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September 18, 2012
First we talked about the anxiety stirred up when it’s time to start a writing project. Then we talked about four causes of this “weakened mind anxiety,” a term coined by Eric Maisel in Fearless Creating.
The next obvious question is: what do we do about it?
As it turns out, we do many things in order to make ourselves create. Some are appropriate and helpful. Others, however, are not. Let’s mention those first.
Things we do that get us writing, but do NOT help in the long run, may include:
- Beat yourself into submission with “shoulds.” Call yourself names and force yourself into your office.
- Find fortitude (or relaxation) in heavy doses of chocolate, caffeine, or other drugs to dampen the anxiety enough to work.
- Narrowly focus on something do-able, perhaps something you’ve done before that can be “tweaked” or modified, instead of creating something new.
- Rationalizing an interest in shallow commercial work that seems to sell better in today’s culture instead of producing what is true and deep and sincere.
I think we’d all agree that those solutions are temporary, at best. You also rarely enjoy the writing process when you choose such a “getting started” method.
Helpful Solutions for Writing Anxiety
There are 22 techniques in Mastering Creative Anxiety (Maisel), but I will only list a handful of things you can try. If anxiety over getting started is a big problem for you, I’d recommend getting both of his books. The sample solutions I list may not apply to your particular problem.
1. It’s here to stay.
“Embrace the idea that sitting there and doing the actual work of creating provokes anxiety. Accept it.” (Mastering Creative Anxiety) This may sound like bad news, but it was rather a relief to me. I could stop thinking there was something wrong with me for feeling anxious. “Do not hope for the process to be different,” Maisel says. Instead, learn anxiety-management tools. In other words, the feeling won’t kill us–we can learn tools to overcome it and write anyway.
2. Power Thoughts
Physical relaxation coupled with power thougths can drastically lower your anxiety level and help you slip right into writing. (Don’t discount this till you try it. My first reaction was, “Oh this is hokey.” But after it worked for me, I was impressed!) First, learn to breathe deeply, five counts when breathing in and five counts when breathing out. Then write out some power thoughts to contradict the neagative thoughts you’ve been telling yourself. Say the first half of the sentence to yourself when breathing in, and the second half when beathing out.
Sentences like this along with the slow, deep breathing can work wonders:
- (I am equal) (to this challenge.)
- (I am called) (to write.)
- (I can do) (hard things.)
- (Anxiety can’t) (hurt me.)
- (I write) (with ease.)
Begin using these daily as part of your anxiety-management program.
3. Get Physical!
Discharge your built-up anxiety with physical activity. Stretch, run around the block, or jog in place. (Of if you have a treadmill desk like mine, rev it up faster for a few minutes.) Don’t sit and brood and grow more anxious.
4. Develop an “artist’s discipline.”
Do you want to develop discipline as a writer? Understand that an artist’s discipline is a different kind of discipline. We think of discipline like doing an exercise program daily or disciplining ourselves to show up for our day job on time. However, for a writer “there is only one discipline, the discipline of creating regularly even while anxious,” says Maisel. Learn the tools!
So…Where’s the Hitch?
Can you master creative anxiety instead of it mastering you? Maisel says yes–but there’s a condition.
“Anxiety mastery requires that you actually do the work of managing and reducing your anxiety. It is not enough to have a refined sense of why and when you become anxious: you must then do something.”
Because I don’t want to plagiarize his books, I won’t list more of Maisel’s solutions. But they include lifestyle changes, behavioral changes, changing the way you think, various relaxation and guided imagery techniques, “detachment” training and identifying those things that trigger writer’s anxiety in you.
As Anna Held Audette said,
“There are probably as many ways to get started as there are ways of chasing the blues. Use anything that works even if it seems ridiculous or not what an artist does.”
If getting started writing troubles you to a significant degree, take steps to change as much of the anxiety as you can. Yes, a certain amount appears to be inherent in the writing process, but it’s up to us if we let it cripple us–or if we choose to use it as a springboard for writing growth.
September 4, 2012
For the past week, I’ve been suffering from “weakened mind anxiety,” according to Eric Miasel’s Fearless Creating. It’s the anxiety that comes when you begin a piece of work.
It’s not the anxiety that comes from choosing an idea. It’s not anxiety from developing characters and plot. It’s not anxiety produced by setting some deadlines.
It’s the anxiety that grips us when we try to actually begin the writing—and what can prevent us from ever getting started.
Symptoms of Weakened Mind Anxiety
How do you know if you have weakened mind anxiety? (Don’t be alarmed if all these symptoms feel familiar. There are some very workable solutions we’ll talk about later.)
Symptoms of “weakened mind anxiety” can be experienced as:
- Fog in the brain
- Desire to cry/sleep/watch TV/surf the Internet
All the symptoms—and I experienced most of them every day last week—do not mean you’re a failure, or the story isn’t ready to be written, or that you’re not a “real” writer. They are simply the physical and mental consequences of anxiety.
As Maisel says, “Your mind has weakened in the face of the difficulties you believe will engulf you if and when you begin.”
We’re In This One Together
The inexperienced wannabe writer and the experienced published writer both go through this. It’s not because you’re a beginner. And it may not happen all the time. I never, ever have this issue with nonfiction.
Nonfiction feels like term papers from school, and those were always easy for me, so I expect nonfiction to be easier. It’s just something to sit down and do. But for me—and many of my fellow writers—spinning a fiction tale out of thin air feels as comfortable as bungee jumping.
What’s a Writer To Do?
There are inappropriate (and harmful) ways to treat this weakened mind anxiety. There are also appropriate (and helpful) ways to treat it. (We’ll talk about both cases next week.)
However, not writing is not a solution—not if you’re called to write and it’s your dream. As Fran Lebowitz said,
“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”
Maisel says when you feel like this that your mind has lost its muscle tone. I love that image. Next week we’ll talk about getting rid of that mind flab—and getting it back in shape to create.
November 2, 2011
Yesterday, on the first day of NaNoWriMo, I had such good intentions. But my novel idea looked overwhelming to me (and rather stupid, I must also admit). I dinked around, trying to get started, until 3 p.m.!!! Major procrastination. I got a few other things done, but mostly I wasted precious writing time. I only got 635 words written, way short of the daily 1,667 words needed to meet the 50,000 word goal in November.
Then I remembered an old trick I once used to break other bad habits and decided to use it this morning to cure the procrastination temptation. (This works for all kinds of procrastination, from avoiding exercise to avoiding the keyboard.)
Make a Movie!
Being tempted to do any of the things we do to avoid writing (watch a movie, eat sweets, play on the Internet) deals with avoidance and some kind of instant gratification. We want to feel better about our procrastination and time wasting. When you “make a movie,” you move beyond the instant “feel good” aspect of your contemplated activity–and play the movie out to the end.
You don’t concentrate on how good you’ll feel if you stop and watch TV and eat half a gallon of ice cream. You play out the whole scenario. An hour or two later, how will you feel? After you waste the whole day, how will you feel? What will it cost you today, in terms of productivity and lost self-esteem? What will it mean in the long run if you do this all the time? (No career? Death from some obesity-related disease? No self-respect?)
Borrow This Template
When faced with a procrastination temptation, turn to this questionnaire (below) which I keep in a document template on my computer. I filled it out in detail this morning before writing almost 2,000 words (yippee!), and after I blog, I will probably fill out the questions again because “afternoon slump” is starting to set in. Feel free to copy this questionnaire to use. It’s a great technique for helping you look past the instant fun of procrastinating to what you can accomplish if you take the long view. Here’s the form to fill out:
Pause when facing any kind of temptation to procrastinate (by eating unhealthy food, or watching TV, or surfing the ‘Net, etc.) and fill in these answers in writing:
I consistently struggle with the following bad habit:
When I play the tape through to the logical conclusion, the end result of this habit makes me feel:
and does the following to my self-respect:
typically produces the following results in me:
If left unchecked, the behavior will probably lead to the following long-term consequences:
ON THE OTHER HAND…
If I play the other healthy tape all the way through to its logical conclusion and choose NOT to give in to my bad habit, I feel:
and my self-respect is:
typically produces the following results in me:
If I keep away from this bad habit, I will benefit from the following long-term results:
Whatever temptation you’re facing right now, take a few minutes and make a movie. Follow your intended actions to their long-term consequences. Is it the life you want? If not, make another movie. In this movie, you resist temptation and make the right choices–consistently. Take time to linger over the final credits of this movie. If you want, it could be your life!
June 22, 2011
If you’ve done the previous stages of exploration and preparation in “The Five Stages of Success,” then you’re probably eager to begin “Stage Three: Start-Up.”
Time to get the show on the road!
You have your writing dream, you’ve made the decision, and you’ve taken some steps to turn that dream into reality. I found “starting up” to be both the most exciting and the most frightening stage.
Deal With the Fears
Why should this stage–which is full of so much anticipation–be scary? Some of it has to do with money and security. By the time I hit this stage, we had another child and a need for more income. Writing for magazines wasn’t going to cut it–I wasn’t bringing in enough money.
I could go back to teaching elementary school–that had been the plan when the babies started arriving. There was pressure to do so–to “get a real job.” And some of that pressure was from me. It’s so much easier to rely on a steady paycheck than face freelance unknowns.
Leap of Faith
If money is an issue in your family, there is a mental mind shift you will need to make. As an employee, you receive a predictable paycheck from a company. If you want to be a freelance writer, you need to create your income. No money arrives on Friday just because you showed up at your desk and put in the time working. You have to create the opportunities to work, do the work, and sell the work to the publisher. This reality can be daunting.
On the other hand, as a freelance writer every day brings the possibility of new ideas, new choices, and earning potential beyond what you are probably imagining. I know that in later years I used to be in awe that I got paid well to do something I loved to do anyway (stay home and make up stories). It wouldn’t have happened if I’d gone back to teaching public school–not with raising kids and dealing with the health issues I had. Creativity takes some solitude and considerable energy–and there wouldn’t have been enough.
Biting the Bullet
Yes, when you start out, you feel like a newbie, the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears–all those cliches. And you may be living on a shoestring for a while. This is probably where your desire truly gets put to the test: how badly do you really want this writing life?
If you still want it, get on a writing schedule. Arrange what you can for an office. Get what equipment you can afford, and stock up on supplies. And take time to celebrate each successful step you take!
If you want the life of a writer, it’s time to get started. [And come back Friday for "Stage Four: Survival and Growth."']
June 17, 2011
If success is a journey, where are you along this continuum? As we go through the five stages of success–and learn to celebrate each stage–you’ll see each milestone for what it is: a huge victory.
As I mentioned in “The Five Stages of Success,” my first step along the way was taking the correspondence writing class from the Institute while my three kids were infants and toddlers. Choosing to throw myself into this endeavor was a successful leap of faith for me. (And my husband, as it took exactly half our food budget to pay for it!) But all success has a price, even if it entails making your own bread and homemade yogurt for a year.
If I knew I wanted to write, where did the exploration come in? In two phases actually.
In Phase One, I hadn’t known I wanted to write. I had tried four other home-based businesses before the writing course. Through those experiences, I found out I did NOT like selling vitamins or make-up, stuffing envelopes, or day care. I was successful in weeding out those careers. Until I took the writing course, I had no idea how much I would love it–a love that has lasted thirty years so far.
Phase Two of the exploration phase dealt with deciding what exactly I wanted to write. I had no idea, and the process of deciding can’t be forced or hurried. You have to take time to explore and mentally try on and investigate the many writing possibilities open to you. And when you hit your niche, you’ll know it.
Analyzing Your Explorations
I sold fiction and nonfiction to magazines, experimenting with shorter material. For two years I wrote for ages preschool through adults. The easiest to sell was middle-grade and adult nonfiction–and that was a consideration. But my highest satisfaction came from writing middle-grade fiction. [That's where I settled, and (for the most part), that's what I wrote in the coming years--but that's a different stage.]
The “Exploration Stage” of success can be such a fun time! I found it exciting. If you want more guidance or direction for this phase, you might try Finding Your Perfect Work by Paul and Sarah Edwards or Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy.
Stay tuned for “Stage Two: Preparation” on Monday!
April 20, 2011
Two weeks ago my daughter had emergency surgery (appendix), so for two weeks couldn’t lift anything as heavy as her five-month-old daughter. Therefore I’ve had a chance to be with them most of each day, helping with the daily routines that start so early with a baby.
In the past, when babysitting a few hours or a day, I just let the writing go because it was such a short time. This time I had some deadlines to meet, so it wasn’t long before the old “write in short bits while the baby sleeps” habit kicked in. That worked the first week.
Brain Dead–or Just Asleep
But fatigue set in the second week–not so much physical fatigue, but mental fatigue. I noticed that when I sat down to work during naptimes that my mind wasn’t “kicking in” like it should. Some of the naps were short, so my mind was just starting to work when the nap was over.
I needed some jumpstarting activities, something to make my brain realize immediately that “now it’s time to write!” If Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, surely I could learn to write on command.
Rituals and Routines
I’ve always loved reading about other writers’ rituals, the things they do to “prime the pump” for writing. I never felt much need–nor wanted to use the writing time–to do much of that myself. I tried a few times, but the writing exercises would take me 30-60 minutes and the morning pages took me an hour. (I consider myself a pretty fast writer, but most of the things that “only take 10-15 minutes” take me considerably longer–including these blog posts.)
What I needed, I realized, was something short and along the lines of the ringing bell for Pavlov’s dogs. I needed something to trigger an automatic writing response–and it needed to be something I could do at my daughter’s house.
If your writing time is short–and you need to get started quickly–here are some rituals and routines that other writers have used:
- Light a special lamp or candle
- Put on a particular kind of music that works for you (Lyrics? Instrumental?)
- Prayer, meditation and/or affirmations for writers
- Hot tea or hot chocolate
- Eat a banana or apple or something healthy
- A short walk–ten minutes or so
- Stack dishwasher, pick up house (some writers do this for their jumpstart, but it doesn’t appeal to me!)
Again, I needed short things to do. The danger is always that the ritual takes over your whole writing time. If you have all day to write, that’s a different ball game. You can take a whole hour to get started, if you want to.
Make a List
It’s a good idea to have a number of rituals to choose from too. “Create as many practices as you can, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” says Vinita Hampton Wright in The Soul Tells a Story. “Their effectiveness will vary. When one thing doesn’t help so much, go to something else…adapting practices according to the season of the year.”
This makes sense to me. While in the winter, a good cup of hot chocolate is perfect, during hot Texas summers, it’s about the last thing you want. I think a written list posted near my writing space would be a good idea too. I might have a whole list of rituals to choose from, but so often when I try to think, they all escape me.
If you want to read more about the power of these little habits, see “How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic.”
What About You?
I would love to know about other ways to jumpstart your writing times. What quick, easy, and cheap ideas do you use? I’d be eager to hear!
November 5, 2010
Want to know an easy way to think of both ideas for story conflicts and ideas for nonfiction? I read this idea in a newsletter by Angela Booth, and I wanted to pass it along.
People want to learn how to do things, how to solve things, and how to overcome problems.
Challenges in All Sizes
People have small problems and huge problems to overcome. They want to accomplish small things (organize an office), overcome medium challenges (potty train a toddler), and survive huge things (like being laid off from a job).
Do you write for kids? Just scale down the ideas. Children and teens want to organize their bedrooms, paper train a puppy, and survive their dad being laid off. Each “want to do” activity could be an article, a whole series of online articles, or the central plot of a book (either serious or humorous).
Technique to Generate Ideas
“Go to Google.com and enter ‘How do I’ with a VERB into the search query field. With the magic of Google Instant, you’ll get lots of ideas,” says Angela Booth.
For example, I entered “How do I make” (without quotes) and got:
- How do I make clear ice cubes like in a restaurant?
- How do I make my hair grow faster?
- How do I make an electromagnet?
- How do I make a pinewood derby car do faster?
This doesn’t just generate ideas. It generates ideas that thousands of people are interested in! It generates topics for your writing that people want to read about. And many of the topics can be adjusted if you write for children and teens. (Example from above: a child may not care about making clear ice cubes for his dinner party, but it would make a great science fair project. And that science fair project can be a nonfiction article or a plot/subplot in your novel.)
See the possibilities? Try lots of verbs in your search, Googling “how do I build” and “how do I create” and “how do I quit” and so many others!
If you try this technique, give an example in a comment. I bet we could come up with some really unusual ideas this way!
October 27, 2010
Ever stumped for new ideas? When I started my last new book, I noticed during the plotting process that I was short on fresh ideas. I had used up many of the ideas collected over the years and stashed in my “Idea Notebook.”
While one interesting idea might be enough for a very short story, books take LOTS of intriguing ideas. You need ideas for quirky characters, ideas for many unusual plot twists, ideas for great secondary characters, and unusual places for settings (even when that setting is your home town).
It’s good to write down the ideas that come to you out of the blue (in the shower, when you first awake, on a walk, etc.) But sometimes you need good ideas faster than that. You need LOTS of ideas, and you need them soon. Where are some good places to find them?
1) Get a stack of old magazines, either your own or the stacks given away or traded at most public libraries. Flip through each magazine very quickly. If something catches your eye (unusual photo, funny advertisement, interesting headline, local event), tear out that page. Skim articles–don’t read in depth at this point. That can come later when you put your ideas together.
2) Because many of us spend a lot of time online, also keep a computer version of an Idea File. You can have sub-files labeled “characters” or “themes” or “events,” if you like. But when you are reading the news online or you click on one of those weird-sounding Google ads and come across something odd or funny or quirky, copy and paste the story into your computer Idea File. Also store the URL (the web address where you found the idea.) Remember that URLs can disappear, so copy and paste the pertinent details. Just make it a habit to have your Idea File open when you’re surfing the web, then drop the interesting tidbits you find into the file, and watch it grow!
3) Lie down and try taking a ten-minute nap. Just close your eyes and relax. You might actually fall asleep, but I never do. The minute I try to relax and take a short power nap, my busy mind kicks into gear. All kinds of ideas surface, the kinds that make you get up and write them down before you forget them.
4) This won’t sound like a pleasant way to spend time, but a good idea generator is to make a list of “The things I hate…” List the most annoying people, annoying habits or annoying anythings in your life. Annoying people make great antagonists, annoying habits add character depth to all your characters (including your hero), and annoying events give you plots to write about (and things for your hero to overcome.) The added “plus” in writing about things that annoy or disturb you is that you’ll write with passion. It will help you stick to your writing schedule, and the passion will come through in a more powerful story.
Try to get into the habit of always having your antennae up and alert for ideas. They’re everywhere. Then go one step further and capture the ideas for later writing. Oh, you’ll be glad you did!
What other places and ways have YOU found to be helpful in finding ideas?
August 20, 2010
If a friend from your critique group told you ”I just can’t get started on my story today,” what would you say? “Get moving, you lazy do-nothing wannabe!” I hope not!
If your writing friend bemoans receiving another rejection, do you say, “Well, what did you expect? Your novel stinks!”?
I would hope not. Most of us are better friends than that…except to ourselves.
Your Own Best Friend
Listen to how you talk to yourself. When you procrastinate, do you beat yourself up? Do you call yourself names? And to paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” Does it spur you on to do your best writing–or to give up and eat a pint of ice cream?
When you receive a rejection, do you downgrade your writing? Do you tell yourself that publishing is just a pipe dream, that it’s for others but not for you?
Do you say things to yourself that you would NEVER say to a writer friend?
Time to STOP!
Learn to tell yourself the truth–but with kindness. Be a mirror that reflects back understanding. If you got off course, gently encourage yourself back on the writing path you want to travel.
- You’re so lazy that you’ll never get anything written and published.
- No editor or agent will ever read your novel, much less publish it!
- You only have friends on Facebook because they don’t really know you.
Say this instead:
- You may have trouble getting started because you’re afraid of something. Try journaling to get to the bottom of it.
- You may (or may not) find an editor who loves your novel–but you’ll never know if you don’t keep sending it out. Let’s try one more time.
- Many people in your real life know you and love you. Make a list. Be thankful for each person on the list.
Be That Good Friend
The next time you stall or hit a rough spot in your work, talk to yourself like a true friend would. Be kind, be understanding, give some praise, and encourage yourself to try again.
You can be your own best friend.
August 18, 2010
“Some days, even the best dentist doesn’t feel like being a dentist,” says Seth Godin on his blog. “And a lifeguard might not feel like being a lifeguard. Fortunately, they have appointments, commitments and jobs. They have to show up. They have to start doing the work.”
“Most of the time, this jump start is sufficient to get them over the hump, and then they go back to being in the zone and doing their best work.”
But…What About Writers?
If we work at home, we don’t have to keep strict office hours. No one will know–or the little ones underfoot won’t care–if we keep that “appointment” with our novel or article or lesson. No one will fire us if we don’t show up and do our writing.
It’s not that writers can’t have the momentum of the dentist or lifeguard. It’s just that no outside boss is going to help you get going, get over the hump, and build that momentum. You will have to do it yourself.
You must be a self-starter. (Gulp.) That’s the truth.
Help Is on the Way
There are terrific motivational books for writers. I’ve blogged about many of them. You can also re-read some blog entries on getting started or entries on the psychology of writing. These will often be enough to prime the pump and get you to the computer or legal pad.
Getting started and building your own writing momentum is a struggle for ALL writers. That’s why ten chapters in my Writer’s First Aid book are devoted to getting started and ten more on work habits that work for you. (Here you’ll find four sample chapters.)
What about you? What is one technique or ritual you use that gets you started writing?
[NOTE: see Nancy's comment below--great idea!]Newer Posts »