What to do when you come up empty

naomi dunfordNote from Jenna: This is a guest post by Naomi Dunford, my friend and business consultant who runs IttyBiz.com.

Although she's writing from the perspective of business writing or blogging, her wonderful ideas for how to cope with "coming up empty" are useful for writers of all sorts.

Take a look and see what resonates as useful for you.

diamonds

Today, I completely ran out of things to say.

I wrote the introductions for my next seven newsletters.

I found quotes for the next month.

I wrote 53 emails, planned a trip, and took two sales calls.

And I called my mother.

I should note here that I’m writing this on a Saturday.

I’m sure it comes as a surprise to nobody, but at some point in this process, I completely ran out of things to say.

And poor you! You are sitting there, breathlessly waiting for your next instalment of the IttyBiz daily and I am dry. I got nothing.

Hmm.

It’s weird when this happens. You’re on this crazy roll, getting an absolutely stupid amount of stuff done, and you’re getting accustomed to the momentum. It’s like shopping in a crazy busy mall. You get into a flow of bam! bam! bam! Dodge, charge, pivot, go, turn, and then…

Silence. Motionlessness.

It’s like all of a sudden the people are gone and the stores are shut and you’re not entirely sure what you’re supposed to do now.

What you are supposed to do now

When you are experiencing temporary burnout, you must do something that is not work.

That something should be, at minimum, comparable in time and attention level as a chunk of work. If you would be working for two hours, you should take at least two hours away. If you would be working on something mentally engrossing, you should do something equally engrossing.

This seems obvious to those around you, and yet completely counterintuitive to you. You think that you should stay busy, stay occupied, get something useful done. You think that you should try harder, or get a coffee, or stare at your computer screen for a while in case that solves the problem.

Nope. This is one of those few situations where the majority is actually right.

All your idiot friends who tell you that you need to take a little break, step away from the computer for a while? Those ones who just don’t get it?

Yeah, unfortunately, it’s you who doesn’t get it. (Please bear in mind here that when I say “you”, I mean “me”.)

Time for some practical examples!

If you were going to work on outlining your next project, and it was going to be mentally taxing, you need something that will not only utilize a completely separate area of your brain, but something that will actively restore you. A movie, perhaps. A run, maybe, as long as you’re not the type who thinks while you’re running.

If you were catching up on your emails and it wasn’t going to be taxing, you can just do something dumb and brainless. Candy Crush: Soda Saga is a nice choice here, but if you’re stuck on a level, you’ll only get five minutes. But the movie option still works. I routinely TiVo Jeopardy! for situations like this one.

If you’re doing something that’s making you numb, like taxes, you’re going to need something energizing. Some kind of personal treat would be a good idea, ideally something that gets you far away from the source of the problem. Drop in on a yoga class or get an ice cream. Bonus science points if you go somewhere you don’t normally go – it activates the novelty parts of your brain and makes you more alert for a good while afterwards.

Some tips for taking a break:

1. One thing that I find really helpful here is setting a little intention before you take your big break. I say something like, “OK, I’m going to go watch Legally Blonde so I can give my brain a chance to fully restore. That way I can come back rejuvenated and ready to kick some ass.”

I avoided doing this for a long time because I thought it was cheesy. Then I tried it and it worked. Then I tried it again and it worked again. Once the third time succeeded, I had to admit that it was a good strategy for me. I value science over ego, and if it works, it works.

2. If you hate the task, you may want to admit it to yourself. I don’t hate this task, I love it, but there are plenty I don’t love. When I was recording launch multipliers in month 11 of BIG LAUNCH, after I’d already done it once before but my computer wiped the files? Yeah, those are the kind of situations made for “Oh my God I ****ing hate my ****ing job and I ****ing hate this ****ing product and I swear I am moving to Costa Rica tomorrow.”

Sometimes, saying exactly how you feel is remarkably cathartic.

3. On the other hand, if it’s just standard issue fatigue, try to put a positive frame around your break. This is not the end of the world. You’re in a line of work that drains your resources. Being periodically drained is hardly a state of emergency. Sitting around saying you’re soooooo drained and soooooo tired and juuuuuust caaaaaaan’t work is not helpful.

Pretend you work for a moving company. Those guys are tired at the end of the day, and they probably can’t lift one more thing. You know what they do? They drink some beer, watch some baseball, and put their feet up. They do not put in an emergency call to their life coach, claiming existential catastrophe.

Sit down, enjoy your Strictly Ballroom, and smile. Your rejuvenating, not injured.

4. Plan for it. If you’re in a periodically draining line of work, this is going to happen. It might be a good idea to have a plan and some supplies on hand so you can immediately shift gears when you’re feeling the signs.

People with diabetes plan for crashes. Parents of preschoolers plan for crashes. Don’t get superstitious about this.

The more you plan for a crash, the faster you can recharge, and the faster you can get back on your feet.

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Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out Naomi's other guest post here about writer's block. 

 

 

make an investment to your writing

Every writing project is an investment

Every project I work on – especially when it's a long-form piece – has begun to feel like an investment: In myself, in my writing, in my future.

Each one starts out seeming so simple. Just an idea. But it builds over time into a complex story. With questions and puzzles and logic challenges and logic flaws and doubts. All of which have to be solved. 

And it takes time to crack those puzzles.

Even though I've been able to move from concept to outline to draft much more quickly now than I have in the past, it's more than just a matter of pace and production. It's also about depth and attention -- preoccupation even -- for a period of my life. It's about making a commitment to a story that occupies my time, my thoughts, my subconscious, my dreams. It occupies ME. 

When I hear the stories of how many drafts it took to write The Sixth Sense and how many before he “got” the big idea, I appreciate even more what an investment a story is. Learning to tell it well. To refine it, hone it, pare away the unnecessary bits. All the rewriting. It’s no small thing.

And yet we dive into these stories with such hope and abandon. "This one will be different," we tell ourselves. "It'll practically write itself! I'll be done before I know it."

The grass is always greener

Just tonight I happened upon a journal entry from last year, where I was lamenting about how ready I was to write something new as I was slogging through a major rewrite. And since then, I have. And now I’m feeling about the new project the way I was feeling about the thing I was rewriting at the time. Or possibly worse. :)

Isn’t that funny, how the grass is always greener on the next project?

I think that must be part of the drive behind “bright shiny object syndrome” and the resultant project hopping we writers can get into. Those other projects look so much more appealing than our current moldy one, all banged up and warty and flawed.

No wonder we leave trails of unfinished projects behind us like breadcrumbs leading to a trove of forgotten dreams.

I think there may also be a hesitation to fully commit to a second or third or next project because we know what a major big deal it is having been through earlier projects. I can see why "second novel syndrome" may be more than an issue of simply exceeding the quality of one's prior work! It's also about psyching ourselves up for the next step in our writer's journey.

Difficult but worth doing

Because really, it's why we're here, right? To write? 

So whether we're starting our first project or our tenth, or rewriting yet another draft, it's about facing the work. Finding the courage to do it. Stewing in the crummy, awkward, and sh*tty rough draft writing we’ve created or wrestling with the new story choices and puzzles, while we twist uncomfortably, grasping at straws, wondering how on earth to solve or fix it. It’s painful!! Who would want to subject herself to that?

No wonder we jump to other things.

But when I think of each project as an investment, it changes the picture for me.

It becomes worth it to put in the time.

It changes from the wretched torture of rewriting a terrible rough draft or struggling to pull the pieces together to something difficult but worth doing.

What about you?

 

 

baby

How I rebooted my blogging habit after baby #2

Pre-baby #2 last May, I was blogging on a weekly basis. I had a precision system in place. Every week during one of the 60-minute writing sprints we run for my Writer’s Circle, I would knock out about 1000 words in 40 minutes, edit, proof, and polish it in the remaining 20, then grab an image and publish the whole shebang within maybe another 10 minutes or so. Then a few final tweaks to the copy in my mailing system and I was all set with my weekly post and newsletter (I have my blog set up to be pulled straight in to Aweber once it’s published on my site, then I broadcast it to my mailing list).

I had a SYSTEM. (And if you know me very well, you know how much I love a good system!)

It was fun, easy, and I was in a good rhythm with it for quite a few years. 

Then cue baby, stage right

But once baby #2 came, I knew all bets would be off. And they were.

In those early post-partum days, I was wandering around in a deep haze of physical exhaustion from the birth, breastfeeding and skin-to-skin induced oxytocin highs, and massive sleep deprivation and fragmentation – I was sleeping around the clock with the baby. In other words, all was as it should be. :)

But in the midst of it all, I still had (and have) a business to run. Since I knew it was going to be tough, I had planned to run a series of guest posts over the summer to keep the flow of content going. It was a great plan, and I had I realized what it would take I would have made it a higher priority to set up all the posts BEFORE the baby was born.

(Who am I kidding? The last 6 months of this pregnancy were tough and it was a minor miracle I did such a thorough job of prepping my team to keep things running in my absence! Still, in an ideal world, perhaps…)

In any case, it turns out that guest blog post editing and publishing takes me just as long if not longer than writing my own posts. Live and learn. Still, it was delightful to have a hiatus from being the solo content generator and it kept me in touch with writing and all of you. So once the baby shifted out of the long luxurious naps of The Early Days and into those short 40-minute jobs where there was no point in me trying to sleep anyway, I would get to work on guest posts and screenwriting assignments (and writing the occasional post myself, I think.)

But then the guest post series dried up and I found myself struggling to write the way I had before. Each post took me three times as long as it had in the past. I don’t know if it was the oxytocin/milk brain thing or the chronically tired mom thing or both, but blogging stopped coming so easily.

Then factor in the screenwriting I’m trying to keep up with for my master certificate program and blogging really started slipping through the cracks.

And something just wasn't feeling right

In the bigger picture somewhere along the way I also stopped feeling satisfied with the WAY I was blogging. I wanted to SAY SOMETHING DIFFERENT or at least say it differently, but I wasn’t sure how or even what I exactly wanted to change.

Which led me to some soul searching.

Did I still want to blog?

Was there a different way I could see out there that I might want to try?

What struck me, eventually, was wanting to have more of a mix of posts. Some personal stories interspersed with the writing habit insights. Maybe even an opinion piece or two. Some longer pieces. And even a few occasional guest posts. Once that clarity emerged things got better. But it still wasn't happening.

Creativity required

So my desire was clearer but my action plan was lacking.

One of the things about being an entrepreneur with a baby at home is that you have to be flexible, creative, and resourceful at all times.

Now he's older and is sleeping for longer naps again I have two small windows of time to work in each day, assuming all goes according to plan and there are no random dogs barking during nap time! (Ahem.) (His name is Colton, by the way, and he’s a cute as a kitten playing with a dust bunny.)

So that means I have approximately two to three baby-free hours each day to apportion between screenwriting, blogging, and keeping my Writer’s Circle in motion. Not a lot of time. Sure. I could hire a babysitter and I do have some temporary help right now, but I WANT to be with my son while he is little like this.

Which is exactly the point. As a writer, and a mom, I have to be super creative about when, where, and how I write. I also have to make sure I get enough down time and sleep or I cross the line into crazy mama land pretty quickly. And since the old pattern wasn't working, I had to come up with a new one.

Finding new times to write

My new favorite time of day to blog is that small window of time before I go to sleep and after the kids are in bed. I’ve learned that I can write in Markdown text on my iPhone in an app with a nice dark mode (Byword) while snuggled in bed. It’s the perfect time to empty my brain of the blog posts I’ve been mentally composing all day (turns out that part of my issue lately has been having too much to say – it gets overwhelming and gums up the works without an outlet for expression).

The key is just making sure I get into bed early enough to write without messing up my sleep. On the other hand, sometimes sleep is hard to come by and having the flexibility to read or write in the middle of the night can be a mental relief rather than lying in the dark working out sentences and trying to keep them in my head until I have time to write them down. Plus it leaves my daytime work slots free for screenwriting and running my business.

Then in the morning I can sync up my files with Scrivener or export them straight into my blog in perfectly formatted HTML.

And it led to finding a new voice and new creative expression

Somehow having a new system has unleashed my creativity again. (See? What did I tell you about me and systems?) I just needed a system that worked with my current lifestyle.

It’s such a good reminder that when your writing pattern stops working, it’s time to redesign your writing life to match.

And the most fascinating outcome for me has been a shift in my writing voice that feels even more like me. 

I love it. :)

fast writing

Are you writing fast enough?

I'm learning to write faster. With blogging I’m already fairly quick, though my recent writing voice recalibration has slowed me down a bit (more on this in a future installment).

But in terms of screenwriting, I’m learning to be faster and looser, to let go a little more, and to refrain from perfecting until the polish draft.

And being a fast writer is a boon in the screenwriting industry, it seems. I have a few sought-after writer friends who are known, in part, for their speed.

So it’s a good thing, right? To be fast?

Pressure's on

When we write quickly, there's another kind of fast that's implied as well.

It’s the idea that we should be cranking out multiple scripts each year (or books, for my novelist friends). That if we’re not, we’re slackers. (I read recently that screenwriting agents don’t even want to talk to you if you aren’t writing at least three new spec scripts a year, in addition to any paid writing assignments you might be working on. I also have novelist friends putting out multiple books per year.)

It starts to feel as though the counting police are breathing down your neck to see if you’ve done enough. Today, this week, this year. Enough words, stories, scripts, books, etc.

More power to the writers who want to and can write that much, but what about the rest of us with little kids and/or who are old enough to know that pulling all nighters, racing to meet deadlines, killing ourselves with 50, 60, or 70 hour workweeks is ridiculous, short-sighted, and terrible for our health and relationships? Or even just want to make sure we're actually enjoying LIVING along with writing?

Sure. We might want to write a lot. To be prolific. But we have to be mindful about what works for our LIVES as well as our careers. And our lives are individual, with specific realities, so there’s no point in comparing ourselves to others. After all, when comparing, someone always loses. That’s not a fun place to live from. (I honestly doubt that was the plan, when our souls said “YES!” to writing.)

Thoughts about quantity versus quality

I’m of two minds about this quantity thing, of course.

(That’s how you know it’s me!)

On the one hand, writing more stories means more practice, which means more experience and more knowledge under one’s belt as a writer, which also means greater facility with writing as a whole. That seems like a good thing to me. I learn more and deepen my skills with every project I tackle, to be sure. And as my natural pace picks up with greater experience (and my kids get older), I'm sure it will become even easier to write more, more quickly.

It also seems to be the standard recommendation these days — to write as much as possible — and indeed, my personal goal has been to build a library of scripts I can take to market all at once. I’m just choosing not to kill myself over it, especially with little kids whose childhoods I don't want to miss.

On the other side of the coin, taking your time to write one truly solid story may be the ticket to unlocking your storytelling gifts. It’s what I like about what Corey Mandell recommends: getting one script “pitch perfect authentic” so you deeply understand what you’re doing and why so you can carry that forward into your future projects. The argument goes that there’s no point in moving on to project after project if you’re just going to keep making the same mistakes. This is why I chose to spend the last couple of years refining my first script rather than moving on to new projects (though I have now just completed a rough draft of a new project and have taken on a writing assignment).

The real questions to ask

No matter what other people recommend, say, do, or think about how much we “should” be writing, we have to be true to ourselves and set the goals we actually want to achieve, not the goals we are told we "should" strive for.

The real way to measure our pace is by setting goals that work for us, are attainable, and are in resonance with the lives we want to have. Then we can see how well our pace and goals are matching up.

So the real questions to ask are:  Are you writing fast enough for YOU? Are you meeting the goals you are setting for yourself, from your heart? Are you writing at a pace that feels sustainable and healthy? One that’s good for you, the project, and the planet?

The real answers lie there.

 

cry for help

What I really think when you’re not writing

When someone signs up for the Writer’s Circle, and doesn’t participate, I am always fascinated to know why. I don’t assume that the person is lazy or just not writing. And sometimes there are real reasons, like a sudden death in the family or an unexpected deadline at work.

But more often than not, when someone isn’t writing, it’s resistance. Resistance means avoiding the very thing you know you most want to do. In fact, the bigger the calling, the more resistance.

And if you’re the one in resistance, it can be tricky to spot. The stories we tell ourselves become so familiar, we take them as givens.

Garden variety resistance

Stories like “being too busy”, for instance, are common. It’s our best socially acceptable excuse, after all! These are the more obvious cases, where the writer says they want to write, but fails to do so, saying they are too busy.

It’s resistance, plain and simple.

Sure. It might ALSO be true that they are too busy. But WHY are they too busy? What self-created realities are they living in that make them too busy to write?

Resistance leads us to create overflowing lives with impossible tasks and deadlines, because if we CAN’T write, we don’t have to write. Saved!

We always have a choice

The thing is, though, we make the choices that create our lives.

Sure, we might have to hold down day jobs. But we don’t have to be perfectionists about Every Single Bit of work that we do, or work Every Single Available Hour to successfully accomplish our jobs. Perfectionism keeps us working on other projects far longer than necessary. Being busy in this way is the ultimate form of procrastination.

The reality is that it is almost always possible to write for just a few minutes a day, no matter how busy you are. Usually if you can’t find a few minutes, it’s because you’re allowing perfectionism and resistance to get in the way, one way or the other. Even taking on too much work is a form of perfectionism, because when we can’t write, we don’t have to, and we don’t have to see ourselves fail to reach our own impossibly high standards.

Insidious types of resistance

The more insidious types of resistance are new projects that suddenly demand our attention, like just when we’ve finally committed to writing a novel, we decide we have to start a thirty-day workout program, get another degree, start a new business, clear our clutter, move, or fix our finances.

Why do we do this?

On the surface, it might look like we’re mastering self-improvement in all areas of our lives, all at once. It feels so good to finally be committing to writing that we overcommit to trying to improve everything in our lives. Or it might look like we’ve gotten clear that these other projects are more important to do first.

It looks noble. Or smart, to get your priorities in order.

But underneath, it’s self-sabotage.

What we’re really doing is simply avoiding the writing. We might not be willing or able to admit it to ourselves at the time, but raw naked terror is running the show. Better to build one habit or make one major change at a time, ideally in small manageable pieces.

There’s nothing like signing up for something like the Writer’s Circle or committing to doing the work, and then seeing yourself run fleeing in the other direction (or just plain old losing interest) to clue you in to the fact that you are secretly TERRIFIED of facing the page.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being scared.

In fact, it’s ENTIRELY normal. If you aren’t scared, you might even be doing it wrong.

You might be surprised about what I really think when you aren’t writing

But here’s the thing. If you tell me you want to write and the instantly do the opposite, you might be surprised (or not, if you know me at all!) to know that I DON’T think:

  • He’s being lazy.
  • She isn’t serious about being a writer.
  • He doesn’t have what it takes.

Far from it.

In fact, what goes through my brain is:

  • Oh, poor thing, she must be terrified.
  • I wonder if he knows he’s running away.
  • I hope she will reach out for help instead of hiding.
  • I wonder if he knows how defended he is right now.
  • I wonder what she’s doing instead of writing and how I can help her troubleshoot it.

What I really see hidden in the way writers act out after they’ve committed to writing but don't do it – is a cry for help.

The bigger the badder

And the larger the way the resistance plays out, the more terror I see:

  • Taking on new responsibilities at work or for the kids' schools? Scared.
  • Going out drinking every night instead of writing? Panicky.
  • Suddenly deciding to start a new business venture or get a fine arts degree? Petrified.

All these kinds of choices – whether they are sudden new choices or chronic patterns – they are resistance, and show us how scared we truly are.

Is this grounds for self-flagellation?

No.

Far from it.

It’s powerful information.

When you know you are not lazy or weak willed but scared, then you know how to deal with it.

The antidote for fear

The antidote for fear is courage.

But it’s also about having a super simple plan to bypass the fear and get into action with the smallest possible steps to get you writing. (I can help you with that here and here.)

So when I see you not writing, my first response is compassion, followed by tons of support and brainstorming to help you get going again. It’s as simple as that.

 

burnt heart parchment

The burden of being a writer

My best friend reminded me the other day that I have chosen an artist’s career. Her words hit me over the head like a metal bucket, with all the accompanying reverberations one might expect.

Wait.

I did?

An artist’s career?

But she’s right. By choosing to become a writer, I chose an artist’s lifestyle.

Sure, yeah, I’m an entrepreneur too, and a coach. In some senses I’m well-diversified. But in the sense we were talking about, it was hardly different. They are unpredictable jobs. The money goes up and down. You don’t know how you’ll be rewarded for any given effort. There’s not an hours for dollars exchange going on, at least not in the predictable way someone with a 40-hours-a-week-plus-benefits job would have.

And honestly? I wouldn’t give it up. I adore working for myself. When people talk about how they can only take so many vacation days a year so they can’t take an extra day off to have a three day weekend, I just look at them with cow eyes. What now?

On the other hand, in some ways I am never off work. Not one day, not ever. Because it’s mine. But it’s also MINE, you dig?

But I digress.

Chuck Wendig wrote this post recently about making the decision to quit writing (or not). He suggested picturing your life five years from now, not writing, and noticing how you feel. Relieved? Maybe that’s a sign to quit. Disappointed? Maybe you should keep going.

But I don’t know.

Maybe I’m deformed or deficient in some way but along with the massive joy I often feel for my writing and the daily deep satisfaction I get from doing it, I also feel burdened by it. Like it's something I’ve picked up and can never put down again. And sometimes that makes me feel tired, like I want a break. So when I think of not writing in five years, yeah, there’s a part of me that feels relieved. Like I’d be off this self-created hook. But is that so bad? Is that a sign I don’t want it enough? I don’t think so.

Because my real answer to whether or not I would quit writing is “No way, not ever.”

It reminds me a bit of parenting.

Both are “terrible privileges” in a sense. Neither would I give up, not for anything. But they will never ever ever go away. I cannot escape them. Nor do I want to. But some part of me still sometimes longs for those earlier carefree days when I didn’t know what it would be like to have parts of my soul walking around in other small bodies that I made inside my own. Or those days when I could truly be free to do nothing or anything without the need to take care of another being or to put words to the page because if I don’t I start to feel itchy and claustrophobic all at once.

It’s a burden. A privilege. A recipe for angst and joy, all rolled into one.

Do I love it every minute?

No.

Would I give it up?

Absolutely not.

Because in writing I found myself.

And quitting would be giving up on part of me that would lose her home.

 

itools

Minding my own business (managing the distractions so I can focus on my life, my kids, and my writing)

In this über-distractified world we live in, minding our own business is becoming increasingly important.

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the way I start my day in this regard.

Whose day is it, anyway?

If I get up and instantly tune in to what other people are doing, by turning on my phone and checking for email, texts, Skype messages, Facebook messages, app notifications and/or my Facebook news feed, timeline or notifications, my day starts off focused on other people’s business. (And, wow, when I put it all in a list like that it’s downright overwhelming. No wonder my brain feels cluttered.)

If I start my day this way, I spend the next 60 to 70 minutes — time when I want to be focused on my kids, getting my older boy to school and my baby boy settled for his nap — feeling distracted.

Things like this start twirling through my brain, even when I tell myself I’m just going to take a quick look at email to make sure nothing critical is happening that I need to take care of:

  • Sorting through all the details, step-by-step, for how to solve the latest technical problem du jour with my website upgrades.
  • Mentally composing replies to emails I've seen come in from clients, colleagues, and co-workers.
  • Tracking all the email reminders for the various school events and doctors appointments I just saw in my inbox.
  • Wondering about the cool article I saw from one of my favorite writers and when I'll get to finish reading it.
  • Mulling over my thoughts and replies to various conversations and intellectual ideas my friends and colleagues post about. 

Getting hooked

The thing is, my brain LOVES problem-solving and answering questions. It’s truly one of my strengths. In fact, I get a little bored when I don’t have a problem to solve and sometimes create problems so that I have something to work on (I like to call them projects to make it sound better. :) ).

But it’s hard to shut my brain off. ANY problem will set it on overdrive, working to solve it, even if it’s not one that is particularly meaningful or important to me. (Even inane random things I see, like “The top 20 songs from the 80s your kids should know the lyrics to!” sets my brain to wondering… “Wow, what songs are they? Do I know those songs? Is it really important that my kids know those songs? Do I even like those songs?” Make it stop!)

And when I’m walking to school with a sweet seven-year-old boy who wants to tell me all about the monsters he’s coming up with for his latest comic book, I don’t want my brain in distracted-mode or even problem-solving mode, I want it in listening mode.

And when I get back to the house with the baby to nurse and settle for his nap, I want to focus on his angelic, beautiful face shining up at me. I don’t want to be distracted by the noise of other people’s business.

And when I get to my desk, once he’s asleep and I’m ready to write, I don’t want my brain cluttered with obligations and distractions that other people’s desires and requests — even their PRESENCE — creates for me. I want my brain in creative problem solving mode for MY work.

I want to be minding my own business.

But what about staying in touch?

All this said, I DO want to stay in touch with my friends and community. As an introverted, highly sensitive writer who works from home and has a child under age one, it’s lovely to have so many ways to keep in touch with what the people I genuinely care about are doing. And this includes all the neat writers I’m getting to know online and the people I work with through my Writer’s Circle and coaching work.

Which is ALSO part of minding my business, literally.

So.

Obviously some of this is me working on my own ability to be present, calm, centered, and focused though things like exercise, mindfulness, etc.

But it’s also about the addictive nature of social media and the ever-present drive to consume information that so many of us are wrestling with right now.

I was fascinated that right after our newest son was born, I could not handle much input. I couldn’t talk on the phone for at least eight weeks after his birth — it was just too overstimulating. I also could not bear to have all the many pop-up notifications on my phone that I’d grown accustomed to over the years prior.

Think about WHY we’re doing it

I reached out to one of my go-to coaches for this, Jessica Michaelson, and asked for her input. She suggested I give some thought to what it provides for me personally, so that I could think of other ways to get those needs met. She said it often serves as a way for people to avoid uncomfortable feelings and to create short term positive feelings.

I definitely find myself reaching for my phone when I’m bored and looking for a “hit” of something “fun”. I also like seeing what other people are doing — but again, that pulls me out of my own world and into theirs (something not so great for an empathic person). I also get into trouble when I’m waiting for a response to something I've sent, like an email (this is particularly true when it's about something I’m nervous about or has an emotional charge for me).

It’s not even so much that I get distracted by social media when I’ve planned to write; I’m fairly solid on writing when I say I’m going to write. It’s that it is taking up too much space in my brain. I want to feel clearer headed for myself and for my kids.

So I have been cutting back, and I feel so much calmer. I’m also thinking of going back to one technology free day per week, though I’ll have to negotiate that with my son since we’ve now limited his screen time to weekends only and those are my easiest days to unplug. :)

And here’s the thing. I actually love all the technology. As much as it can be overwhelming, I’m enough of a gadget geek to really enjoy using these tools. I just want to make sure I’m using them effectively and enjoying of the experience, rather than having them whittle away at my time and psyche.

Systematically eradicating the systems

Here’s what I’ve done on a technical front to help myself deal with all this:

  • Turned off all notifications on my phone except text alerts.

  • Turned off almost all badges on apps (those ones that show the little red numbers telling you there’s a message to lure you into looking at them).

  • Keep my phone in silent mode except when I’m expecting an important phone call or text. This is most of the time. I also avoid giving my phone numbers out as much as possible, except to close friends and co-workers.

  • Keep my phone face down while I’m writing so if anything does pop up I’m not distracted by it.

  • Deleted games from my iPad and iPhone that I have gotten obsessive about playing with (don’t even get me started talking about the games that my older son and I call “working games” — those are such a huge temptation to a problem-solver like me!).

  • Deleted the Facebook app on my phone, while keeping Facebook messenger.

  • Turned off banner and badge notifications on my Mac and set the notification center to “do not disturb”.

  • Installed the News Feed Eradicator extension for Chrome on my Mac. Now what I see when I go on Facebook is a lovely quote reminding me to be strong or focus on what’s most important to me, while still allowing me to engage with people through the wonderful Facebook groups I’m part of and to work on my Just Do The Writing page and my own timeline as I need to.

  • I use Isolator or Composition Mode in Scrivener to black out my screen so I’m only seeing what I’m supposed to be working on. (I’m liking Scrivener’s Composition Mode even better than Isolator since it blacks out EVERYTHING other than my writing.)

Replacing the habit with something positive

In addition to all the deleting I'm doing, I’ve made sure to have options on my iPhone and iPad that are interesting and meaningful to me, like reading books in my Kindle app or in Weekend Read (for Scripts and PDFs), or using Byword to write. (All of these have a "dark mode" that works great for reading or writing next to a sleep baby at night!) 

I'm subscribed to the blogs and people I want to be reading -- so I don't have to find them online.

I make a point to engage with people online in ways that are fulfilling, like through my Writer’s Circle, where we track our daily writing and share our writing successes and challenges.

These is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for me, because they are my replacements for the bad habits.

Now, when I find myself looking for that quick hit of “something interesting”, I ask myself what I’m REALLY looking for, and think about other ways to get it for myself.

In other words, I’m minding my own business.

 

 

Join the Writer's CircleIf you're looking for a meaningful place to be engaged in a conversation about your writing and strengthen your commitment to it, my Writer's Circle has a new session starting next week on Monday, March 30. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com.

 

 

 

 

 

sleeping over laptop

Writing through exhaustion, sickness, and grief . . . or not?

It's been a rough couple of months. My mother-in-law passed away at the end of January. I've managed to have two colds since then (yes, I know it's only February 20th), and the second one has been a doozy. I wrote through the first cold. I wrote through her passing. It felt good to write. It became my solace, my place to turn to myself and remember who I am, even in the face of grief and exhaustion. I even finished the rough draft of a new spec script in the midst of all this. But by the second cold (all whilst taking care of a now 9 month old baby), I was pretty fried and quite simply too sick to do much more than a very low rock bottom minimum. 

As I've navigated the last 10 days in particular, I've found myself focusing on getting well and doing some minimal amounts of tinkering and research to stay in touch with various projects. And now that I'm emerging (finally!) from this Cold From Hell, I'm facing the need to reboot my own writing habit a bit. I'll make a point to write about that next week. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this article (revised and reprinted from 2013) about making the choice about whether or not to write when you're sick, have hit a rough patch in your life, have shaken confidence, are experiencing a loss or grief, or perhaps are suffering from a depleted creative well.

Enjoy!

diamonds2

During a live coaching call for my online small group coaching program for writers, one of our participants asked about how to know when to push through and write if you're not feeling well, and how to know when to focus on regaining your well-being.

In my opinion, the answer depends a bit on the circumstances, so let's look at some specific scenarios.

1. You've just come down with a wicked cold or flu.

Assuming you have a solid, regular habit in place, when you get really sick or you're just those early stages of wretchedness, I think it's okay to take a few days off from writing, knowing that you'll get back to it as quickly as you can.

When I'm feverish, wiped out, or worse, I know the most important thing I can do for my body is to rest and heal.

I have found myself writing even while sick at times -- because I felt truly drawn to work on my piece and it was nagging at me not to -- but my focus is on listening to my body.

This is very much like being an athlete, and knowing whether or if to train when you're sick or injured, and when to take a day off.

I also trust myself enough deep down, after months of regular writing, to know that I'll re-establish my habit as soon as I am able, usually within 2 to 3 days. The longer you're away from your habit, the harder it is to get going again, so it will behoove you to pay attention to writing again as soon as possible, starting out small, even just 15 minutes a day, and building back up to your full pre-illness writing glory over a few days time.

2. You're going through a rough patch in your life, you're generally tired or run down, maybe you're not sleeping very well, or maybe you're mildly sick.

On the other hand, if the chips are down and you're having a rough time in your life, maybe you aren't sleeping well, or maybe you're getting better from that wicked cold or flu, I'm inclined to recommend that you simply scale back your writing time to get through it. I've been through many challenging personal experiences over the last several years as a writer, and I find that it's much easier to keep writing at a rock bottom minimum level than it is to stop writing altogether (this is because it gets harder and harder to restart, the longer the not-writing goes on, as I mentioned above).

As a writer, it's worth knowing what your minimal level of writing is -- how much will keep you engaged and connected to the work? For me, it's 15 minutes a day -- that's my rock bottom. For someone else, it might be 5 minutes or 60 minutes. The point is, know what YOU need to do to sustain your connection to the work even during a challenging phase.

Along with aiming for your minimum, when you're going through a phase like this, make sure you increase your levels of self-care. Put sleep, healthy food, good hydration, fresh air, and exercise at the top of your list and get yourself back into balance. It'll benefit your writing in the long term.

3. You're in a bad mood or someone said something terrible to you and your confidence is shaken.

A common refrain among writers is, "I'm not in the right mood to write." This can come up for all sorts of reasons, like having a bad night's sleep or a bad day at work. It can also be a bit sneaky, and turn up when you've lost confidence because of something someone said about your writing or if you've been hooked by the Comparison Monster ("Everyone else is doing better at this than I am!").

And what happens is that we start feeling like we need to take time off to rest or to get ourselves feeling better before we write.

But hear this now: Being in a bad mood is NOT a good reason not to write. 

There are far too many reasons to resist and procrastinate about writing already, we simply cannot allow our moods to be added to that list.

You may even be surprised to find that when you write on a daily or near-daily basis, your level of productivity and your ability to create are not at all related to your mood. Oftentimes writers find that their best writing and most productive days occur when they did not want to write. And besides, writing will often change your mood for the better anyway.

4. You're going through a painful period of loss, grief, or "personal anguish".

At another end of the spectrum is experiencing an extreme loss -- like a death of a loved one. When my grandmother died in 2012, I felt as though I was in another world -- nearer to the veil between life and death -- and I found it difficult to write fiction in yet an entirely different world. So I choose to take a few days off from "real" writing, though I did do a tiny bit of tinkering with my script one day.

On the other hand, Steven Pressfield recommends writing even during times of "personal anguish" in his excellent post of the same title:

"I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just making the observation that our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not."

My experience is that those few brief days of being between worlds while in grief are the only spans of time in which I have felt truly unable to write, and then, just as I've said above, I still get back to writing as quickly as possible. I also believe it's perfectly appropriate -- important even -- to allow ourselves time to grieve and be with whatever emotions are coming up. When my mother-in-law died recently, writing was my solace, as I mentioned. I also found great comfort in being involved with the writing of her obituary and the letter to our extended family. 

5. You need to refill your creative well.

All this said, I AM a firm believer in taking big "put my feet up" days off. I love to pick out a day on my calendar when I can feel the need building up, that I block off "just for me." In my pre-baby days, I would take my older son to school, and then do whatever I felt like doing, usually some combination of a buying a fantastic decaf beverage, watching a movie in bed, taking a nap, and maybe going out for a meal at a favorite restaurant. Now, with a little baby in the house, my days off are even a little more home-centric, but still involve similar indulgences (a movie while he naps, something yummy delivered for lunch, and a long bath.)

On these days, I fully, completely enjoy my not-writing time, and I know I'm replenishing and rebuilding to dive back in the next day.

Your turn

The bottom line, for me, is that each one of us needs to experiment, listen to our own bodies and inner selves, and find what works best for us. And, like I said, given the massive opportunities for resistance, fear, avoidance, procrastination, and self-doubt, my strong recommendation is to find a way to stick to your work as regularly and consistently as possible. What do you think? What works for you? Let us know in the comments.

Experiment for yourself

Join the Writer's CircleIf you're a writer looking for community and support on your writing journey, join our next session of the Writer's Circle, which starts on March 2. It's like a giant sandbox where you get to experiment with your writing habit, see what works, see what doesn't, and enjoy working alongside other writers committed to showing up and doing the work. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com

Warmly,

 Jenna

 

truth

The real reason you don’t have time to write

Today I'm reprinting a revised version of a favorite article that appeared on the blog in January 2012. It's just as relevant today as it was then. Enjoy!

One of the most common excuses I hear from people who say they want to write but aren't doing it is that they don't have enough time.

If you're attached to that excuse, you might not want to keep reading. :)

I see frequent articles on the web about "how to find time to write" -- and I've even written one of them myself for my ebook (it's good -- you can check it out here). But despite the plethora of advice out there about how to find the time, many aspiring writers are still not getting their butts in their seats and their fingers on the keys. And I know it's NOT because they haven't read the right "find the time" article yet.

So what's happening instead?

What you're telling yourself instead of writing

If you're wanting to write, but not doing it, you're probably telling yourself something along these lines:

I'm too busy -- I have too much on my plate already.

Even though I really want to, I just don't have enough time to write.

I have to have a big block of time to write, and that's impossible given my schedule.

I'm already exhausted, I can't add one more thing.

You might even be telling yourself you have more important things to do. You've got an endless to-do list, right? And obligations and commitments that are Really Important.

You might be waiting for a whole day off or a Big Block of Writing Time where you can finally sit down and focus on your writing, but when that time comes, you remember that the laundry really needs to get done or that you promised Jane you'd go with her to that party and you don't have anything to wear so you have to go shopping and while you're out you remember that you forgot to... Well, you get the picture.

You might also be thinking you need to get farther along in your career and save some money (or get the right writing room or the right computer) before you can devote yourself to your writing career. 

But none of these are the real reasons you aren't writing.

Let me tell you what is true

The real reason you are not writing is because you are scared.

You are scared that you don't know how to write, or what to write about.

You are scared that your writing won't be good enough, original enough, or that maybe someone else has already said it better.

You are afraid that your new book concept isn't going to hold up or that you'll lose interest part way through.

You are scared to do the hard work of writing, and overwhelmed by the thought of such a big project.

You aren't sure where to start or what to write about.

You are afraid to do a new kind of writing or venture into new territory, that you won't be able to do it justice.

You're scared you might hurt people if you write your truth. Or disappoint them.

This thing about time is just a story

You can go on telling yourself the story that you don't have time to write if you want to, but we both know it isn't true.

If writing means as much to you as you say it does, you must learn to overcome your fear so you can make it happen.

Stop looking for TIME and start looking for COURAGE. 

(If you want help check out my Writer's Circle.)

You can do it. I believe in you.

Jenna

chocolate

When you aren’t rewarding yourself for writing

When it comes to rewarding ourselves for writing, I see many writers being stingy about it.

Please don't be stingy! 

In my online small group coaching program for writers -- the Writer's Circle -- we have a question on our daily progress report that says, "How will you acknowledge or celebrate what you’ve accomplished today?" And every day we fill our answers into this little box:

rewards

We do this to bring attention to the importance of the practice of rewarding ourselves for writing.

But what fascinates me is how often we collectively avoid or sidestep this question.

Even I find often myself answering with something that I was already planning to do, which isn't exactly a true reward. Sure, it's a nice thing I'm doing for myself at the end of the day, but it isn't actually tied to the writing. (On the other hand, as a still relatively sleep deprived new mom, when I write "Go to bed" in that little box, I'm usually THRILLED to be making that my reward, and it really does feel like one.) 

But are we doing ourselves any favors by avoiding rewarding ourselves for writing or not creating special rewards just for the writing?

I don't think so.

Why we might not reward ourselves for writing

Here are some reasons why we might not reward -- or want to reward -- ourselves for writing.

1. Not rewarding ourselves can be a form of self-punishment. 

Some writers feel that they "don't deserve" a reward because they haven't reached their goal for the day, even if they did actually show up and write.

Or sometimes writers are writing but feel they aren't working on the "right" project, so they punish themselves by not rewarding, acknowledging, or celebrating the writing they did do.

Some writers use the lack of a reward as a way of being hard on themselves.

Here's why this is a bad idea: Self-punishment (of any kind) sets up a negative association with our writing. When we are constantly hard on ourselves for not writing enough, writing the right thing, or not meeting our (sometimes unrealistic!) goals, we create disincentives associated with our writing. Rewards, on the other hand, create incentives to write. And considering that showing up to write and sticking with it can be a herculean task on many, many days, disincentives are the last things we need.

2. It feels hard to think of something to reward yourself with.

Sometimes it's just hard to come up with something as a reward, so it's easy to phone it in by picking something you were already planning to do or giving up.

On the other hand, if that something you were already planning to do is what you would normally be procrastinating with (TV, Facebook, games, etc), that's not such a bad idea. Sometimes a little delayed gratification IS a great reward. But it's not a great choice if you aren't intentional about it, meaning that you decide BEFORE you write that your treat at the end will be a little Facebook surfing time.

What worries me about not coming up with rewards: I suspect that an inability to come up with an idea for a reward is tied to that feeling that we don't deserve one. I also think it devalues the act of writing. While some might say that we shouldn't need rewards for doing what we were put here to do, I disagree. Our big dreams -- as much as we WANT them -- are often shunted to the side for other less meaningful pastimes and obligations. So when we actually do the work of overcoming the massive amounts of inertia and resistance to actually write, it's worth rewarding. 

3. Rewarding feels like another thing to do.

When we are busy -- in writing and in life -- creating space for a reward for ourselves can feel like just one more thing on a very long list of To Do's. Who wants to do that? It might even feel like an interruption of one's flow in the day or in life to stop and acknowledge or celebrate what we've accomplished. 

I know writers who are so frantic to keep up with even their own self-imposed deadlines that they cannot imagine stopping to celebrate what they've done.

Here's why we might want to rethink this: Positive experiences create positive associations with writing, much as rewards can be incentives. Plus, I don't know about you, but there is always more work to do, and a dearth of pleasurable moments. Why not make the effort to create more moments of delight in our lives, and why not associate them with our writing?

4. It feels like we never accomplish enough to celebrate or reward anything.

Writers always have more writing to do. The next project, the next deadline, the next ambition. When you have an endless laundry list of writing and tasks and To Do's, it feels like you have never ever done enough. And why would you reward yourself for being so behind? 

But here's the hidden cost of never being satisfied with what you done: Writing without rewards will suck the life and joy out of your writing eventually. You might be able to keep pushing through for months, years even. But your creative outputs deserve to be balanced with delicious inputs. Your hard work deserves acknowledgement. Don't let a day go by without celebrating the fact that you are making your dream happen, word by word. (And definitely do NOT miss celebrating the big milestones either. Finish a draft? Give yourself something really special, even if it's just a day off to enjoy the sunshine.)

5. Writing feels like its own reward.

Often writers feel like writing is its own reward. And sometimes it really is. Sometimes at the end of a long day, writing is what we do to relax and reward ourselves for working our day jobs or taking care of the kids. So it can feel silly or extraneous to reward yourself for writing when it already feels like a treat. 

Here's the issue I see with this: When we write as the reward, it can make it harder to do the writing on days when we "don't feel like it" or we are "too tired". Having a separate reward makes it easier to show up and do the writing no matter what, because we don't want to tie our writing to a being "in the right mood".

Change your anti-reward habit with these strategies

Here are some thoughts about how you can change up your pattern with rewards.

First, have a chat with yourself about what you are actually accomplishing and whether it is worth of a reward. If you stop to think about it, aren't you overcoming resistance every day to write? Wading through distractions, procrastination, fears, and doubts just to show up to the page? Isn't that worthy of acknowledgment?

Then, be intentional with your writing rewards. You might tie them directly to your writing, like giving yourself treats that are writing related (a writing book, a special pen, a class), or looking for ways you can be self-nourishing and creative-well filling. One of my Writer's Circle coaches, Terri Fedonczak, choses rewards that are related to one of the five senses, like having tea under a cozy blanket, sitting outside near the water or in the sunshine, taking a few minutes to snuggle her dogs, or burning incense in her writing corner.

If you want to be an über-rewarder, pre-select your reward before you even begin writing for the day, or plan the reward the evening before along with your writing for the next day. Sometimes our yesterday selves are kinder and wiser than our today selves. You can pre-select rewards for your daily writing and rewards for hitting your writing milestones, like your meeting your weekly goals and completing major drafts. You might even want to make a list of your favorite treats NOW and have it to pick from when you sit down to write. 

(Check out this article for more on rewards, and also a list of reward ideas.)

Last, make an effort to reward yourself as quickly as possible when you complete your writing, even within a few minutes of finishing. As my favorite writer, Joss Whedon, says, "I have a reward system. I am the monkey with the pellet and it’s so bad that I write almost everything in restaurants or cafés [so] that when I have an idea, I go and get chocolate." The interviewer from the article says, "He doesn’t wait to flesh out the idea and then reward himself, he rewards himself simply for having the idea." How's THAT for an über-rewarder?

Let's have some fun

Tell us your favorite ways to reward yourself for writing in the comments. It'd be great to get a list of ideas going we can share here on the website.  

 

 

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