The right kind of writing feedback — and when to get it

Much of what's out there in terms of writing support revolves around getting feedback, whether it's through private coaching, mentoring, consulting, editors, agents, or writing groups.

Good feedback can be a wonderful thing (though surprisingly, sometimes it isn't).

Not-so-good feedback, on the other hand, can be spirit-damaging and procrastination-inducing for writers -- and even more so for the sensitive, thoughtful writers among us (myself included).

Some people argue that without feedback, our writing will never improve, while others say we need to focus on developing and hearing our own voices in our writing, and that critiques simply make it hard to learn our own way.

But what is good feedback, really?

Is "good" feedback an ego stroke, where your friends and family tell you how great your work is?

My answer is no.

Is "good" feedback a ruthless, gloves-off, in your face slam of your work that leaves you reeling?

Um, no again.

Good feedback -- in my opinion -- is the kind of feedback that helps a writer do what he or she is trying to do. Good feedback is in line with the vision of the writer's project and helps him or her make it better. It's delivered in a thoughtful, caring tone, without the use of pejorative, labeling terms like "cliché, melodramatic, bad, good, boring, unoriginal", etc, while still clearly and directly pointing to issues and questions that the reader notices. The reader also provides their feedback subjectively, which means that it's conveyed in an "in my opinion" tone with his or her notes, as opposed to an authoritative, "this is the only way it can be" perspective.

Good feedback is also extremely honest, while still being compassionate. When I read for someone, I bring up everything that concerns me that is appropriate to where the writer is on that stage of their writing process. In other words, if I read a script where I can't see the story through the language choices, that's where my feedback starts. If the script is polished to a high sheen, I can give deeper structural, plot, and character motivation notes. (And that's where it really gets fun.)

Bad feedback, on the other hand, is pejorative, rude, condescending, and often just downright snarky. It challenges the writer's very attempts at writing. It is emotionally damaging. It is not kind or thoughtful or sensitive. It creates a creative wound in the writer that takes days, months, and sometimes even years to heal from. It's beyond me why any "consultant" would take it upon themselves to treat another human being in such an inappropriate way.

When good feedback is not such a good thing

Interestingly, sometimes "good" feedback can be just as paralyzing as bad feedback. I've talked to more than a few writers who have received extremely encouraging feedback from potential agents or managers -- usually something along the lines of "this first chapter is terrific, when you finish the rest, I definitely want to read it." But if the writer isn't done with the project, it can lead to a tremendous amounts of pressure to "live up" to the quality of the first (usually highly polished) chapter.

That pressure, in turn, leads to perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. Ack!

On choosing feedback sources

My advice when it comes to getting feedback is:

  • IF you choose to get feedback, get your earliest feedback from only your most trusted sources, preferably a fellow writer (as opposed to unqualified family and friends) who knows how to deliver compassionate, productive feedback.
  • With any further feedback you get, ask for it from professionals that you pay, know, like and trust. Then listen to them.
  • Take ALL feedback with a grain of salt. Is it in alignment with your vision? Does it resonate for you internally? If so, listen. If not, take what works and move on.
  • Pay attention to notes that have an element of truth to them, even if the specifics don't resonate for you. It's worth delving deeper into the notes to try to understand the why behind what a reader is suggesting. Sometimes the detailed suggestions don't work for you, but the underlying note is accurate and highly useful. I once had a note from a reader where he clearly didn't "get" what my story was about. But rather than tossing the note out the window, I thought, "Hmm, if he's not getting the core of the story I'm wanting to tell, how I can rewrite it in a way that would make what I'm trying to do come through more clearly?" It was a valuable lesson for me, and I'm so glad I stayed with it because it taught me a great deal about my own writing process.
  • Avoid getting feedback until you're really ready for it. Many writers rush to get feedback, looking for validation and encouragement, or get it from so many different gurus and sources that their heads are spinning trying to integrate all of it. While I can't give you a specific guideline, what I'm focusing on myself is taking things farther than I think I can go on my own before reaching out for feedback, and trying minimize the number of sources so I can deal with one set of notes at a time, a trick I learned from my mentor Hal.

The power of critique-free writing support

I've seen so many writers struggle with pain and paralysis after receiving feedback -- even good feedback -- that I've come to believe firmly in the value of ADDITIONAL support for writers in the form of critique-free writing support. This is the kind of support that focuses on the process, habit, and motivation behind writing, rather than on critiquing the content of it. (If you're wanting this kind of support for yourself, my online Writer's Circle is a resource you might like to check out.)

In my estimation, writers need both kinds of support to see their writing through -- support for their craft and support for their practice or habit of writing:

  • Without compassionate feedback, mentoring, and content support, we can flounder when it comes to solving our story or writing problems.
  • Without writing practice support, we can have trouble showing up to the page on a regular basis to write.
  • And sometimes, after receiving challenging feedback, we need help getting back to the page to write. Finding support for yourself to do that is an incredible gift.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments.






Critique-free writing support from the Writer's Circle

IJoin the Writer's Circlef you're looking for critique-free writing support, join our next session of the Writer's Circle, which starts April 28. You'll be surrounded by other writers who are serious about making their writing happen over the short term and in the long haul. Find out more and register here: Last day to register is April 24.


What I'm Up To

~> Writing. Finishing up rewrites on RIFT -- soon to have a new title, I think! And recording my Design Your Writing Life series (almost done!), and various other top secret and/or super cool projects.

~> Learning. Continuing my classes with ScreenwritingU -- I'm earning a Master Screenwriting Certificate with them.

~> Reading. Right now I'm inching my way through Divergent. I'm enjoying it so far!

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stone spiral

The spiral path of learning

When we're learning something new, we like to think that our progress will happen in a straight line. But progress is rarely linear, is it? Sometimes we feel discouraged about our progress and try to cheer ourselves up by saying, "well, two steps forward, and one step back." It helps is normalize our feelings about how things are going. Other times it can feel like we're just going around and around in circles, never getting anywhere or improving. It's easy to get disheartened when it feels like that.

The spiral path

A long time ago, when I designed the logo for my old website, I had an idea about how our learning and growth DOES seem to have a cyclical nature to it. logo But my observation was that on every pass around that circle, I felt myself moving closer and closer to the core of what I was learning, whether it was a new skill for work or a change in my personal growth. I've written before about mindset and the value of approaching things from the perspective of learning and experimentation versus "failure". This "spiral path" perspective has been hugely helpful for me in recognizing that when I find myself thinking, "crap, am I HERE AGAIN?", it may actually be that I'm revisiting a familiar place in my path of learning -- but at a deeper level.

The core of truth

Sometimes people like to see the spiral moving outward -- if that works best for you, great! My take is that there's a core of truth and (self-)knowledge that we're moving closer and closer to over time -- as long as we're paying attention. For example, as I'm learning to improve my screenwriting skills, I'm finding myself making mistakes I was making a year ago. I could decide that I've "failed" or that I'm not improving, OR, I can choose to see my knowledge and recognition of the mistake as being one "pass" closer to being able to no longer make that mistake because now I understand it and notice it, which is the first step toward making a change.

The levels of mastery

One of my other favorite tools for understanding the learning process is the levels of mastery. There are four levels of mastery we move through:
  1. Unconscious incompetence: Where we DON'T KNOW what we don't know, and we're making mistakes over and over again that we don't even recognize, except perhaps in the sense that things "just aren't working".
  2. Conscious incompetence: This is when we KNOW what we're doing "wrong" but we struggle with changing it. This is one of the most uncomfortable stages of progress and learning, because we can see where we want to be, but we just can't quite get there.
  3. Conscious competence: When we reach this stage, we know what to do and we know how to do it. But we still have to THINK our way through it, step by step. It feels better, because we're getting the results we want, but we have to plod away at it bit.
  4. Unconscious competence: This is the blissful level of mastery where we've reached the inner core of knowledge and we no longer even have to think about what we're doing, we just do it.
If you think back to learning to drive a car (or write a screenplay!), you can see how these four levels can play out.
  1. At level one, unconscious incompetence, you might have argued with your dad when he was trying to teach you how to drive, thinking you knew better than him -- but guess what? You didn't, and you bumped the car into that dumpster he TOLD you that you were going to hit (that never happened to me :) ).
  2. At level two, conscious incompetence, you had the basic ideas down, but the darn car kept popping into the wrong gear when you shifted and it would lug across the middle of the intersection and all the other cars had to wait (that never happened to me either :) ).
  3. At level three, conscious competence, you knew what you were doing, but you still had to think about every little detail, in a kind of running commentary in your mind, like this: "Okay, now check the mirrors and the blind spots, make sure there's no one there, turn on the turn signals, check the mirrors again, merge over carefully, turn off the blinkers", etc.
  4. At level four, unconscious competence, it's easy. Now you just drive -- like you're on autopilot.

The levels of mastery and the spiral path

My sense is that as we move farther "up" the levels of mastery, we're making sweeps around that cyclical path, moving ever closer to that core of knowledge, which we could also call "unconscious competence". The beauty of this perspective is understanding that we HAVE TO make a lot of "mistakes" and "fail" frequently in order to learn, and we can trust that as long as we hold on to our goals and determination, keep doing the work, and are willing to stay in the discomfort of learning, we can and will get better and better at what it is that we've set out to do, whether it's writing at a new level, learning a new skill, working on our relationships, or raising the bar in our work.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments. Warmly, Jenna          
antique wooden wagon

Getting back on the writing wagon

Between being pregnant and having the flu shortly after my Design Your Writing Life class series and the holiday whirlwind, I found myself flat out not writing for much of January. As someone who pretty much always writes six days per week (with the exception of vacations), I was surprised that I actually couldn't write.

The flu this year is a particularly bad one, and I was in bed for two weeks straight, between fever, exhaustion, and a "bonus" sinus infection and massive headaches. And since my immune system is busy doing other things (like not attacking the baby), it's taken me an extra long time to get better, let alone "get back on the writing wagon". (And even longer to get back to blogging, which I've been missing.)

Here's the thing.

Even once you have a solid writing habit established, major life disruptions CAN come along and throw you off your game. And when that happens, what can you do about it? Resistance is a tricky, stealthy operator, and it can concoct all sorts of bizarre reasons and excuses not to start writing again.

So how do you tell the difference between being too tired to write and being "too tired" to write?

What I tell the writers in my Writer's Circle is this: The only person that can ever really know the answer to that is you.

And interestingly for me, that answer has been, "Yes."

In other words -- BOTH. I've been truly exhausted and unable to do much of anything other than feed myself, take care of my son, keep my business running, and do the minimum amount of work to keep participating in the classes I'm taking. But I have ALSO had days where I've been in a resistance pickle over not wanting to write -- not wanting to face the challenge, being afraid I won't be able to do the work "properly" (perfectionism alert!), and otherwise just avoiding the writing. Plus my regular writing routine (and schedule) have been disrupted by my desperate need for sleep and rest at weird hours. So it's all been tangled up together into one confusing lump of writing, exhaustion, angst, resistance, and not writing.

These kinds of situations can result from all sorts of things, like suddenly having a crushing deadline at work, losing a loved one, a relationship ending, losing a job, other major illnesses, pregnancy, birth, long vacations, etc. Major life transitions can wreak havoc with our regular patterns and we're suddenly back to square one -- having lost our writing habit and feeling resistance to getting back on track.

Getting back on track

So let's talk strategy -- how to get back on board:

1. Step One: Acknowledge what's going on.

Pay attention to the realities of the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual needs that are coming up for you. Also notice what's coming up on the writing front in terms of resistance. Are you avoiding it? Does it feel scary? There's no need for judgment here, just compassionate observation.

Acknowledging what's going on will help you make new choices about how to best support yourself through it.

2. Step Two: Coax yourself through the resistance.

If you've gotten off the writing track, there WILL be resistance. It's normal, it's nothing to worry about, and it can be hard to overcome. So coax yourself through it.

At times like this, I tell myself, "How about writing for just 15 minutes? I bet you can do just a little bit." And then once I get the ball rolling, I feel the tremendous sense of relief, accomplishment, and positive energy that I need to keep my writing habit going over time. (Actually writing instead of resisting is anxiety relieving. For more about why, see this article here.)

3. Step Three: Make an "ease back into it" plan.

One of the principles we use in the Writer's Circle is goal refinement. Start with what you think is an attainable writing goal for yourself, given all of the above in steps one and two. Then test it. If you achieve it, great! Do it again the next day. But if you find yourself NOT able to hit your target, make it smaller. Keep making the goal smaller until you KNOW you can and will do it. You can -- and will -- build back up to more writing time later on.

My choice was to start very simply, with morning pages. Once I had the minimum amount of energy I needed to actually get up more or less on time, I made a commitment to spend my first 20 waking minutes (approximately) writing in my notebook, stream of consciousness. It was a wonderful way to ease myself back into writing regularly.

4. Step Four: Begin building back up to your regular writing routine.

Then, over time, begin building your writing habit, schedule, and routine back up to where it was before you got off track. It's okay to make downward adjustments here too. For instance, if you were writing for two hours a day, but now you've been ill or had a major loss that you're dealing with, you may find that aiming that high just doesn't work anymore, at least not in the short term. So perhaps you'll aim for one hour now, and work up to it incrementally.

Before I got sick, I was writing between three to four hours a day. Over the last few weeks I've been hitting more like one consistently. I've also found that my normal six days a week schedule just isn't working for me, and I'm needing to cut it down to five days a week. Starting this week, I'm working on ramping back up to two hours a day. And I'm being extra gentle with myself about it. Aiming for it, but not self-flagellating if I don't make it.

5. Step Five: If you can, get support.

Having people around you who believe in you and support your writing is a powerful tool to get back on track as well. I'm so grateful to have my Writer's Circle group members cheering me on, each and every day, helping me observe my writing choices and keep my writing top-of-mind, even when the going gets tough. I also have my screenwriting pals to commiserate and celebrate with in equal measure. It helps to have people who "get it" -- how hard it is, how much joy it brings, and how much it means to us. So surround yourself with people who can help you keep the dream in focus, even when you've lost your way.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments.



Writing support from the Writer's Circle

If you're a writer looking for community and support on your writing journey, join our next session of the Writer's Circle, which starts soon! You'll be surrounded by other writers who are serious about making their writing happen over the short term and the long haul. Find out more and register here:

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How to claim–or reclaim–your identity as a writer

If you're struggling to claim your creative identity as a writer -- or to reclaim it -- there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Write regularly. Consistent daily writing will help you find your way back to your writing identity. Binge-bust writing patterns don't create a sustainable sense of identity. Writing on a regular basis does.
  2. Introduce yourself as a writer. Decide that you are a writer and say so when you talk to people. If you're on social media, put "writer" on your account profiles.
  3. Validate yourself as a writer. Stop looking for permission outside yourself to known or validated as a writer. Reward yourself for overcoming the resistance to writing EVERY DAY.
  4. Be clear about what it means to be a writer. Try on the idea that writers write. And then make sure you're doing that. Try letting go of the idea that you have to be paid before it "counts". Or published. Or on the big screen. Writers write.
  5. Take your dream of writing seriously. Don't treat it as something to be shoehorned in around the edges. Design your life around your writing -- not the other way around. Align all your levels of experience (surroundings, beliefs, values, actions, etc.) with your writing.
  6. Look for positive messages about writing. There are lots and lots and LOTS of people out there ready and willing to tell you how impossible it all is, that you/they will never make it, and it's too hard. Choose to put yourself around people who know there is always a way in, even if you/they haven't found it yet.
  7. Surround yourself with other (positive) writers. Your consciousness is affected by the people around you. Put yourself in situations where other people see you as a writer (classes are a great place to start). If you're on social media, fill your feed with writers. Hang out with writers -- but make sure they're the writers that know that succeeding as a writer is possible.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments.

If you're in Berkeley, join me this Friday for a workshop at HackerMoms called "Claim Your Identity as a Writer." This special in-person workshop will be a combination of a "green fire" release ceremony to let go of our old identities and an NLP process to integrate the new writer's identity we want to hold.



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How to tell if you are a writer, or not

I've seen a number of debates and blog posts and flow charts on the internet over the last few months about how to tell if you are a "real" writer or not. This is something people struggle a lot with when it comes to their creative identity.

The bottom line of these conversations is this: Writers write. If you're a writer, you're writing. And, if you're paid to write, you're a professional writer.

As a general rule, I agree with these notions.


And this is a big however: I believe these ideas are doing a grave disservice to people who WANT to write but haven't found their way to it yet. And to the writers who have written -- but for whatever the reason -- aren't writing right now.

It's pretty discouraging.

As a coach, I hate to see discouragement happening out there in the world.

I hate to think of all the people NOT writing right now because they've bought into this notion that since they're not writing YET, they must not be writers -- at least not in the core sense of who they are and who they can become.

Even one of my writing idols, Joss Whedon, practically undid me when he said, "You either have to write or you shouldn't be writing." Since I wasn't writing "enough" at the time, I thought, "Wait, does this mean I'm not a writer? Or that I can't be a writer?"

So there are all these intense messages out there in the world telling you that you're not a writer if you're not writing. And okay, again, I see the point.

But, what if:

  • You have a massive amount of fear and resistance about writing, even though you've always dreamed about writing, and you don't know how to deal with it.
  • You're stuck with your project and you don't know where to go next.
  • You're blocked, you can't pick a project to focus on, or you're paralyzed by performance anxiety or perfectionism.
  • You've just suffered a major loss of a loved one or gone through a horrific breakup and you're in the throes of grief, and you can't find your way back to the page.
  • You're caught up in the myths about writing (like not having enough time or money so you think you can't write).
  • You haven't yet built your writing habit skills, and you're writing irregularly or inconsistently at best.
  • You've bought into the belief that you have to be naturally talented to be a writer so you aren't even giving yourself a chance.
  • You believe you need more training or skills before you can write.

In my opinion, you are still a writer -- at your core -- even under these conditions. Yes, a writer who needs support, discipline, and structure to help get back on track. But still a writer. It means you are a writer who needs a jump start, or maybe a little coaxing to come out of your cocoon and into the world.

The thing is, if you're called to write, you must write. And if you're buying into this story, "I guess I'm not a writer because I'm not writing", you will NEVER write. That's not okay with me. I believe that our souls speak to us about what we are meant to be doing -- they know WHO WE ARE at a deep level. And so even if you haven't CLAIMED that dream yet, it's still yours for the taking.

So let's help you claim that dream and start writing. It's your soul calling to you, after all.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments.

A quick heads up that if you want a jump start to get you writing, I'd love to help. My Writing Reboot sessions are just the ticket. But don't get one now because they'll be in my annual birthday sale this weekend at a ridiculous savings.

Or, you might also be interested in my Writer's Circle to you help build a regular habit and get the support of other writers to keep on writing. The last day to register is tomorrow, Wednesday, November 27. We'd love to have you join us.



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Man Serving Tennis Ball

When performance anxiety rears its ugly head

I've had three experiences lately that have triggered performance anxiety for me. Two assignments, where I've delivered a project to someone else, and one where I'm sharing my work with other people in a public forum. Now you might think I'd be over that by now, given that I'm writing publicly every week, teaching classes, and coaching on the spot all the time. I'm in a constant practice of "performing" or being in the spotlight.

But the truth is, that whenever we venture into new territory, our fears and doubts about our ability to "deliver" can come cropping up fairly quickly. I've observed that performance anxiety tends to come up as a result of three things:

  1. We're trying something new.
  2. We're holding high expectations about the quality of the work we "should" be delivering.
  3. Other people are holding high expectations about our work as well (or we believe they are).

Performance anxiety tends to trigger an inner conversation (if we're even conscious of it, which we might not be) that goes something like this: "What if I let them down? What if it's not as good as they expect? What if I can't live up to their expectations? What if I can't live up to my own expectations?"

And that conversation in turn tends to leads to paralysis, perfectionism, and procrastination -- the three Ps of writing doom.

What's your mindset?

As I was noticing this behavior in myself as well as the inner conversation about it, I was reminded of Carol Dweck's book on Mindset* that I've been reading lately.

In it, she describes interesting scenarios under which people demonstrate either a fixed or growth mindset. The sports examples particularly resonated for me.

In one example, she talked about how John McEnroe, a tennis player famous for his on-court temper tantrums, illustrated the fixed mindset perfectly. The minute anything would go wrong with his game, he was full of excuses about distractions, noises, other people, etc. It was never his fault and never his responsibility. This is very common among people who perceive themselves as talented or have the belief that other people see them as talented.

In other words, because we are so talented, we believe we shouldn't have to work at it.

On the other hand, she also described Michael Jordon, and how after his basketball comeback, when they lost the big game of the season, he went back to the gym that night and worked on his game. He knew that he'd been resting on his laurels, thinking he could just drop back into the game after time away, and he was determined to change that -- through hard work and dedication to raising the bar on his skill set.

And that's the difference, that right there. The belief that talent and ability are fixed versus the belief that a skill set can be mastered and improved.

Strategies for dealing with performance anxiety

I've worked with two teachers lately who have really brought this home for me: Hal Croasmun of and Corey Mandell, both screenwriting instructors. Hal reminds me to have a "beginner's mind" and to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of growth. Corey reminds me to focus on what I'm learning, not on where I'm failing.

Ideas for dealing with performance anxiety:

  • Make growth mindset choices rather than fixed mindset choices. Keep working, learning, and growing. You'll only get better.
  • As Hal says, be comfortable with the discomfort of growth and be willing to allow yourself to be a beginner.
  • As Corey suggests, keep your focus on what you're learning, not on how you haven't yet mastered the new skill you're attempting to integrate.
  • Shift your self-talk by first recognizing that fear and doubt are coming up and helping yourself through it. "Okay, I'm worried about what other people think. What if I just let that go and focus on doing the best work I'm capable of right now, and allow myself to learn as I go?"
  • Give yourself permission to fully engage in the messy, glorious process of learning and revel in it.
  • Reward yourself for your efforts.
  • Have lots of support from your peers.
  • Be authentic about what you're experiencing with yourself and with your peers. You'll all benefit from it.
  • Find ways to create accountability for yourself so that you do the work, even in the face of creative anxiety.
  • Create a little extra time and space around the learning to help ease up on the pressure.

What works for you?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



p.s. I haven't forgotten that I promised last week to write more about creative identity -- and I will, soon! Stay tuned. :)


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The struggle with creative identity

Last week I met with a group of 13 moms to talk about "Designing Your Writing Life as a Mom". I was struck by the disconnect many of the mothers were experiencing around their creative identity, which is something many writers struggle with, parents or not.

Observations about creative identity

Here's what I noticed about creative identity through talking with these moms and working with writers through my Writer's Circle. And certainly the question of creative identity is not specific to writers, either, it translates across all forms of creative expression.

  1. When you aren't owning your creative identity, you can feel out of step with yourself, like you neither belong here nor there. This is about not being in touch with a sense of thinking of yourself as a "writer" or an "artist" yet -- or ever. (Some people don't like labels of any kind, but that's not quite what we're talking about here.) It's about having a deep sense of inner rightness connected to how you think of your answer to the question, "Who am I?"
  2. Coming to terms with your identity as an artist or writer can require dealing with old expectations and limiting beliefs about what it means to be creative. Sometimes, I find that these thoughts and beliefs revolve around negative perceptions of creativity as flaky and ungrounded. Sometimes this can also mean letting go of expectations -- and previous self-incarnations -- of wild and prolific creativity, especially when faced with Real Life challenges (like parenting, care giving, careers, and day jobs).
  3. As a culture we tend to diminish or devalue writing and creativity, so sometimes we resist calling ourselves by those identities. We're afraid to be laughed at or seen as not being serious by our peers in "real" jobs.
  4. As a culture we tend to also exalt creative expression only for certain types of artists or writers (usually "talented" or "successful" in a certain way), and we feel ashamed to try to claim our creative identity "too soon." I see this a lot in the debate about when we can consider ourselves "real" writers. Do we have to be published first? Do we have to be paid first? Many writers, including me, feel that if we're writing regularly we can call ourselves writers. I see this showing up when people say, "I am a struggling writer" or "I am a wannabe writer."
  5. Going through a major life transition can challenge your creative identity, like motherhood, major loss, career change, or divorce. I imagine this challenge could come in a good sense -- helping us more fully claim our identities -- or in more challenging one, where we lose all sense of ourselves and can't seem to find our way back. Often this comes about when we make a transition from one career to another (even if it's from one creative career to another). When I became a coach and left my urban design work behind, it took a long time to feel like a coach. When I became a writer as well as a coach, it took another solid chunk of time to transition into seeing myself as a writer.

Identity challenges coming out of an MFA program

One thing that also struck me when I listened to the mothers the other day was about how many of them had been through MFA programs and then into motherhood and now weren't writing. I suspect there are a few components to that process. In the first place, an MFA program can be an extremely intense phase of writing time -- even binge-writing -- which can be quite exhausting and requires time to recover from. I can still remember how finishing graduate school myself felt like hitting a brick wall -- intense action followed by a sudden, total full stop that left me adrift, much in the way a rushing river spilling out into a lake or ocean suddenly loses its force.

There's also a major shift in community. One writer I interviewed about going through an MFA program said, "There is a sense of loss in leaving an MFA program. You're surrounded by people who really care about writing, and then when you leave, you need to find a way to get continued support for your writing, and it's not easy."

On top of that, while an MFA program can be about becoming a writer in a very real sense, the focus is primarily on craft, and not so much on developing a consistent writing practice. My interviewee commented, "When I graduated, it was like I reentered the 'real world' and realized that, while I'd no doubt become a better writer, I hadn't developed consistent, sustainable writing habits, which was about learning a whole new skill." So it's easy to imagine that writers coming out of an intense program might suddenly feel at a loss about how to continue -- and even start to wonder who they are as their entire foundation changes.

Next time we'll talk more about how to reclaim your identity as an artist or writer if you've lost it or you're struggling to claim it.

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



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06 Oct 2005 --- Babies Crying --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Design your writing life as a mom (or dad!)

If you're a parent, having a regular writing routine takes on an additional layer of complexity -- especially in the early years. It's hard enough to handle being a parent (and even more so if you're ALSO highly sensitive or introverted as many writers are), and if you've got a career on top of it, it's easy to let writing take a back seat to the more pressing day-to-day demands.

The funny thing is that in some ways it's EASIER to design your writing life as a parent because it requires quite deliberate attention and focus, or it simply won't happen at all.

Many writers -- parents or not -- tend to dream of having long, uninterrupted blocks of time to write. What's fascinating to me about this dream is that 1) it often stops people from writing if they DON'T have it, and 2) it often stops people from writing if they DO have it.

For those you fondly cherishing the dream of long stretches of time to write you might be thinking, "What the heck is she talking about?"

But here's the thing. What we see quite consistently in the Writer's Circle is that writers who aren't writing regularly don't tend to benefit from having MORE time to write. If anything, they just tend to go into greater paralysis and procrastination.

Why on earth would something like this happen?

We've talked about this a lot here, but it's worth saying again. (And again.) Fear is why writing doesn't happen.

Big blocks of time simply INCREASE the pressure on writing. Which increases the fear. Which increases the resistance and procrastination. Entire days and weeks can go by and no writing happens.

Looking for big blocks of time is one of the fastest ways into paralysis I've seen.

So, writers, and particularly parent writers, let's just give up that fantasy for now, shall we? At least until your writing habit is so firmly ensconced in your daily routine that expanding your time won't send you into fits of terror. Or procrastination. (On a side note, that still happens even with the most experienced of writers, so don't worry too much if it crops up. Just find a way to get back to the writing as quickly as possible.)

The bottom line for all writers -- and particularly for parents -- is that creating some kind of routine around your writing is key. Reduce the variables, reduce the amount of time available, and create parameters around your writing so that it HAS TO GET DONE at a certain time or it won't get done at all.

The reason that this is easier for parents, in my opinion, is that it is actually TRUE. It isn't fabricated quite as artificially for non-parents. For writers who aren't parents, it's easier to tell ourselves we'll just write before bed or after work or some other random opportunity that comes along but often gets swallowed up by television or internet browsing. For parents, there's a cold hard reality that stares us right in the face. Those kids are coming home at a certain time and the chances of pulling off any kind of writing after that point in time are slim to none unless we have some kind of pre-arranged plan with our spouses or co-parents to make it happen.

For non-parent writers, particularly those entrepreneurial types who work from home (like me, pre-kid), it's SO MUCH HARDER to find something to "bump up against" in your schedule because so often your time is entirely self-directed. This is part of why we run so many writing sprints for my Writer's Circle -- it provides a scheduled opportunity to write for an hour that's both fixed in time and fun to participate in.

On the other hand, the challenges for parents can be trickier too. Honestly, I didn't even know what busy was until I had a child. I really thought I did. Truly! I was so wrong. Being a parent takes so much of my attention bandwidth and energy, I have to be exceedingly deliberate now about making time and energy available for writing too, in such a way that it doesn't feel like I'm taking it overly away from my son or from my work. A dicey balance to say the least.

Here are a few tips for parents -- that ultimately translate for all writers -- into a designing a writing life that works:

  • Get clear about the assumptions you're making about writing. What are you telling yourself about what you need to write that might be getting in your way of actually doing the work? (See also my article about "Buts" here.)
  • Get clear about WHY you want to write. What's important to you about it? For me, it has a lot to do with my identity that's totally separate from my role as a mother, and I firmly believe is part of what keeps me sane.
  • Make a decision that writing for SOME amount of time is better than NO amount of time. Let go of the idea that writing for long blocks of time is the only way to do it. If you target 15 minutes a day, you can accomplish a tremendous amount of writing over time if you show up and do it consistently.
  • Get out your calendar and take a both ruthless and creative approach to carving out the time to write. Think about when the kids are occupied or when you can talk your spouse into watching them for you. Give yourself the gift of protected, uninterrupted writing time, even if it's just for a few minutes a day.
  • Be aware that IF you have any kind of resistance to writing or tendencies to procrastinate (this is most of us!) it's easiest to write first thing in the morning before you have time to think about it or talk yourself out of it. For a few months I tried writing every day after I dropped my son off at preschool but found that because it felt like "work time" I had a hard time focusing on writing. So I started getting up at 6 a.m. to write everyday -- and knew that I had to be done by 7 a.m. when my husband would leave for work -- so I had to get it done then. It changed my life. (See my articles about writing early in the morning here and here.)

Join me in Berkeley this Friday for more on this subject

This Friday I'll be giving a talk at the Mothership Hackermom's hacker space on "Designing Your Writing Life as a Mom" in Berkeley. Dads and all writers are welcome too. I'll be talking about these tips and more -- including brainstorming with parents whose little ones are so little that preschool isn't an option yet. This affordable workshop runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and onsite childcare is available if you register in advance here:

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



You may also be interested in:

Coming Attractions

~> Friday, November 8, 10 to 11:30 a.m., an in-person workshop in Berkeley at Mothership HackerMoms. "Design Your Writing Life as a Mom." I'll share some parent-specific strategies for finding time to write. All writers, including mothers and fathers, are welcome to attend this workshop.

~> WEDNESDAY, November 27th, Last day to register for the Writer's Circle. Register by November 27th for the next session of my Writer's Circle (starts December 2nd). Build a solid habit of daily writing and finish all your writing projects:

~> My annual birthday sale is COMING SOON! Stay tuned for details about getting some great savings on some of my favorite products.


What I'm Up To

~> Writing. Daily writing on various projects. Primarily LUMINAL, a supernatural thriller based on a true story. Follow the project on Facebook here, and on Twitter here (and be sure to let them know I sent you. :) ).

~> Learning. Continuing to study with Corey Mandell and ScreenwritingU.

~> Unplugging. Back to unplugging one day per weekend, usually Saturdays. Such a relief!

~> Reading. Ready for something new!


Thanks for reading.

* Affiliate link

Get your ‘But’ in the seat and write

One of my all time favorite quotes about writing comes from Steven Pressfield, author of what has become my bible for writing, The War of Art*. In it, he says:

"There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance."

As a writing habit and motivation coach, I work with writers all over the world who face and tackle this resistance every single day as they struggle to sit down to write. Very often that resistance takes the form of the word "But".

  • But I don't have enough time.
  • But I don't have enough training.
  • But I don't know what to write.
  • But I'm not inspired.
  • But I'm not a good enough writer.
  • But I'm not in the right mood.
  • But I need to take care of all these other tasks first.
  • But I'm not making enough money yet to justify taking time to write.
  • But I don't have a laptop.
  • But I'm tired, I didn't get enough sleep last night.
  • But I'm too busy.
  • But my day job takes up too much of my time.
  • But I don't have a private space.
  • But my kids will interrupt me.
  • But my mom might call and need me.
  • But I'm bored with this project.
  • But I can't decide which project to start with.
  • But I'm stuck.
  • But I have writer's block.
  • But if I was a real writer, it would come easily to me.
  • But I have to deal with this crisis/emergency/major life issue first.

Guess what?

All these Buts are just stories. They are coming up for a deeper reason.

The deeper reason is fear.

Fear is what truly stops us from writing. The Buts are just the surface level rationalizations for fear. They are convenient excuses to keep your butt out of your chair and doing other things so you don't have to face the discomfort of taking on your dream.

Pressfield also says:

"Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work."

It turns out that actually DOING the writing is fairly easy. Most of the writers I work with find that once they are actually putting words on the page, they forget about the inner struggle and just do the work. In the Writer's Circle we run five weekly group writing sprints to help our writers overcome the resistance to sitting down to write (and to curtail the sense of isolation). My other favorite trick is to write first thing in the morning with a timer running. Pushing the start button gives me a "GO" that gets me into gear even when the Buts are loud and pernicious.

The thing to notice here is that fear is a beacon. It guides you exactly where you need to and even want to go, though you may not be aware of that wanting yet. The thing is, if it wasn't a big, big dream, you wouldn't be afraid of it.

No, I'm not talking here about naturally protective fear that keeps you safe from lions, tigers, and bears -- that's GOOD fear -- I'm talking about the kind of fear that's a holdover from when you were a kid, the kind that's trying to keep you safe from any kind of personal humiliation or risk. This is also the kind of fear that's keeping you "safe" from achieving your dreams.

I didn't quite mean for this to become an ode to Steven Pressfield, but he has so much genius on this subject I can't help sharing a few more of my favorite quotes from him about fear:

"Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it."


"Figure out what scares you the most and do that first."

So it's time.

It's time to stop listening to the Buts, the fears, the doubts, and the rationalizations. It's time to site down and do the work, to coax yourself through the fear with lots of support and promises of rewards, to feed your own well of creative inspiration so you feel consistently nourished and ready to write, and to learn whatever you need to learn so you feel equipped to do the writing. But above all else, it's time to write.

Build the habit to overcome your own resistance

Join the Writer's CircleIf you’re a writer struggling to overcome your writing resistance, join the next session of our Writer’s Circle. We’ll help you build a regular, consistent habit of writing so the battle to overcome resistance each day gets easier. Plus, you’ll have a great community of support, working alongside other writers committed to showing up and doing the work. Find out more and register here:

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



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It’s never too late to finish your book now

TerriMany people have unfinished writing projects that linger for years, but it's never too late to finish your book. And the time to get restarted might just be now.

I reached out to Terri Fedonczak, a long time Writer's Circle member, to talk to us about her experience finishing a long-time writing project after 15 years of dreaming and what that's been like for her. Terri has been such a great participant and gotten so much out of the Writer's Circle that I recently invited her to join us as a coach for one of our coaching groups on the site.

Read on to find out about Terri's extremely inspiring project for parents (I've seen a preview and it's terrific!) and how she conquered her writer's isolation and resistance with the help of the Circle and saw her book all the way through to done.


Terri, welcome and thanks for being here. First, let's talk about your accomplishment -- finishing your parenting book! What was that like for you?

Thanks for having me, Jenna! When I finished my first draft, it was the culmination of a dream I have had for fifteen years. I remember telling my niece about how I wanted to write a parenting book and discussing topics with her; this was in 1996. When I actually finished my first draft, I thought there would be angels singing . . . not so much! What I didn’t realize was the time involved in the editing process -- there's always more!

How long had you been working on the book prior to joining the Circle?

I spent fifteen years working on the first draft, but I had been jotting down ideas in my journal for ten years before that. In the ensuing years, I wrote little snippets in journals and spoke ideas into my portable tape recorder.

You actually finished a rough draft of the book after you first joined the Circle in 2011, is that right?

Yes, my first session of the Writer’s Circle was spent culling all the bits and recordings into a little 60 page book.

Then what happened that led you to completing this new draft?

I interviewed three different editors, and picked Darla Bruno. She read through my first draft and suggested that the book wanted to be more. I hadn’t put my life into the book or any coaching tools. So, I took the challenge and spent the next year or so rewriting it. The completed book is 214 pages, and it’s everything I envisioned back in 1996!

What can you tell us about yourself and about the focus of the book?

I'm the mother of four daughters: three biological and one bonus girl that came to live with us in 2010. I'm a breast cancer survivor; I mention it, because it changed the course of my life. I left my fifteen-year commercial real estate practice to become a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach, writer, and speaker. Breast cancer changed my priorities completely; the threat of losing my life awakened me to the importance of living my right life.

The title of the book is Field Guide to Plugged-in Parenting, Even if You Were Raised by Wolves. It answers the question of how to be a good parent if you have no role models -- you know you don't want to replay your childhood, but you are lost as to an alternative. It's a compilation of all the parenting and coaching tools I have used successfully with my kids, with some humor thrown in to lighten the load. I walk you through a process to create your own parenting plan, so that your kids will be starting with an infinitely better foundation, thereby ending the wolf-baby cycle forever. Wolf babies is a term I coined to describe those of us who were raised by wolves and suffer from lack-based thinking as a result.

How did you find out about the Circle and what inspired you to join us?

Jill Winski was in my life coach training class, and she put out an ad for the Circle on our Facebook page. I saw it and knew that I needed help with making my book a reality. It felt like divine guidance . . . and it was.

What have you learned about your writing process from participating in the Writer’s Circle?

I’ve learned that there is no magic pill, place, or instrument that delivers a quality product. All it takes is complete honesty, utter vulnerability, and a daily practice of showing up to the page . . . no big whoop!

What were the biggest challenges you faced before joining the Circle? Have they changed? What's different now about your writing habit?

I think the biggest challenge I faced was the feeling that I was all alone in my desire to write a book. I knew I had an important message, I just didn’t understand how to deliver it. With the Circle for support and accountability, my biggest challenge now is the acceptance that I am a writer. It’s not a fluke or a pipe-dream; I wrote a book, ipso facto, I’m a writer! The biggest difference in my writing habit is that I’m no longer plagued with resistance, so I write every day. Some days it’s just 20 minutes of morning pages in my journal, and some days it’s three hours working on a blog post or outline for the new book . . . but I write every day.

What advice do you have for other writers?

First of all, join the Writer’s Circle! It’s the best way to incorporate writing into your daily life. Secondly, write every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes in your journal. While your logical mind is busy watching your hand move across the paper, the most delightful tidbits will rise up from your creative mind. When one pops up that excites you, expand it . . . like you're telling your favorite friend a story. You don’t need anything other than a pen, paper, and a bit of quiet time to awaken your creative side . . . and then you’re off to the races!

What’s next for you and your writing?

I’m developing a program that I will be delivering to incoming 9th grade girls called, “Field Guide to the Wilds of High School.” I developed the program while on safari in Africa (jeesh, that sounds so hoity-toity), and it’s based on the power of the pride. I watched the way the lionesses took care of the pride, and how their raw feminine power ran their world. It reminded me of what’s missing in Girl World. So I’m taking the program into schools this summer, and then I will turn the results into a book for teens and a corresponding book for parents on how to survive high school.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I believe that everyone has a creative person living within them, and that creative energy can turn drudgery into joy. Find some way to nurture your creative side, and your life will blossom in endless and unexpected ways…or at least that’s what happened to me.

About Terri

Terri2Terri Fedonczak has 22 years of parenting experience and is a certified life coach, specializing in parent and teen coaching. After 16 years as a commercial real estate agent, a bout with breast cancer transformed Terri’s life in 2010, making her realize that time with her four girls and patient husband was a much better deal than money and status. It was time to put her mission into action. She left sales and embarked on a journey of spreading the message of girl power for good. When Terri is not writing books, speaking, coaching, or blogging, you can find her paddle boarding on the sparkling waters of Boggy Bayou, knitting to the consternation of her children, who are buried in scarves and hats, or dancing in her kitchen to Motown.

You can follow Terri online at and on Facebook here. Look for Terri's Field Guide to be published in January 2014!

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




Coming Attractions

~> Saturday, October 26th and Sunday, October 27th. Come to Berkeley for a live two-day workshop on "Rapid Story Development: 7 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller" co-hosted by the Writer's Circle and Jeff Lyons of Storygeeks. Learn a story development method that transcends standard structure paradigms using the Enneagram. Register here:

~> Thursday, October 31, 4 p.m. Pacific Time -- I'll be a guest speaker for the Group Coaching MegaSummit, hosted by one of my mentors, Gina Hiatt. (The whole summit runs from Monday, October 28th to Friday, November 1st.) I'll be talking about how my Writer's Circle works as a group coaching model and my past experiences doing group coaching.*

~> Thursday, October 31st, Last day to register for the Writer's Circle. Register by October 31st for the next session of my Writer's Circle (starts November 4th). Build a solid habit of daily writing and finish all your writing projects:

~> Friday, November 8, 10 to 11:30 a.m., an in-person workshop in Berkeley at Mothership HackerMoms. "Design Your Writing Life as a Mom." I'll share some parent-specific strategies for finding time to write. All writers, including mothers and fathers, are welcome to attend this workshop.


What I'm Up To

~> Writing. Daily writing on various projects. Primarily LUMINAL, a supernatural thriller based on a true story. Follow the project on Facebook here, and on Twitter here (and be sure to let them know I sent you. :) ).

~> Learning. Continuing to study with Corey Mandell and ScreenwritingU.

~> Reading. Still reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success* by Carol Dweck.


Thanks for reading.

* Affiliate link