Try This: Freewriting

janav Creativity, Writing Leave a Comment

I also coach students in grant writing, and I sometimes think they must hate me because when I review their work, I correct everything, including spelling and punctuation. I’m looking with an editor’s eye, as well as a proofreader’s.

If they could see my freewriting material, they’d laugh. If in pen, it’s a nearly-illegible scrawl, with spellings only I could untangle. If on the computer, it’s a sea of red and green underlining – Microsoft Word helpfully pointing out all the things I’ll have to go back and fix. But that’s okay. Freewriting is a time to let loose on the page. In fact, I sometimes write with my eyes closed, just so I don’t let myself get distracted. We need time to write whatever comes to mind, without the censoring, editing mind leaping in, trying to structure everything. It’s like a helicopter parent – trying to be helpful but really inhibiting the growth process.

So today, try Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing Practice: 1. Keep Your Hand Moving. 2. Be Specific. 3. Lose Control. 4. Don’t Think. Set a timer and just write. Longhand is best for this, I find – it helps you connect your brain to your hand in a way typing doesn’t – so I encourage you to try it. It can be tremendously helpful as a regular practice to prime the pump before a “real” writing session. It can be “writing practice” on the days when you just can’t get motivated or feel like you don’t have anything to say. You can freewrite on a stuck place in your novel, or simply describe the room around you. Just pick something, and write. What comes out may be crap, or it may surprise you. It’s writing as Zen practice – no expectations, just writing.

Friday Favorite: Writing Down the Bones

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Each Friday, I’ll be writing about one of my favorite resources for writing or creativity. If you have any to share, feel free to email me at jana(dot)vanderveer(at)gmail(dot)com or leave a comment.

Today’s pick is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, an inspirational classic. My copy is bound together with her next book, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. The chapters of both books are short, and talk about the simple things: going deep, attending to detail, being honest. Sometimes there are stories of her life related to her practice of Zen Buddhism, and she popularized two things: the idea of writing as practice, much in the way sitting meditation is a practice; and the idea of timed freewriting, where you set a timer and keep writing, never lifting your hand from the page, until the timer goes off.

These are powerful because they invoke the first rule of writing: Just Show Up. We show up, we write for the required time, and we see what comes up, not censoring or editing or judging as we go.

If you’re stuck, there are many exercises in both books that are wonderful ways to jumpstart your imagination. Sometimes we’re in a period where we’re not working on a particular project and we just want to keep our creativity flowing. Sometimes we’re stuck in the middle of a project and can’t imagine what’s next. Either way, I dare you to read more than a few pages without the urge to pull out a pen and notebook (or hop on to your computer) and just write. It’s writing as play, reminding us of the joy we can take in our creation when we’re not flogging ourselves to create perfect sentences. Wonderful.

Have you read either of these books? What do you think of them?

Kicking Things Up a Notch

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I’ve been posting and Tweeting the idea of No Zero Days for a little while now, and in the spirit of that, and to kick up the activity at Set Your Muse on Fire a bit, I’m going to propose an increased weekly schedule that will help jump-start your inspiration (and mine). I’ll be posting roughly three times per week, on the following schedule:

Monday – Writing Prompt of the Week: Something to get the creative juices flowing.

Wednesday – Article of the week, on craft or creativity.

Friday – Book, article or other “share” of the week. Feel free to chime in with your favorites.

Some weeks I’ll mix it up, do something different… I happen to believe that the best creative work comes from a mixture of structure and serendipity. Having a writing habit (and a deadline) can work wonders when it comes time to call on the Muse to do her stuff. They allow us to be present for any creative flashes that may occur. It’s rare to have the lightning bolt of inspiration strike – when it does, you want to have a “bottle” to keep it in. If you’re out and about, your “bottle” might be a notebook, or your Evernote app, or a voice memo. When you’re in the middle of a project, the piece itself is your bottle, the container that holds the surprising spark that gives your novel/story/poem/whatever its mojo. Get in the habit of preparing the bottle so you have a place to put the lightning. Otherwise it will be gone, and you’ll have nothing to show for it but a hazy afterimage. The good news is, the more you pay attention, and create a place for it, the more often the lightning strikes. Which in writing, unlike life, is a good thing.

No Zero Days

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Recently, I was at my mother’s for her 8oth birthday. We had a lovely dinner out for her (despite the snow) and I stayed an extra few days to spend time with her and also get some stuff done there. I enjoy spending time with her, and our time is more precious because of her advancing years and failing health. However, when I go there, it often means everything else come to a screeching halt. It’s really hard to focus on anything else, especially writing. This time, I came committed to the concept of No Zero Days. I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have at home, but it wasn’t a week off, either. Some days, I wrote. Some days, I meditated on character and scene development. I reminded myself how excited I was to continue the scene I’d started before I left.

The idea of No Zero Days is that you do something toward your goal each day, no matter how small. Something is infinitely better than nothing, especially where maintaining creative motivation is concerned. Can’t write for an hour? How about fifteen minutes of freewriting? How about re-reading what you wrote yesterday? How about 5 minutes meditating or mind-mapping on what might happen in the next scene? In other words, you never have a day when you do nothing.

Steven King might advocate for 2,000 words per day, but for most of us who are not full-time writers, and who don’t have people in our lives to handle all the other life “stuff,” that isn’t always realistic on a 365-days-per-year basis. But if we have too many Zero Days, it’s easy to get into the habit of not writing, and the longer we go without it, the harder it is to overcome that inertia and begin again. We have to find our way back into the story we’re telling. We have to find our way back into the creative space in our heads. It takes time and energy and intention, and if there are no externally-motivated deadlines, it can be easy to just let it slide another day. Soon we lack motivation, and become depressed. We’re not exercising our creativity, and we’re not making progress on our goals. Whereas if we keep connected in however small a way, we keep the flame alive.

When I returned home, I was able to pick up again with my regular writing schedule, and keep moving with little time wasted. A smooth transition!

I’m not sure exactly where this concept started – some people say it was on Reddit, and people can view the threads here: There’s also a website here: Maybe you can create your own system. Whatever it takes, try committing to No Zero Days for a week, or a month. See how much more you get done, and how much more motivation you magically have. Action=Motivation!

Have you tried No Zero Days? How was it for you?

Do Not Break the Chain

janav Productivity, Time Management, Writing

I’ve become a big promoter of the advantages of getting up early to write – I’m a reformed writing night owl, if you will, although just last night I woke up at 3:45 a.m. with an Awesome Idea I just had to get down…

But it can be difficult to change. I’ve worked on different strategies to build the morning writing habit over the years, and I’ve come up with a few ideas that might help if you’re struggling:

Review what you wrote that day before you go to bed, and maybe make some short notes about the next scene. Then your unconscious can percolate over that while you sleep, and in any case, you’ll wake up the next morning without the dread of the blank page, because you have an idea of what you’re going to write.

Or, start your day with the re-reading and note-taking, rather than plunging straight into writing. This allows your brain to ease into the work again. It can also help to write down your intention for the day: “I will write 1000 words today.” “I will revise the first scene in chapter ten.” “I will spend an hour working on character sketches.”

Set a trigger to inform your brain that it’s time to write. For me, it’s the smell of coffee wafting from my kitchen. (The programmable coffee pot is the best investment I’ve made in my writing since my M.F.A.). You might set your notebook and pen on the bedside table so they are the last things you see before you sleep and the first things you see when you wake up. (That way, they’re also handy if you do get that middle of the night can’t-miss-it idea.)

Make sure you give yourself a reward after you write. This is especially important in the beginning, when you need a little extra motivation. It doesn’t have to be anything big – it might be depositing a dollar in a “special treats” jar to save up for something you really want. It might be unblocking your internet so you can check your email or play a quick game.

You will have to train your brain to orient in the direction of writing first thing, and like any habit, it will take a while to acquire. You are literally forming a new neural pathway in your brain. Like all construction projects, it’s susceptible to delays, blocks, and unexpected backsliding, but once you know how good it feels to do it, you will do it often enough that it becomes automatic. The more you do it, the more likely you are to continue.

Another way to encourage your new habit is what’s become known as the “Seinfeld method”: Do Not Break the Chain. Take a calendar and mark a big red X on every day you write, and soon you will have a visible record that you do not want to break. Make sure it is visible, and not just on your phone or somewhere you can’t see the whole chain easily. Commit to every day, or 5 days a week, or whatever feels do-able to you (you can always ramp up later, but better to start with something that seems manageable).

Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

The Best Decision You’ll Ever Make

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I am not a morning person. At least, that’s what I always told myself, and my proclivity to staying up late and getting up as late as possible has borne that out. I resisted the thought of getting up earlier than I had to as a form of unreasonable torture I could not possibly put myself through.

But the single best thing I did for myself to increase my overall happiness and creative productivity was to become a morning person.

I had to change my identity, from “night owl” to “morning person.” It was hard. I had a lot of positive associations with being a night owl, including the feeling of being a creative person who worked on her own time, unconstrained by schedules outside of the ones imposed by the workplace. Freedom, independence, the illusion of being “a real artist…” all came into play. This, and my personal history of being, since childhood, so reluctant to get out of bed in the morning my mother constantly joked it would be easier to just put wheels on my bed and roll me to school.

But when I started to get up early consistently, a number of remarkable changes happened:

• Now that I get my creative work done first thing, I no longer need to tell myself all day, “I’ll get to it later,” only to find, at midnight, that I’m just sitting down to write, and I am tired, and cranky, and oh well, I should go to bed and try again tomorrow…

• I get a great surge of energy and self-esteem from doing it. Even if I know I have a busy day coming up at work, I can go with a smile on my face because I’ve indulged my creative self, and accomplished my goal. I’ve kept my promise to myself, and that feels good.

• It comes with a built-in time boundary. I have to stop writing at a particular time in order to get ready for work. This helps me focus faster, and eliminate distractions. If I only have an hour, I’m not going to be as tempted to waste it on email. Whereas if I have all day, I can easily say, “just this one more thing…” and spend three hours surfing the net.

• It makes it easier to accomplish other tasks. Once I had the identity of someone who got up early, honored her creative self, and got things done, it spread to other areas, like exercising, building my business, etc. For me, it was a “keystone” habit, which habit-building experts say is a habit that, once set, makes it easier to develop other good habits in other areas of your life.

I also start with a routine that makes it easier to slip into the habit. The thought of facing the blank page first thing in the morning was previously enough for me to stay in bed and vow to tackle it tomorrow. Now I have a ritual of meditating for a few minutes (on weekdays it’s maybe only 10-15), getting my coffee (the smell of coffee being the trigger to entice me to get out of bed), then going to my journal and writing a few notes about what I’m going to do that day. Sometimes it’s a word goal, sometimes it’s a revision goal, but making some notes about that is a way to ease my mind into writing mode, to get back into the story, and get me excited to proceed. I used to do Julia Cameron’s recommended full 3 pages of Morning Pages (and I still recommend it if you’re facing a stubborn block). It’s all about what works best for you. Starting with something small and not-scary and manageable is a lot easier than sitting down cold and expecting the words to flow.

Once I started experiencing the benefits of it, I used that to help me keep the good habit – I think about how good it would feel having done it. The trick to keeping any habit going is to be consistent. Now, even if I can’t get the full amount of time in, I still get up and put in as much as I can. Can’t do an hour? How about 15 minutes? How about 5? Anything that keeps me on track is better than nothing. It took a while to be consistent, though, and it didn’t just happen. I still struggle from time to time, and there are some days where I legitimately need more sleep. On those days, I make the conscious decision to let myself sleep, because that is what my body and mind need at that time. If I don’t beat myself up about it, it makes it easier to come back with a better frame of mind the next day, rather than feeling like I’m pushing a boulder up a hill.

If you’re not writing as consistently as you’d like, try being a Morning Person. Commit to just one week. See how it feels. If necessary, make some adjustments so it works for you. Remember that action leads to motivation, not the other way around, so commit to taking the action, and the energy and motivation to write will follow. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

True Grit

janav Creativity, Time Management, Women 1 Comment


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

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

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

Making Soup

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

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

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

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

Don’t Make a New Year’s Resolution!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Kind of Creativity

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

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