You’ve Got to Move It, Move It

janav Creativity, Writing Leave a Comment

I spent last weekend at the Barrowman Writing workshop, which was a ton of fun and different from other workshops I’ve attended. I wanted to do something fun, to step away from post-MFA seriousness and agent/editor pitch workshops where I get ten conflicting opinions on my work and a lot of “I really like it, but…” (I’m not going to take it). That is a part of being a writer, but this weekend reminded me that taking writing seriously doesn’t have to be a slog of: draft, edit, submission, rejection, repeat.

About all I did know of it was that it probably would be fun, with John and Carole Barrowman involved. The workshop was small – only 16 of us – so I felt very fortunate to end up with a group of people who were both fun to hang out with, and good writers (and yes, I realize I’m using the word fun a lot here – where’s my thesaurus? – but hey, sometimes the description fits, so let’s wear it).

As hard as we worked on our writing (and Carole had a ton of energy, and many challenging and yes, fun exercises for us), the intensive workshop sessions were interspersed with John doing more theater-game exercises (and if anyone has seen John on a panel or in an interview, yes, they were as silly and crazy as you’d expect). They enabled us to rev up our energy before and between sessions, and just take ourselves a little less seriously.*

They also reminded me how necessary it is to integrate intense mental activity with movement. When we’re writing, it’s easy to get caught up in our heads. At some conferences I’ve been to, where craft sessions and panels and keynotes follow each other bam bam bam with hardly a break in between, I’ve ended up exhausted at the end of the day, brain overflowing, and hardly able to integrate all I’ve learned (or even remember what sessions I attended).

Making time to be silly and move around allowed me to refocus. Just when I was feeling tired and tapped out, we’d do something completely different. Most writers I know are serious about their writing. The mantra is: Butt in chair. Write every day. Do the work. And yes, if you’re going to improve as a writer, if you’re going to have a body of work, you need to sit down and write on a regular basis. But we also need to remember to have fun, and that simply moving the body can work miracles on inspiration and motivation.

While I’m not likely run run around shouting “3 knees!” (You need at least two people) or “4 Shoulders!” (ditto), or my favorite from John – no, probably a little too naughty for a blog… I will remember that creativity is a whole-body concept, and that it’s healthier for mind and body to work in some movement and play between writing sessions.

Take a walk, dance around the living room, take a bike ride or shoot some hoops – or do the hokey pokey, if that’s what you’re all about. It clears the cobwebs, gives you energy, and when you come back to your desk, that scene or line that seemed to be so hopelessly stuck might just wiggle loose. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to write for the fame and wealth. We don’t have to wait for an Artist Date to let our inner creative child play. We might as well have fun, or why do it at all?

*We also spent time drinking, and swimming, and dancing, and eating. So yes, fun, in between panicked bouts of omg what am I going to read aloud in front of people on Sunday?

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’ve Lost Motivation

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When you feel unmotivated to work on a project, are procrastinating endlessly, and just can’t seem to get unstuck, it may be time to pause and reflect on what’s really blocking you, and to reconnect with feelings of possibility and accomplishment.

Try this: Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Allow your mind to slow down, and your body to relax.

Bring to mind a current project where you are feeling unmotivated or stuck. Keep breathing. Without judging, note how you’re feeling, emotionally and physically in your body. Then ask yourself the following questions, allowing yourself space to breathe and really feel the answers as they arise, in your mind and body:

What is my greatest hope or aspiration for this project?
Why is this project important to me?
How do I want to show up in relationship to this project?
What emotions or situations might be getting in the way of me fully engaging with this project?
If I were working on this project regularly, what would that feel like?
If this project was completed, what would that feel like?
How can I use these feelings as a source of motivation for me to engage with this project?
What is my intention toward this project going forward?

And, if it feels comfortable for you:

What can I commit to doing toward my project? (Can I commit 15 minutes to working on it today?)

Breathe in deeply. Set your intention in your mind. Allow yourself to experience whatever emotions or physical sensations that come up for you.

Open your eyes. How do you feel toward your project now? If you’d like to journal about anything that came up for you in this exercise, to explore it further, go ahead and do so.

If you feel motivated to get to work, feel free to do that too! You may choose to do this as a meditation daily, before sitting down to write. It can calm your mind and focus your intention, reconnecting your with your current project and why it is important to you.

Friday Favorites: Hitting the Third Rail

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I haven’t done a Friday Favorites post in a while, because I haven’t been reading that many books on craft. My view is that craft books are useful, in small doses. Sometimes they are good for inspiration, and sometimes they are good to help with a specific issue you are having in your work. It’s important not to get so heavily invested in reading about writing that you fail to actually do the writing.

I’ve had a couple of books kicking around for a while, and at the urging of some friends who have read them I decided to pull them off the “to be read” shelf and read them.

One is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. The other is Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

Story Genius is a method book: in other words, it asks you to follow a specific set of guidelines, based on principles developed by the author, that promises to help you crack the nut of writing a great book that people will want to read. The premise is that we are all “wired for story” (the title of another book on writing, by the way) and that we can tap into certain techniques that will get a reader’s brain to experience what the protagonist experiences – to not only care about the protagonist, but to go on their own journey through the protagonist’s story. The Emotional Craft of Fiction also focuses on this idea of creating emotions in a reader’s mind that keep them engaged in the story.

I believe these books are a response to the popularity in recent years of books and courses on “structure,” which can be valuable as a way to make sense of the messiness of the novel writing process, but didn’t focus much on character development. And of course, any story that truly engages us as readers does so because of the characters, not the plot. We remember what we felt, and what we learned, not the specifics of what happened when.

Lisa Cron writes often of the protagonist’s emotional arc being the “third rail” that every aspect of the story must touch in order to resonate with readers. Her method calls for a lot of delving into the protagonist’s past, creating backstory and excavating what the source of the protagonist’s misbelief is that fuels the current story. The goal is to arrive at the beginning of your story with a fully fleshed-out protagonist, and have that background inform every decision and reaction the protagonist has during the course of the story. Her method is to write Scene Cards for every scene, making sure you not only know what happens but why it happens, and how it affects the protagonist going forward. This might seem like anathema to so-called “pantsers” – those who prefer to write their way through a story and let the characters find themselves – but it is really a middle ground between that and attempting to outline every detail of what happens in the book, which can wind up with a disconnected protagonist, and other characters, who act only as puppets in service of the plot. She takes us through the development of a story by one of her clients, Jennie, and so we are able to see how one author used the tools to develop her story.

I’m currently working my way through her method, and I have to say, I am finding it a useful tool for deepening my characters, and making sure the emotional arc of the story isn’t overwhelmed by the external, plot-driven arc. I’m taking my time, excavating who my people are, and who they were before the story started, and finding the story much richer and more interesting as a result.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is a different type of book. It doesn’t present one particular method, but instead introduces a number of ways in which emotion can be present on the page – how it affects character development, the emotional plot, the reader’s experience, and even how the writer’s experience affects the writing itself. Each section gives examples from published novels of all kinds, to see how each principle can be effective in practice. He also gives numerous exercises to use with your own work in progress, to deepen the emotional impact. And this is what makes this book better for more advanced writers: it assumes that you are of intermediate or advanced level, that you have mastered plot and structure, point of view, and all the other basics. It also assumes that you have a work in progress so you can explore these ideas on the page. His aim is make good writers great, rather than tell beginners how to create a character.

That’s why I put these books together in a Friday Favorites post. One helps you get your story started, by focusing on the background of your protagonist and how it informs how the character views and reacts to the events of the story; the other helps you deepen the emotions on the page, to create the most compelling scenes and experience for the reader. Depending where you are in your work, you may want to read Cron’s book first, and then read Maass’ to see where you can dig deeper. Maass’ book can also be good for character-building exercises, if you are interested in trying out new techniques without being tied to a specific story.

Have any of you read these books? Utilized them in your own writing? If so, what has been your experience with them? Let us know in the comments!

Plan Your Summer Writing Retreat

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Summer can be an ideal time to plan a writing retreat. For many of us, it’s a slower time, and a time when we can make a little space to focus on our writing or other creative projects. You can plan a half day, full day, weekend, or longer if possible. You can do it solo, or with a friend (or several). You can even do it virtually, with regular email or Skype check-ins. Last summer I wrote a post on this that I will re-post here since I think it’s still a good reminder, and since we’re on the cusp of August, there is still plenty of time to plan a retreat for this summer. It doesn’t matter whether you are freewriting, exploring craft issues through exercises, or completing a project. Take this time for yourself, and your creative soul, and plan a retreat today!

(And if anyone would like to know more about an actual writing retreat in Vermont, email me at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com for details).

(from 8/24/16) I just returned from a fabulous weekend in Vermont, where I actually managed to get some writing done, despite the lure of friends, gorgeous hikes, great food, and lots of shopping (for birthdays and Christmas – and some goodies for myself, of course!).

The weekend was partially intended as a writing retreat, but it was somewhat ad hoc except for Saturday morning, where we had a more formal writing session using prompts, and gathered to read our work aloud or just talk about the process afterward.

I love doing mini writing retreats. If you don’t have the time or money to take yourself off to someplace more formal, designing your own retreat can be a great way to immerse yourself in your work, and can be tremendously productive.

You can do it on your own, or you can get together with friends. The advantages of a solo retreat are uninterrupted time and the ability to set your own schedule. The downside, of course, is that no one is there to stop you from turning on the tv, say, or jumping on Facebook. With friends, you have feedback and camaraderie, but if you have different ideas about what constitutes a good retreat, it can be more stressful than helpful. One way to combine both is to get a friend to decide to retreat with you, but in her separate space (if you don’t live close enough to meet up). Then, check in at the beginning, perhaps in the middle, definitely at the end.

You can do a retreat for as little as half a day, or a weekend, or a week (or longer). What makes it a retreat as opposed to just a regular writing session?

1. It’s pre-arranged, sacred time, with a beginning and an end.
2. It’s great if you can get away from your usual writing space, so you’re not sucked into the everyday “stuff” at home.
3. It’s best if you don’t have access to the internet.
4. You go in with an idea of a specific project to work on (but are open to serendipity if you’re inspired by your surroundings).

You can arrange it however you like, but there are some practices I’ve found especially useful. Starting and ending with a ritual is a good idea, to formally commence and close your retreat experience. For me, this often involves candles, meditation, and bringing focused attention to my intention to make the most of this writing time.

I also do timed writing periods, with rest breaks in between. A simplified version of the Pomodoro Technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/ ) is a good way to start. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Write. Take a 5 minute break. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (10 or 20 minutes). If I’m dithering about what, exactly, I want to accomplish, just setting the timer and starting to write – anything at all – helps break through any resistance. Sometimes just getting started is key.

It’s also important to have lots of water, and good, healthy food on hand, ready to go. Other retreat activities might be taking a long walk, or doing some visual art (coloring, collage, abstract painting) to stimulate your creativity but get away from words for a while.

It goes without saying (I hope) that checking your phone is forbidden, unless you absolutely must check in case a family emergency has come up. Just remember that once the phone is in your hand, it’s easy to check email, Twitter, etc. etc. and soon get out of retreat mode.

That’s it, in its simplified version. Depending on how long you have, and what your goals are, you can make it more complex, or less. You can even give yourself a treat at the end, whether it’s an ice cream, a massage, or a trip to a bookstore or library to get a good book.

I can already hear some of you saying, “That sounds nice, but I could never take that much time for myself.” Really? Or is it that you have to claim that time for yourself, as an artist? No one will give it to you. No one will give you permission. You have to give it to yourself. You have to believe that you deserve it. Whether you’re single or not, have a family or not, there will always be people who pull at your attention, and other things that seem crucial to do before you can sit down to write. It’s up to you to claim your writing time, and to take yourself seriously as a writer. Retreats are special occasions, to go deep and savor the time to focus on your project. Start with a short one – a half day, perhaps – and see how it feels.

Have you done a writing retreat? Do you do them regularly? Let us know about any tips or ideas you have!

Life Happens: Keeping Your Creative Spark in a World of Distraction

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Last time, I talked about the dangers of distraction, and how being constantly busy and distracted can actually alter our brain function. It is good to be aware of the distractions in our lives, and the ways we can unintentionally sabotage our ability to work deeply.

But what can we do about inevitable distractions that life hands us? Like it or not, most of us can’t opt out of our families, jobs, and other commitments (although we can think about limiting those other commitments, learning to say No in order to protect our time to create). Retreats and residencies are an option for a few, but they are temporary time-outs. Unless, like May Sarton, we embrace a life of solitude, and have the wherewithal to make it so, we live in the messy reality of the present, where our schedules are often dictated by external necessity, and plans can be upset in an instant.

Often this is one of the biggest challenges to our plans: life happens. We set a schedule, decide what we want to do – and something comes up. Illness in the family, a child’s emergency, unexpected visits from out-of-town friends, a last-minute work project…. This topic is on my mind a lot since my schedule is often unpredictable due to caretaking my elderly mother: How to keep moving forward when my mind, and my attention, are often pulled in a very different direction from my creativity? When I’m at her place, my schedule is based on hers, and my attention is frequently diverted by the tv, which is quite loud owing to her hearing loss. So, I have to modify my schedule, and be flexible. My 15 minute rule comes in handy here – if you have 15 minutes, you can do something. It’s not ideal, but life rarely hands us the ideal conditions to create. If we tell ourselves, “I can only write with my lucky pen/ if I have at least an hour/am listening to this particular piece of music (or whatever),” you will miss many opportunities to do the work.

There are times, of course, when we need to go deep, and we need time and space and attention to do that. But in those moments in between, we have opportunity. There are times when we have to “experience the distraction and do it anyway.” We have to create, not just in spite of distraction, but to find a way to use it. Some people like listening to music while working because they feel that the sound takes over the top layer of their attention, letting them go deeper. Other people feel they must have absolute silence or they can’t focus.

I’m not here to tell you which is better – we’re all different – but learning to write despite the inevitable distractions (or around them) is a necessary skill if you’re going to get the work done. We can’t be too precious about it, if it becomes just another excuse not to do the work. If it becomes about making excuses, avoiding the work because of resistance, that doesn’t serve us. It can be tough, but keeping the writing going, even in the margins, keeps us engaged in the work, and in our creative lives. Keeping that connection alive, in any way you can, is crucial. If not, it’s easy to spiral into doubt and negativity (Will I ever write again? Maybe I should just give up. It’s not that good anyway…). Living a creative life is not easy, but it’s up to us to persevere, to keep going in whatever way we can. It’s a practice of self-care: we’re better, happier people for indulging in our creative pursuits. So make a commitment to yourself: what is the minimum you can do no matter what?

Are You Damaging Your Ability to Be Creative?

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The fact that many people in this culture are insanely busy and distracted is not news to anyone. According to this article I recently read, the constant attachment to smartphones and our need to feel productive by doing something at all times leads to a lowered ability for focused, deep-thinking work. It also means less time simply spent daydreaming and ruminating, activities which are central to our ability to be creative in all aspects of our lives.

Think about it: how comfortable are you these days with just sitting there, letting thoughts flow? How likely are you to check your phone at any moment you aren’t occupied with something else? How often do you do a routine activity such as the dishes, or walking, without also listening to music, a podcast, or the tv? Even when you sit down to write, or do other creative work, do you get antsy if you don’t immediately plunge in? If you run out of ideas and have to sit for a few minutes, do you allow yourself that time, or do you jump up and do something (go get a snack, check Facebook, decide the rug is filthy and needs vacuuming NOW)?

I know this happens because I do all these things myself (well, not the vacuuming… although when I hit a blank space on the page or in my mind, even that can seem more appealing). We’ve become wired to think multi-tasking is the best way to spend our time and assure our productivity. We’re addicted to smartphones and social media. If you’re like me, you use SelfControl or another app to block sites you normally turn to every time the muse lags for more than three seconds.

The problem is, our distracted minds are becoming so commonplace that it’s actually rewiring our brains. That’s scary. So if we want to do our best creative work, what can we do?

Meditate – this one makes the top of the list because, duh. The best way to train your monkey mind to be still is to sit and breathe, focusing on the breath, for a specific length of time. Or chant, if that’s your thing. You can start small – try 5 minutes – and build up from there. Just be aware of the experience, without judgment. Your mind wandered? Oh well, just bring it back to the breath. Off it goes again, like a toddler that’s just learned to walk – bring it back again, gently. There are many traditions and teachings to choose from. I use the Insight Meditation Timer, which not only has a general timer so you can choose exactly how long you want to meditate, but has thousands of guided meditations, from teachers across the spectrum of practices.

Yoga – sometimes called “meditation in motion,” this is a practice of becoming full aware of your body and mind while moving into different poses. Tai Chi has a similar meditative, slowing-down quality that helps reconnect your mind, body and spirit to each other.

Walk – a simple walk, without headphones (or your phone) can allow your mind to wander. Running or swimming laps can also do this for some people. There’s no agenda except for the number of laps (or the time/distance you’ve set for yourself) so you can just be in the moment.

Use the Pomodoro Method – In the Pomodoro Method, you set a timer for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, then repeat, as long as it takes to do whatever task you’ve set for yourself. If you think of something else to do while the timer is running, you make a note of it to do later (on your break or during another “pomodoro”) and keep doing the task at hand.

Use website blockers – SelfControl is my favorite because you plug in the sites you want to block, and the amount of time you want to block them for, and once it’s set you can’t stop it until the time you’ve set is up, even if you reboot your computer. There are other options for PCs and Macs, so you may need to experiment with the one that is right for you.

Practice doing one thing at a time – when doing dishes, just do dishes. When driving, just drive. And so on. This is very simple but can be really hard. Once our brains are used to constant input, the lack can be disorienting. If you’re not used to being alone with your thoughts, boredom and restlessness can set in quickly. Resist!

Play – Do something that allows you to get into a flow state, like coloring, painting, shooting baskets, or some other absorbing activity. There doesn’t have to be a point to it – that is the point. Journaling can fall into this category if you’re just freewriting, not taking your hand from the page.

Do nothing – That’s right. Nothing. Sit in a chair on the porch and stare at your yard. Take a bath. Sit on a park bench and watch the world go by. Sit in a cafe with a cup of tea. Sitting by a body of water – ocean, lake, stream – can be a powerful way of reconnecting with yourself through doing nothing. As with meditation, you may have to work your way up to allowing yourself this “nothing” time. If you have a houseful of people, you may need to get out of the house to allow this to happen. Do what you have to do.

But, you say, I already can barely squeeze my creative time in as it is! How do I have time for one more thing, even nothing? Take 10 minutes, when you can. Get into the habit of these practices, and watch your time, energy, and creativity open up.

Your Summer Plan

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Many people count Memorial Day the official start of summer; others follow the meteorological calendar (or Summer Solstice) or start of the school summer vacation. It depends on your lifestyle. For me it never really feels like summer until after the MFA residency ends, which this year is July 1.

However you count it, this time of year signals a change of routine for many people. For some, it means more free time, for vacation or flex schedules. For others, it’s busier because kids are around more, or other things take precedence. At any change of season, it can be helpful to be proactive in figuring out what your creative schedule will be. It’s fine to have a change of routine (in fact, it can help us get out of a rut). However, if we don’t have a plan to manage the transition, it can also be easy to let creative work slide.

If you take a vacation from writing, or whatever creative pursuit, that doesn’t have to mean disaster. It can be good to take a break, explore new places or new pursuits, get new perspective on our life and art. On the other hand, if we let it go completely, it may be difficult to get back into it later (inertia is always a challenge to overcome, and like any muscle that gets flabby with underuse, our creative muscles can also turn to mush if left unworked too long).

The key is to make a conscious choice, and stick with it. Take a look at your life right now, and take stock. Do you have more time to write, or less? Has your schedule changed in some way? For me, it’s easier to get up early since the sun rises so much earlier. Getting up to write and work out early is not the chore it is during the darker months. I’m not teaching as much, so I have more time for coaching and writing. The weather is (usually) nice so I can spend more time outside (although that takes me away from my desk, I often get ideas from taking long walks).

In addition to an ever-growing pile of fiction, I’m reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Donald Maas’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. With their techniques in mind, I’m reworking a story that has been languishing for a while. I don’t think I’ll get through a complete rewrite by Labor Day, but the idea is to build momentum that will take me through the next seasonal change.

What are your summer goals? Between, say, now and Labor Day? Are there specific books you want to read? A project you’d like to plan? A rough draft, or final draft to complete? A class you’d like to take? A conference or retreat to attend (or a self-designed retreat you’d like to plan and execute)? Do you need to take a look at your current schedule and see when you will do your creative work?

Compassion, Kindness, Gratitude, and Love

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I recently did a meditation on these four “pillars of existence” courtesy of the meditation master Davidji.

This meditation focuses on developing these four attitudes toward the self, and it occurred to me to take it deeper, into our own creativity. How often do we judge ourselves around our creativity? Usually it’s in terms of “not good enough”: I didn’t spend enough time, the writing wasn’t good enough, I’m not creative enough… we spend so much time and energy beating ourselves up around not being “enough” that we end up not wanting to do anything at all. We construct a cage of ice around our creative heart, and then wonder why it’s so cold and unpleasant whenever we go near.

Of course, it’s important to develop discipline, to do the work: I write about this a lot. But in order to do the work – to want to do it at all – it helps to take a softer approach.

Compassion: we’re doing the best we can in this moment. If you don’t feel that way, ask yourself, gently, why not? Then wait for the answer, and try not to judge it. Only when we look at our actions and thoughts with compassion and openness can we see what is really happening, and only then can we change.

Kindness: how would you respond to a friend who came to you with the same words as your own internal dialogue? You wouldn’t berate them, and call them lazy, talentless, boring, or stupid (I hope!). You would encourage them to look beyond the moment, to keep working, to keep the faith. Talk to yourself this way, and see if it softens your heart around your own creative work.

Gratitude: it’s easy to forget to be grateful for what we do have: whatever time and space we do have to write; the skills we’ve developed over many years of putting words on the page; gratitude for teachers and others who have encouraged us, and so on. When you’re feeling discouraged, take a few moments to list some things you feel grateful for.

Love: loving ourselves, our words, our efforts, can be very hard. It can feel self-indulgent, prideful, egotistical. Loving our work can be equally hard. Too often, immediately when we think of loving ourselves, or our work, the “buts” creep in: …but I’m not that good. …but I waste so much time… but the work isn’t that great, no one will want it… Sometimes not loving our creative selves is a way to let us off the hook. We make excuses as to why we, or our work, are unloveable, and then we believe them because it’s easier to stay in the cocoon than to grow wings and fly. Whether we like to admit it or not, the not-loving place is the comfort zone. Take a deep breath, and when the “buts” come up, think of their opposite, and make a conscious effort to believe that. It takes time, and practice, and in the end it brings that crack of light so crucial to taking the next step, and the next…

Take a few moments to think about your self-care around your creativity. Do you practice compassion, kindness, gratitude, and love? If not, think about doing so, and how your work, and your relationship to it, might transform as a result.

Resilience: Recharging or Enduring?

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I recently came across this article in Harvard Business Review online: “Resilience is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately, and how it’s a skill many of us understand very little about. What does it mean? How do we do it? There are times in all of our lives when we’re overwhelmed by external events (or internal ones, like depression and illness). We can get discouraged, feel like a failure, and wonder how we’ll ever get back to what we intended to do. This has certainly been me the last few months: my life has been crammed with teaching and other work, as well as elder care. I’ve had little time and even less energy for anything resembling creative pursuits, as the long hiatus from this blog will attest.

We might think of resilience as the ability to “bounce back” from every hardship: failure, depleted energy, disappointment, and so on. The article talks specifically about our tendency to think that the more we’re “on” the more productive we are, when actually the opposite is true. We run ourselves into physical and mental exhaustion, and then just keep going, thinking that resilience means pushing past whatever is challenging us.

Creatively, this can mean pushing on with a project we secretly know isn’t working, because quitting seems like failure. Or it might mean pushing ourselves to do our creative work when we’re already exhausted from every other facet of our lives, and then not producing good work, and then berating ourselves for not producing good work. It might mean viewing the rejection process like a gauntlet, to be endured until it turns us off submitting altogether.

But resilience isn’t just about pushing through no matter what. Yes, there are times when we need to keep going, because our resistance is telling us that something deeper, better, is waiting just the other side of this block. Sometimes it can signal a breakthrough, and we’ll be glad we persisted.

However, resilience is also about stepping back, recharging, and then coming back to the work with renewed energy and spirit. It’s not pushing until we hate the project, our writing, and everything to do with our creative life and wonder why we should even bother.

Resilience means taking a strategic time out. It means allowing ourselves down time, for our minds and bodies. It may seem impossible, when we’re already squeezing in writing between all the other commitments we have: to work, families, friends, etc.

It means coming back to the work after a long hiatus. Beginning again, and again. Not letting ourselves get discouraged when we haven’t done as much as we’d hoped. Re-committing to our work, befriending our creative selves and the work itself. Coming to it with a gentle heart, like an old friend instead of an enemy to be conquered.

It means being honest with ourselves about our time, our energy, and how we spend them. Being satisfied with making an honest effort, and not making excuses. Acknowledging when something isn’t working and making steps to do something that will work. For example, setting aside a project that has become unworkable, and taking your writing time to do something else: freewriting, journaling, poetry if you’re a prose writer, trying various writing exercises, etc. If you are consistently not making it to your desk at the scheduled time, ask yourself what would work. Try a new schedule, and commit to sticking with it for a week or two, and see how it feels. I’m a big proponent of morning writing, but I’m a self-acknowledged night owl. There are times when I work on a different schedule, or take time off to give myself a break.

Resilience also means learning to take criticism in stride, to use rejections as a means of better learning the marketplace, or to improve our craft. To see it as proof that we’re still in the game.

As you can see, resilience means many things. It’s also something we have to keep developing. Like a muscle, it gets stronger with more use. The key is to believe we can develop it: it’s a skill, not something the lucky few are born with.

What area do you need to build resilience in? Sticking to a writing schedule? Persisting in the face of rejection? Starting a new project? Let us know in the comments!

Friday Favorites: TED Secrets for Writers

janav Creativity, Friday Favorites, Resources, Writing Leave a Comment


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?