Your True North – Goal-Setting for the New Year

janav Creativity, Productivity, Writing 0 Comments

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?

janav Creativity, Productivity, Writing 0 Comments

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

janav Creativity, Writing 0 Comments

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!

janav Friday Favorites, Productivity, Writing 0 Comments

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.

Friday Favorites – Boston Book Festival

janav Creativity, Friday Favorites, Writing 0 Comments

This week heralded the controversial decision to award a Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Some applauded the idea, others found it strange or felt it was wrong to award it to a popular musician, no matter how influential as a songwriter.

Part of the consternation that greeted the Nobel announcement stems from the fear that literary culture is already shrinking. There are so many great writers who do important, powerful work, in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, that standing up for Literature in the classical sense is seen as an important way of celebrating literature itself – as opposed to songwriting, which is not quite the same as poetry. Others feel it’s a breath of fresh air into a rarified, insular world. (For more pros and cons, see this New York Times article.)

In this climate of “what is literature, anyway?” I want to encourage people to go out and celebrate literature, in whatever local festival is offered. The Boston Book Festival takes place on Saturday, October 15, and features a full day of panels with writers talking about writing and the world (mass incarceration, architecture, booksellers; booths of booksellers, MFA programs, literary journals, indie publishers, and so on. Poets, playwrights, screenwriters, memoirists, fiction writers, nonfiction of all descriptions, graphic works, children’s and YA literature – all have a home here. There are household name authors and lesser-knowns. Walking tours, music performances, puppet shows… it’s a feast and celebration of words, and draws a huge crowd every year. There are long lines for talks and readings by popular authors (you may have to prioritize which lines to spend time in – don’t expect to just walk up and get in). There’s a real buzz in the air, of people getting together around something they love.

It’s also the season for Open Studios, where neighborhoods and cities have walking itineraries to visit the studios of working artists of every description – painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors, fabric artists, jewelry designers – it’s always fascinating to see what people are doing. Inspirational, as well. Whatever your area of creative activity, make an effort every once in awhile to go to film or literature festivals, gallery openings, open studios, or other events, whether they are in your particular medium or not. They make great Artist Dates, a chance to fill the well for our own creative endeavors.

Do you go to these kinds of events? Which ones? You don’t have to make it to SXSW or Burning Man to gain creative inspiration and energy.

Prepping For the Big One

janav Productivity, Writing 0 Comments

No, not the hurricane currently bearing down on the southeast. I’m talking about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing month. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a month-long writing intensive that happens every year during the month of November. Basically, people who sign up pledge to write “a novel in a month,” or at least 50,000 words, which isn’t quite a full novel (unless you’re writing middle grade). Still, it’s a solid chunk. You can work on a rough draft of 50,000 words, and that’s the point, to get something down since you can only edit something that actually exists.

The gist is that in order to hit 50,000 words, you need to write 1667 words per day. This is a lot, to be sure, but a do-able goal, especially if you take advantage of the supports offered by the NaNoWriMo organization – forums, local groups, online inspiration, etc.

Confession: I’ve never actually done NaNoWriMo, mainly because I always seem to be in the middle of a book when it comes around, and one of the precepts is that you must be starting something new. I do applaud it, however, in the sense that it keeps you writing for one month. I’ve done my own version, with my writing group, where we’ve each picked a goal and done weekly check-ins to mark our progress. One advantage is that it not only keeps you writing, but does so at a time of year when many people let things slide, as the crush of the various holidays descends. It shows us that we can do far more than we think we can, if only we put our minds to it.

So, if you decide to do the full NaNoWriMo monty, go for it! Go to for more information on how it all works, and to sign up. If not, I still encourage you to set a goal, and make it an ambitious one. Not impossible, but a real challenge. Even better, get together with a group and declare your goals together. Set regular times to check in. Whether you’re doing it alone or with others, make sure you set mini-goals within the time period, and plan a series of rewards to celebrate your hard work!

You can just wing it and start writing on November 1, or plan out your novel and have lots of information to get you started – character bios, plot outlines, world-building, etc. Whether you do the official NaNoWriMo or not, the site has lots of helpful tips and information to help you prepare.

As for me, I’m not sure if my book rewrite would count (and in revision mode I usually count hours, not words). But gearing up to make a big push toward getting it done makes sense.

What about you? Is there a big project (in writing or another creative work), that you need to focus on? That you’ve been putting off starting, or are stalled on? Planning to take on NaNoWriMo this year? Let us know in the comments.

Three Lessons to Keep You Going When You’re Stuck

janav Creativity, Productivity, Writing 0 Comments

]I met with my alumni writer’s group this past weekend. I almost didn’t go. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with other life stuff lately, and had a To Do list a mile long. I didn’t meet my goals of finishing the draft of my novel before our next meeting. My heart wasn’t in it. But then at the last minute I decided to go, and I’m glad I did.

Community is incredibly important for writers, and creatives of all kinds. Some of us work collaboratively, but most of us, especially early in our careers, work alone. Since we’re often not making much money yet, and don’t have deadlines to externally motivate us, it can be hard not to succumb to doubt, discouragement, or the call of distractions and life situations (job/family/other activities). We must persevere if we’re ever going to succeed, and having a community of people who are there to help support us and cheer us on is of incredible importance. Yes, you can get some external motivation and stimulation from attending conferences or classes, but a consistent group of enthusiastic, insightful people is more helpful than anything else.

As it happens, we didn’t critique each other’s work this time around. Instead, we talked about the projects we were stuck on and helped each other talk our way through it. Being flexible to the needs of the group is a hallmark of a successful one.

In my case, it looks like it means going back to the beginning, and rewriting. What I thought would be the last third (or quarter) of the book now needs to start much earlier, and take up as much as three quarters of it. So now, instead of being “almost finished” I’m “almost back to square one.” (I’m not the only one. Another writer in our group is changing the sex of her protagonist from male to female – which means many other changes as well.)

Rather than being discouraged by this, I’m excited. I feel as though I finally know what the book is about. I know the themes, the characters, and what has to happen. Yes, I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m no longer slogging through something that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Part of doing creative work is learning to trust your instincts, and although my gut was telling me it wasn’t working, I didn’t want to believe it. I thought if I just pushed on, it would work, even though I felt less and less enthusiasm for doing so.

So, I learned (or re-learned) three lessons this week that I wanted to share with you, in hopes they will be helpful:

1. Find a good community
2. Trust your instincts
3. Don’t be afraid to go back to the beginning

What are your go-to lessons for getting unstuck? Share in the comments!