It’s Never Too Late

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I love Roxane Gay’s work, and when a friend sent me a link to a response in the The Sunday Review’s “Ask Roxanne:” Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?  I appreciated her response, and the honesty regarding her own struggles to be published and recognized as a writer. Her envy, her despair, her anger - and her acknowledgement that we can do everything right, we can be really good, and still not gain recognition - are all refreshing, because they’re true.

Of course, the ultimate answer to the question has to be a resounding NO! As long as we are physically and mentally able to work toward them, we should not give up on our dreams. And in terms of creative dreams, there has never been a better time in terms of opportunities to put your work out there. Self-publishing opportunities abound; Patreon and other crowd-funding sites allow creatives to find fans who will support their work; the internet offers unending ways to be seen and heard. In fact, it’s not so much a challenge to put your work out there these days as it is to gain an audience in a world of endless distractions and calls for attention.

Some people are happy creating on their own, without worrying about finding an audience or dealing with the business end of things. Some have a specific dream, that has to do with wider acclaim and possibly riches (why not?). And sadly, some people do give up, beaten down by the harsh realities of rejection, audience indifference, or their own self-doubts.

Some are so paralyzed by self-doubt and fear they never get started. Or they got sidetracked by other responsibilities, and never got back to earlier creative pursuits. Or possibly, their dream didn’t manifest in a way that felt like authentic success. It is from these people I sometimes hear, wondering if it’s too late. And my answer is always some version of: “Will you be asking that question the same time next year? What could you have accomplished in that time, if you only started today?”

The reality is, we can’t think our way to the correct answer. We can’t know what may be in store for us. We can only act. Take that first step: sign up for a class, or coaching; buy materials; promise ourselves we’ll dabble, no set goal in mind, for ten minutes a day. We can’t know for sure that success will take the form we anticipate, but we do know that no success of any kind will come if we don’t act. Start small, and trust that your ambitions will grow as your skill grows. And know that, whatever happens, the only failure is the failure to act. Now. Today.  

Intentions for the New Year

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After the hectic pace of the holiday season, the week before New Year’s Day - the last week of the year - can be a time of reflection and intention-setting for the upcoming year. Notice I said intention-setting, and not goal-setting. Our productivity may have faltered over the past few weeks. I know my writing time has been impacted by baking, shopping, wrapping presents, attending parties, etc. All this is good and fun! A break in the routine can be healthy, in fact (regardless of how actually healthy we’ve been…).

However, sometimes it can be hard to get back into the routine. Setting specific intentions and making a commitment ahead of time can help us get back on track faster, and start out the New Year strong.

Here are a few suggestions to help:

  • First, reflect on the past year. What were your goals and intentions? Did you meet them? What can you appreciate about your efforts? What do you wish you had done more of? You may want to write about this in your journal.

  • It’s fine to set overall goals (“I will finish my novel by the end of the year.”) but if you want to meet them, specific intentions are much better than vague resolutions. For example, “I will write 500 words a day, five days per week.”

  • In that vein, think about what’s doable for you. Set your initial intention as low as you need to for it to actually happen. “I will spend 15 minutes per day on my writing” will get you started. You can add time, or number of words, later, when you have re-established a routine.

  • Write it down. Don’t just say it in your head. Write it in your journal, or on a big piece of paper you see every day. Tell a friend. Maybe commit to regular check-ins with that friend, to help keep you going when things get tough.

Do these things, and when the New Year starts, you’ll be ready to go. If you’d like, share your intentions with us in the comments! Or, share your accomplishments from this past year. My intention: to write 800 words per day. Gotta push through and finish the next draft of my novel!

Gift Ideas for Writers and Creatives

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As many of us start our holiday shopping, we may find some people on our list who could use a little creative inspiration to start off the new year. (And maybe we could think of getting a little something for ourselves…). Some are specific to writers, but others could be ideas for painters, photographers, or other creative types.

Of course, there are many classic books on creativity and writing, but here are a few recent ones to consider:

Draft #4: On the Writing Process - John McPhee 

Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age - Jeff Goins  Or his earlier book, You Are a Writer, So Start Acting Like One 

Leonardo DaVinci - Walter Isaacson (a new biography, including about the ways Leonado can influence creativity today)

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process - Joe Fassler

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen - Mary Norris 

Other ideas:

Gift subscriptions to a magazine about their favorite creative pursuit - e.g. Poets and Writers or The Writer, Food Network Magazine or Cook’s Illustrated, Outdoor Photographer or Digital Photo… you get the idea.

The Amazing Story Generator: Creates Thousands of Writing Prompts - (could also be interesting for visual artists).

Aqua Notes waterproof notepad -  for all those who get their best ideas in the shower.

For writers with a visual bent, how about The Writer’s Coloring Book? . Not just a coloring book but a method for integrating story planning visually, with color, mandalas, diagrams, etc.

The Writer’s Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the “Write” Side of Your Brain, by Jamie Cat Callan 

If you really want to get fancy, try Bose noise-cancelling headphones, or a day (or a week) at a hotel, B&B, or somewhere where they can go to get away from it all.

If you know a friend who does Artist’s Way-style Artist Dates, why not give a gift of some creative activity or outing?

If they live in a cold climate, maybe fingerless gloves or fuzzy slippers to keep their extremities warm while working?

And of course, the writerly staples such as coffee, teas, mugs (and mug warmers), high quality pens and notebooks, chocolate covered espresso beans to keep them going (or is that just me?)

In other words, if you know a creative person, why not get a little creative with their gift? If you have any other ideas, let us know in the comments!

Creativity, Gratitude, and Abundance

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We’ve reached a milestone here at Set Your Muse on Fire! This marks the 50th post, or the 50th issue of the email newsletter. Whew! As we come up to the rush of the holiday season, and Thanksgiving in particular, this milestone reminds me to be thankful - first, to any and everyone who reads my blog or newsletter. Thank you! You help me feel like I’m not just whispering into the wind. Thank you also to my coaching clients, who amaze and inspire me with your creativity, your love of writing, and your persistence in the face of obstacles both small and large. A huge thank you to my own teachers, mentors, and writing friends, who in turn keep me going when my own faith and energy are flagging.

Gratitude makes us humble, and also opens up our world. We can’t feel small, or inhibited, or insignificant, when we reflect on all we have to be grateful for in terms of our creativity. We owe it to ourselves, and to the world, to be as big as we want to be in our creative expression. The famous Marianne Williamson quote comes to mind:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
― Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles"

We can’t create well from a place of fear, of constant doubt and feelings of inadequacy. We create well when we embrace the abundance of our own fertile imaginations. Gratitude helps us remember that there are people willing to support and encourage us. Gratitude reminds us to look at our successes, not just what we perceive to be our failures.

I think of my creative self like a tree in the forest: it needs sunlight and water and air and good earth to spread its roots and branches. It sometimes goes dormant, its leaves fallen, the sap flowing so slowly, hardly oozing along. Without care, it can be crowded out, shriveled, succumb to spiritual blight. But new growth, new energy always comes. I try to remember its cyclical nature. I try to nourish it all through its seasons, in whatever way I can. And I try to be consciously grateful for it, and for my fellow trees, all manifestly creating ourselves, season by season.     

Friday Favorites: Interviews That Inspire

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Why are we addicted to hearing about other writers at work? We read interviews to try to glean the magic formula for "how it's done." Even knowing that everyone's creative process is different, we search for inspiration, craft knowledge, ideas, and practices we can use for ourselves. There are plenty of places online that offer interviews with authors, but some curated collections are worth going back to again and again.

One interview collection has come out recently: Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, by Joe Fassler. He interviews contemporary writers like George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others. He asks “What inspires you?” and elicits a passage from something they read that was life-changing. Because he interviews an eclectic group, the answers come from a wide range of literary influences.


Of course, there are the classic volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton et al., which feature a more literary bent, with the added bonus of writers being interviewed by writers. These are culled from years of such interviews, so you can read interviews with people like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other  acclaimed writers. These have been around a while, but are worth going back to for their discussion of craft, influences, and literary history.

One of my favorite interview collections is The Wand in the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, ed. If you love fantasy, this is a wonderful series of interviews with people like Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander - some writers I grew up reading, others I discovered later. They discuss their inspirations, writing rituals and advice for aspiring authors. If like me, you grew up reading fantasy, you’ll love this book (although there were some surprising omissions - I guess you can't include everyone's favorites). Note that it was published in 2006, so omits some of the more modern writers who might be interesting to talk with if a volume II comes out. There is a dearth of writers of color, for example - common when there were relatively few who were well-known, but able, thankfully, to be remedied now. Leonard Marcus? Time for another collection?

Do you have any interview collections you find inspiring? Share them with us in the comments.

The Long Game of Overnight Success

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This blog post (“On the Slow Pursuit of Overnight Success”) by Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has been lurking on my list for a while, and it seems a good time to link to it, after last week’s post on dealing with rejection and No. Her story about her early attempts at publishing and the long slog of almost-made-it and rejection and battles with her publisher, and finally becoming an “overnight success” with her eighth book is valuable. She worked hard, and gave it everything, and had some opportunities that some of us would envy, and almost gave up anyway. But she persevered, and wrote the book she wanted to write, and her career has taken off (full disclosure: I haven’t read any of her books. She’s now on my list of authors to check out, despite the piles of books already covering my chairs, my tables, my sofa, my bookshelves...).

There is no one route to success. Success might look different to each of us. Comparing ourselves to others might be inevitable to some extent, but deadly in playing the long game that leads to a successful writing career. It is one of the truisms in writing that you have to love the process if you’re ever going to get to the end product of publishing your book(s) in whatever form. And if you do become successful, in terms of publication and contracts and an eager public awaiting your next book, then you have deadlines and tours and fan interactions and all kinds of demands - no more lurking in your little cave, writing what you want, when you want! So enjoy the process of wherever you are at this moment, even as you work toward the next stage of your career.

The final words of her post are “Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.” We should all print out these words and post them above our writing desks. Maybe we’ll never achieve NYT bestseller status. Maybe we will. But we’ll never know unless we persevere, we keep learning our craft, we put our stuff out there, and keep the faith in our writing, and ourselves. V.E. Schwab didn’t get where she is by giving up, and so neither should you. If you’re in a place where you’re hearing No more than you’d like, or it seems you’re spinning your wheels and not getting any traction in your writing career, just remember to keep going, and maybe you too will eventually achieve “overnight success.”

Mental Mastery: The Art of Dealing With No

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This week, I received a rejection from a writing conference fellowship I’d applied for. In addition, I haven’t heard from an editor I submitted to, and the deadline for hearing from her is drawing very close (and as with so many editors these days, no response equals No).

Hearing No is never fun, but it’s a fact of any working creative’s life. Sometimes it feels like one No after another. It can be very discouraging, even when you know it’s not personal. And that is the truth - it isn’t personal. It just isn’t the right project, for that person, at that time. The reality is, you will likely hear No a lot more than you hear Yes. We have to develop inner resilience to carry us through those times when we’re the universe seems to be sending us more Nos than Yeses.

It’s okay to feel disappointed. If we didn’t, that would mean the goal - however we’ve put ourselves out there - is meaningless to us. In which case, why do it at all? Our instinct, when we feel an uncomfortable emotion, is to push it away, and tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way. So, take a deep breath and sit with the disappointment. Maybe journal about it - what you hoped would happen, how you feel now that it didn’t turn out. Get it out of your system. Sometimes, as I’m writing in this way, my thoughts start to take a more positive turn. I start to think of other ideas - new possibilities for this project, or new projects all together. It gets boring to whine about the same thing for too long.

Maybe sleep on it. Things often look better with some distance.

Then, get up. When one project doesn’t work out, you have to decide: do I give up on it? Do I figure out how to change it? Do I resubmit it? Do I work on something else? Generally, if it’s a writing piece you’re submitting, the best combination is to immediately turn around and submit it to the next person on your list. Then, get to work on the project in progress you’re working on. Have more than one thing going at once, so a rejection of one doesn’t stop you in your tracks. Sometimes, if you get a number of similar comments on one project, it’s worth going back and thinking about what they’re saying, and seeing if the changes make sense to you. In the case of my fellowship proposal, all I can do is try again next year, with a different topic, and see if they like that better. It can be difficult to keep going, after many rejections. It can lead to all kinds of wondering if it’s all worth it, if this is really what you want to do, if the chance at the dream is worth the constant heartbreak. Because although we can rationalize and intellectualize our responses to rejection, it still hurts.

At these times, what keeps us going?

  • The creative habit - our day to day practice.
  • Our creative community - the people we can go to for advice, inspiration, commiseration (and celebration!).
  • Ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer, and connect with that answer.
  • Ask yourself, What is the next step I need to take to achieve the outcome I envision?
  • Realize that the only way out is through. The only option, other than moving forward, is to give up. When you embrace that truth, you may find the energy you need to begin again.

These work because they remind us that we aren’t powerless victims of an unfair system. We have agency, and we can develop what social psychologists term an internal locus of control. This means we can determine our actions and reactions in the face of challenges and disappointment. We look to our own resources rather than looking outward for praise or blame (conversely, this is called having an external locus of control). We may have to practice this mental habit diligently so we don’t get sucked into a whirlpool of negativity every time we hear a No.

We can develop good mental habits that can keep us working, instead of paralyzing us so we don’t create for days (or weeks, or months, or years). As writers and creative people, we might be especially sensitive - but we can’t let that be the excuse that takes away our agency. Part of being an artist is to develop both the sensitivity to do the work, and the mental toughness to deal with the challenges that come from putting that work out into the world. This doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna, or dealing in so-called “magical thinking,” but consciously developing the mental habits that reinforce an internal locus of control. Use the 5 Steps above to help you develop this habit, and enjoy greater productivity.

What are your tactics for overcoming rejection, and the inevitable No?

Do You Spend Your Time Mindfully?

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Image

So…. how did a Week Without Technology go? For me, not surprisingly, it was a lot harder when I couldn’t get away from it. In previous situations where I’ve gone without tech, it’s been because I didn’t have internet access. It was wonderfully liberating, but I also didn’t have the itch to scratch, because it just wasn’t available. This week, I’ve had to use the computer for work quite a lot, and being on it makes it tempting to “just check” email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or some other site. Need more organic seaweed-based body wash from Ireland? Let me see if Amazon has it… No! Must wait! Aargh. I did find it interesting to track where, when, and how I usually use tech.

Normally the first thing I grab in the morning is my phone, because it has my alarm clock. Then, I use my meditation app on the phone to listen to and time my meditation. Some days this week, I used the GPS on my phone to get from here to there. This week coincided with a webinar I had already signed up for - 1.5 hours per day. I also had a conference proposal to submit, also online. Was I perfect outside of that? Nope. I managed to stay away from social media, but couldn’t resist email. I found that checking email (non-work related) can eat up an hour of my day, and combine that with “just one round” of a game and it could go longer. So, I started to set a timer. I think I’ll do that every time I hop on the internet from now on - preferably one that ticks, so I can hear my life ticking away, and decide if that’s how I want to spend it. Technology isn’t bad. It’s just that it can be addictive, and like any addict, it’s easy to tell ourselves “Just one more…” Just one more game. Just one more email. Just let me check this site. As any addict in recovery knows, the first step is to admit you have a problem. The difficulty with tech addiction is that it’s almost impossible to stay away from it since it’s so entwined in our daily lives. So, mindful usage is the key.

What was I able to do with time I had when I tore myself away from tech? Well, mostly graded papers (ahem). But I also:

  • Baked apple-cinnamon muffins
  • Baked brownies
  • Read books
  • Took a long walk in a new area I hadn’t explored
  • Sorted through papers, clothes, books, from my mom’s move
  • Decorated my house for Halloween/fall
  • Writing!

Maybe I would have done this stuff (or some of it) anyway. But I was consciously staying away from the usual tech temptations, and I found that I had more time than I’d been aware of. I could think about what I wanted to do, rather than feeling hounded by what I needed to do. I felt happier, more productive, and more engaged with the world around me. What this showed me is that I have more control over my time than I think do. We all face busyness, overwhelm, and distraction.

Here are some tips that will help you keep more focused and mindful, especially when writing:

Use site blockers diligently when you know you have creative work to do. Set them so they’re still going first thing in the morning, or whenever you normally schedule your writing time. That way, you won’t have the option of going off on fruitless surfing expeditions. If you need to do research, mark it on the page and keep going. Plan a specific time to do research later on.

Resist the urge to check your phone every time you have a “down minute.” Look around you. Engage with someone. Notice the sensory details of what’s going on. Daydream. If you’re a writer, these are all essential actions that feed your writing. Free your mind from the constant distraction game. Put your phone in another room while you are working. Lock it in your car and park it several blocks away if that’s what it takes. Exercise is good for you.

Also, recognize that we enjoy a lot of what we do online - so don’t deprive yourself, or scold yourself for doing it. Just plan a time to do it mindfully. Decide when and for how much time you’ll be online, checking email, social media, etc. Set a timer, and adhere to that time. The Pomodoro Technique (which I’ve written about here before) helps with setting boundaries for play as well as work. It’s your life - how will you spend it?

Try This: A Week Without Technology

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In Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, she asks people to refrain from reading for one week. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, and I find most people who come to that task of that chapter don’t try very hard, or at all, to do it.

However, reading this article in The Guardian: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” made me think again about the power of technology and social media in our lives, and how ubiquitous – and addictive – it is.

When Julia Cameron originally wrote The Artist’s Way, the internet as we know it didn’t exist. Social media didn’t exist. Smartphones (cell phones) didn’t exist. Sure, there were computer and video games, but they didn’t exist in the amount or quality they do now. In other words, we operated in a world of fewer distractions based on instant gratification and ultra-connectivity. Plenty of people have written about the Age of Distraction and what it might be doing to our brains, our intelligence, and our creativity (I wrote about it back in July) but I imagine most of us nod, sigh, and click to the next thing. What are you gonna do?

Well, in the spirit of Julia, I’m going to propose A Week Without Technology. Well, within some guidelines: you can use a computer if you need it to work a paid job, and you only use it for the designated tasks of that job. You can use a cell phone if you don’t have a landline, or if you only use it for a specific call/text connection (i.e. to set up a time to meet someone). That’s it. If you’re a writer, write longhand, using pen and paper. (Yep, even if you’re editing. Just try it.) No social media, no email not directly related to your paid employment, no web surfing or blog-checking, no video games (not even computer solitaire). If you read, try making it an actual printed book. Do whatever you have to do to make it happen, using whatever blocking apps you need to. If you can shut your home computer down and put it out of sight, do so. Same with your cell phone, your IPad, or other devices that lure you into the endless time-wasting, addictive labyrinth.

Journal about how you feel. Is it difficult? In what ways, specifically? What are you doing instead? Do you suddenly have more time on your hands? Do you have more energy? More anxiety, or less? How do you feel, physically and mentally? Most importantly, did you spend more time on your writing, or other creative pursuits?

Remember this isn’t a punishment, it’s an experiment: how addicted are you? How many hours do you typically spend on devices? It’s only a week: can you get through it? What changes might you decide to make in your life? Join me, Monday Oct. 9 through Sunday Oct. 15. I’ll write my notes in my journal, and post them here when we’re done. I’ve done this before, but only in places where I didn’t have internet access or cell service. When I got back home, I always jumped right back into my old habits. This time I want to be more mindful of technology’s impact on my everyday life – especially my creative life. If you want to join me, let me know in the comments or at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com!

Writing From the Heart

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First of all, apologies for the long hiatus – I was moving my mother, and that meant also having to clean out all of her stuff and sort it into donations, storage, sell, or move. I’m pretty ruthless and unsentimental about “stuff,” my own or anyone else’s, which is a good thing since it all had to be cleared within the month. Add this to the start of the semester with classes, events, etc. and September was a very full month indeed. There is still a lot to be done – it looks like a moving truck exploded in my house right now – but mom is settled in her new place and we’re slowly taking care of all the other hundred details.

To be honest, writing hasn’t been on my top list of priorities this month either. I’ve managed to do a little by spending 15-30 minutes per day on it, just to keep my head in the story. It’s yet another rewrite of a book I thought was done. I like the new angle, but we’ll see if it is really better than the old one.

As I’m engaged in this rewrite, I found this article by my friend and mentor, David Elliott*. He is definitely a writer who writes from the heart (as well as the funny bone) and I love and admire his work. He is a children’s book writer who thinks of the children first, not the adults who give awards or review books, and yet his books have won awards and garnered much critical praise. I wanted to link it here since what he says is so important. Especially when we’re just starting out, we can be tempted to write “to the market.” What’s hot? What’s trending? What do agents and editors want, anyway? On the one hand, marketplace considerations are real. On the other hand, we have to write the stories we feel passionately about telling. We have to find the story that doesn’t let us go, that speaks to us (and hopefully our readers) in an irresistible siren’s voice. I love that kid in the article who knows to ask the important question, who isn’t afraid to ask, even when he doesn’t get a satisfactory response. Like David, I hope that kid grows up and never loses that curiosity or sense of what’s really important. And we should all ask ourselves, when we’re working on a project, Am I writing from the heart? And be open to hear the answer, and to letting those stories that come from the heart flow through us onto the page.

*For more about David and his books, check out: https://www.davidelliottbooks.com/