short, if we were stranded on a desert island for eternity with nothing to do but create – what would we have to write about? What would compel us then? It’s a challenge, that push-pull of solitude vs. community, of time, of overcoming our fear (which itself gives rise to endless distractions, many of which seem perfectly reasonable at the time). But that is exactly the point: in that space between the tender flesh of the oyster and the hard gritty sand is where the work lies. It’s where the pearl forms, and without being able to endure that discomfort, we’ll never know what treasure we could have created.

Making Soup

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My first post of the new year comes a little later than intended. But here, I get to talk about how easy it is to get derailed from our intentions, the power of community to help get us back on track, and the inspiration that comes from exploring other types of creativity.

I was no sooner back from holiday break, when my mom went into hospital less than a week later. She’s fine now, but during that time I was not only assisting her in getting back home and on her feet, I was also helping coordinate the MFA program residency for the university where I work. To say I had no time or physical or mental energy left over for creative work, is a major understatement. I wrote a few journal entries, and tried to think about and make notes on my monthly/annual plan, but that was it. And I had to accept that, because sometimes other things take priority.

Now that I’m back, my alumni workshop group is having its next meeting at the end of the month, and so I have prepared my manuscript for that. It’s a novel I’ve been working on, in fits and starts, for a while, and it will be good to get back into it. One of the most difficult things to do is get back to a project after a long hiatus. It seems overwhelming, and you can’t remember why you even started it in the first place. Which is why I recommend a) easing into it with a bite-sized chunk of time, and b) focusing on revision or simply re-reading, to get you back into the story. Setting too ambitious a goal right away will make resistance rear its snarling head and make it very difficult to do anything at all.

And finally, it’s the first real snow of the season here in the Boston area, and I’m celebrating by making cheddar vegetable soup and home-made Irish brown bread. Both are a total experiment for me, and that reminds me of the excitement and energy that come with doing something new, that I haven’t done before. It reminds me that living a creative life isn’t just about a particular writing project, but infusing my life with the spontaneous, the unexpected, and allowing myself to have “beginner’s mind” again. Regularly doing something new allows us to bring that fresh mindset to the page, and keeps us from getting stuck in a rut. Especially in the winter, when the doldrums hit and we just want to hibernate until spring, it’s good to shake things up a bit and remind ourselves that creativity is not only our birthright, but our natural way of being in the world.

Don’t Make a New Year’s Resolution!

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Every year, we go through the same thing: we make resolutions about what we will do – exercise more, eat better, write every day… and that goes on for a few weeks, or a few months – and then the enthusiasm wanes, and we go back to our old habits.

One thing is for sure: resolutions don’t work. Resolving to take action isn’t enough. You have to have commitment, and to make a plan.

So, this weekend, after the festivities of New Year’s Eve are over, sit down and really think about what you want to accomplish creatively this year. It can help to take a big piece of paper, and draw your ideas, or just write them out, mind-map style. Then decide on your priorities. Not the ones you “should” do, but the ones that are a little scary, the ones you’re not sure you can accomplish. That’s where the energy is.

• Write them down. This can be on a big piece of paper, placed where you can see it regularly, or in a new journal, on the first page, where you can look back on them every day.

• Think about timeline: what is the end goal? Break it down into smaller pieces. What can you do in 9 months? 6 months? 3 months? This month? It’s helpful at this stage to keep to the big picture, but having a large goal broken down into smaller goals can help with the weekly and daily planning.

• As well as goals, think about rewards: How will you reward yourself at each stage? It’s important to choose things that will help motivate you. Don’t skip this step! When you’re in the middle of a long project, especially, it’s easy for motivation and energy to sink, leaving you wondering why you ever wanted to do this in the first place. The prospect of a reward can help keep you going when beating yourself up about lack of motivation or progress will just make you sink further.

• Finally, plan out your first week. What will you accomplish this week? What specific tiny steps will you take to make your goals a reality? If necessary, make it the tiniest possible step. Can you commit to five minutes per day? If your resistance is really strong, then maybe you have to take it in really tiny steps: the first day, just enter the room where you write. The second day, turn on the computer, or pull out a piece of paper and a pen. The third day, sit in the chair and pick them up. And so on. It may seem ridiculous, but tiny steps can circumvent the resistance very effectively. If it’s tiny enough that you can’t possibly not do it, it’s just right.

So, that’s what I will be doing this weekend. There is power in writing things down, in setting goals and intentions instead of just making resolutions. Look over what you accomplished (or didn’t) this year, and use that as motivation to help you plan your 2016. Make this the year you finally accomplish your Big Goal! If you’d like, share it in the comments. In the next entries, we’ll talk about the power of sharing and finding accountability partners.

A Different Kind of Creativity

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The past few weeks have been full of a different kind of creativity for me, and that’s all right. I’ve learned to embrace this time of year rather than fighting it, and stressing out over all the things I’m not getting done. I’ve baked seven different kinds of cookies and bars, I’m buying presents, wrapping them, going to parties, having dinner with friends… tonight is the first night in over two weeks that I haven’t had to be somewhere or do something to prepare for an event the next day. I still have some baking to do, some presents to buy and wrap, some people to get together with, but I’m able to take a breath now.

I enjoy this total focus on something else for a while… which perhaps goes against my earlier post about get something, anything, done, so you don’t lose the thread. Maybe it’s okay to lose the thread once in a while. Maybe it’s okay to let the brain be occupied by other things, to switch focus, and to come back refreshed, instead of feeling like you’ve been pushing a boulder uphill for too long. I want to write more at a later date about the need for creative habit and routine – showing up predictably so the Muse knows it’s time to work – and also the tension between that and the need for creative stimulation, to not get into a rut until everything feels stale and hollow. But for now, I encourage you, if you are feeling like even a little bit is too much, to just embrace this time of year, knowing that you’ll come back to the creative work when it’s time, and trust that nothing will be lost, and maybe much will be gained.

December Challenge: 5 Ways to Keep Your Writing Momentum During the Busiest Time of Year

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If you’re like me, you find this time of year particularly challenging in terms of keeping up with your creative goals and intentions. Looking at my schedule, I have events almost every night. And that’s not including the shopping, wrapping, baking, card writing, and all the other stuff that is fun but cuts down considerably on time normally spent writing or doing other creative pursuits. When I do get a few minutes to sit down and write, I am tired. And it takes longer to get going because my mind is filled with all the other things on the “to do” list. It’s hard to keep my mind on what my characters are doing when it’s more focused on whether I should bake Speculaas or Red Velvet Cupcakes for the next party I’m attending.

So, what can we do in the face of all the holiday madness?

Set Tiny Goals! Realize that there is, in fact, a lot going on right now, and it’s stuff you’re not going to want to miss. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up doing anything toward your creative goals! Maybe instead of 1,000 words a day, you write 500. Or instead of 5 days per week, you make it 3. The important thing is not to quit completely, or it will be hard to get going again after the new year.

Write Your Goals Down! Don’t just tell yourself “I’ll write tomorrow.” What will you do, exactly? At the beginning of each week, I create a table where I list all my main areas of focus for that week, and then for each day I put in what I plan to accomplish. Today it was “write blog post” (yaay me!). You can use a calendar, a vision board, an app, a notebook… whatever is easiest to use and most importantly, see on a daily basis.

Plan Ahead! Look realistically at the time you have, and write down when you will do what. Don’t assume you’ll “feel like it” when you have a moment. Deciding ahead of time that you’ll write at a specific time on a specific day makes it much more likely that you will actually do it.

Get Creative! Keeping your project fresh in your mind is important. It keeps momentum going, and allows your unconscious to keep working on it even when you can’t put in a big chunk of writing time. A 15-minute daily practice of doing something is better than nothing. Try journaling in your protagonist’s voice every day for a week. Mind-map the next scene. Write the words “what if…” on a piece of paper and let your mind (and pen) run free with your characters and situations. Remember to have fun with your writing and not just view it as another chore to be checked off your list!

Relax! Above all, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t making as much progress as you thought you should. Allowing yourself a little slack now can leave you eager to get going again when the holidays are over, rather than feeling so burned out you can’t even face the page. Use this time to “fill the well” through being creative in other ways – choosing and wrapping gifts, cooking and baking, singing, etc. Enjoy all the things that only come around this time of year, without guilt for what you’re not accomplishing.


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Welcome to Set Your Muse on Fire! This is my first post, and I’m excited to finally bring everything I’ve been working on for the past few years to a wider audience.

I’m a writer and creative who has a passion for doing as well as dreaming. I spent so much time in my teens and twenties being excited about living what I imagined was the “real” writer’s life – but I spent more time imagining writing than actually, you know, writing. I was in love with the idea of writing, and being a writer, with no real idea what that meant.

In my thirties I got my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and later I also became a certified Creativity Coach. Along the way, I learned lots of tricks and strategies for getting the writing done as opposed to dreaming about writing. I’ve hit every block out there, thought about giving it all up, but along the way I’ve managed to write two novels (and am working on a third). I love coaching people toward greater productivity (in whatever form their creativity takes) and teaching them the craft of writing as well.

So, what about you? Are you writing as often as you’d like? Are you feeling stuck, stagnant, wondering if your goals even make sense anymore? Or are you humming along, feeling your work sing, and can’t wait to get to the page every day? Drop a note in the comments and let me know!