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Drafting + Editing = Writer’s Block

blocked 3jpg“Write one page without looking back.” That was the challenge I offered a new coaching client.

Gloria’s writing was crippled by perfectionism. She edited too soon. She couldn’t get past the first paragraph without having to go back and start over again. And again. And again.

Gloria accepted that challenge. She wrote without looking back, and in two weeks, she wrote 25 pages. They were messy and imperfect of course, but they were words on 25 pages.

More importantly, Gloria stopped stopping herself. She started feeling good about herself as a writer. She found her rhythm. She started to see the depth of what she wanted to say.

And most important of all, Gloria is well on her way to creating a sustainable Product Time habit.

Do you edit too soon? Even if you don’t get stymied at the first paragraph, do you slow your drafting with frequent changes? Are you looking back or looking forward?

Do you eliminate ideas before you even get them on the page? Do you think of a sentence, decide that’s stupid, try to think of another, which you think is just as stupid?

Do you give up just when the editing should really start?

Editing and Drafting Don’t Mix

multitasking writer's blockMany writers think that editing as they draft is efficient. It’s not.

Drafting and editing are different cognitive functions. If you switch from the kind of thinking you need to draft to the kind of thinking you need to edit, you slow yourself down and make more mistakes. In other words, trying to edit while drafting is a form of multitasking, which simply doesn’t work.

Even knowing this, a lot of writers, myself included, find it extremely difficult to leave a mistake on the page and just keep going. You see the problem just behind or above your blinking cursor. It grabs your attention. It taunts you and you can’t think about what you were going to say next because you’re so distracted by what you just said and how wrong it is.

So you go back and fix it. And then you notice something else that could be tweaked and before you know it, you’re revising your first paragraph into perfection, but for the life of you, you can’t remember what you were going to say in the second paragraph, let alone in the rest of the piece.

Trying to edit as you draft, or in some cases, before you draft, is a sure way to block your creative energy.

Premature editing will frustrate your Inner Drafter. If you consistently interrupt getting ideas and words on the screen or page, that part of your creative mind just gives up.

Not only does premature editing interfere with drafting, it exhausts your Inner Editor. If you edit as you go, then by the time you finish a draft, you’ll think you should be completely done with it. Just as you can’t do your best drafting if you interrupt drafting to edit, you can’t do your best editing if you’re also trying to draft.

Far too many writers stop before the real work even begins.

Good Writing Comes from Rewriting — At the Right Time

shitty first draft writer's blockI always tell my students that good writing comes from rewriting. More accurately, good writing comes from rewriting AFTER drafting, not while drafting.

First you get something on the page. It can be crappy. It will be crappy. But the crap you have on the page can be transformed. What never makes it to the page or screen never has a chance.

After you draft the whole crappy, mistake-filled, awkward thing, you go back to the very beginning and start the real work. You tweak, rephrase, reorder and reorganize, delete, insert and replace words, sentences, images, metaphors.

Your editor eyes need to be fresh for this. They won’t be if you edited prematurely.

Good writing comes from properly timed rewriting. How’s your timing?

Don’t Let the Holidays Block Your Writing

holidays-are-comingBrace yourself: the holidays are upon us.

We have decorations to put up, presents to buy, cards to send, special dinners to cook and treats to bake, parties with co-workers, get-togethers with family and friends, and plays and concerts to attend.

It’s a fact that most of us have more opportunities and obligations around the holidays than we’ll ever have time for. And we may be tempted to postpone our writing until after the holidays.

There are three erroneous and dangerous conclusions writers can draw from this fact:

1. “I’m so busy, I don’t have time to write. I’ll pick it back up after New Year.”

2. “I’ll have plenty of big blocks of time to write when I’m off from work or school.”

3. The deadly combo of “I don’t have time to write now, but I will later. I can make up any writing time I miss now when I’m on break.”

But the truth is that we have more opportunities and obligations than we’ll ever have time for all year long. You might feel busier around the holidays, but you are always busy.

You must find time to write even when you’re busy. Postponing until you have “plenty of time” is always a huge mistake. As one of my mentors always said “It doesn’t get easier later. It just gets later, later.”

You Don’t Need Hours — 15 or even 5 Minutes Will Do

15 magic minutesYou will get more done consistently showing up for 15 magic minutes a day, five days a week, than you ever will in one 75-minute session.

Don’t have 15 minutes a day? Commit to 10. Even 5 minutes a day will get more accomplished and make you feel more satisfied than you ever will waiting for the rare day when you’ll have hours and hours to yourself.

When you know you only have 15 minutes, you feel less anxious and are more likely to show up. When you have 15 minutes, you’re more willing to say “no” to distractions.

Daily practice builds momentum. Just reading what you’ve written or reviewing your research keeps your unconscious working while your conscious mind busy is doing other things.

Conversely, waiting for big chunks of time means you have to reintroduce yourself to the material, remember where you left off, reacquaint yourself with the characters, ideas, research, etc.

Big Blocks of Time Are a Trap

time trap When it looks like I’ll have more than 4 hours for Product Time (aka writing), I have to be vigilant about the temptation to “take just a few minutes” to clear up my email, catch up on office administrivia, make phone calls, have lunch with someone, let clients reschedule appointments into the middle of the day, etc.

If I’m not careful, I can find myself at 3:30 in the afternoon wondering what the heck happened to this whole day I supposedly had to write.

You set higher expectations when you think you have hours to write. Higher expectations means greater anxiety and resistance.

High expectations also create negative momentum. You have so much time, you think should be able to get a lot done. If you don’t accomplish as much as you think you should, you expect yourself to make it up the next day. Of course you can’t, so you expect even more the day after that. Before you know it, you’re caught in a downward spiral of unrealistic expectations you can never meet.

Can’t Find 5 Minutes?

make writing a priority writers blockIf you seriously can’t find 5 or 10 minutes a day for Product Time (aka writing), you need to reassess your priorities.

You need to: A) spend 10 or 15 minutes less doing something less important than writing — like surfing social media, watching TV, playing video games or doing Sudoku — or B) stop kidding yourself that writing is a priority for you.

My wish is that you remember that your writing is a gift that you’ve been given to share and you’ll choose option A.

Ask Not for Whom Resistance Tolls

uncertaintyWriters ask me, “How can I tell when I’m resisting my writing?”

“You make your best guess,” I tell them. Before they can realize how much of an answer that isn’t, I describe typical examples of resistance, many of which sound familiar enough to assure them that resistance is part of their writing life and prompt them to ask what they can do about it.

The truth is even I can’t tell when I’m resisting my writing and when I’m exactly where I need to be in the creative cycle doing what I need to do to move my writing forward.

By its very nature, creativity is uncertain. Uncertainty is essential to creativity; if you already know, you don’t look for and can’t recognize new answers, discoveries and combinations.

Not Even in Hindsight

hindsightYou can’t predict exactly when you’ll get a creative breakthrough, although, with experience, you can identify some of what you need to do to prepare yourself to receive a breakthrough. Nor can you predict with certainty what conditions to control or how to control them to engender a flash of insight.

You can’t know in advance which detours will take you to a new horizon and which will simply send you wandering in barren circles.

Is spending an hour researching harmonicas worthwhile? Yes, if playing a harmonica is a key element of a character’s development or at the center of a plot point or you’re writing for an article about Bob Dylan. Maybe not, if your editor cuts the section about Bob’s harmonica playing or if you later decide to forget about the harmonica and give your character a hack-sack instead.

But you’ll never know. Some not-quite-consciously remembered detail from the harmonica research might have triggered the idea of your character carrying a raggedy hacky-sack wherever she goes.

Only in hindsight will you know what path brought you to discovery. Only hindsight will reveal what key words led you to the research you needed or which expert had the information you needed. Only hindsight will identify which image or tidbit of information opened new possibilities.

Sometimes not even hindsight helps. In the moment, all you can do is make your best guess and follow your intuition.

Best Guesses

Question-lightbulbWhen I’ve spend twenty minutes cruising Facebook, it’s almost always a waste of time and a symptom of resistance. Sorting my sock drawer before I sit down for Product Time is likewise resistance unless what I’m writing about socks or decluttering, and even then it’s suspect.

Experience has shown (more times than I like to remember) that reviewing my email inbox is always an unworthy distraction.

Perfectionism is always resistance. Except of course when you’re proofing a final draft before it goes to print.

Making myself a cup of cocoa or a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade could be resistance. But if I always make myself a tasty beverage before I start my Product Time, this is part of my opening ritual and an essential part of getting ready.

Only you know when you’re resisting your writing, and most of the time you’re only guessing.

Following your intuition helps, but ultimately, you have to accept the fact that uncertainty is key to creativity. You’ll never really know. Not only do you have to learn to be okay with not knowing, you have to celebrate not knowing.

Anyway, that’s what I think today – I don’t really know.

A Request from One Writer to Another

This is a distinction I would be profoundly honored to earn.

This is a distinction I would be profoundly honored to earn.

If BaneOfYourResistance is one of your favorite writing blogs, if my posts have given you insight, comfort, encouragement, information or practical advice that has helped you keep showing up for your writing, if you think other writers would benefit from knowing about this blog, I humbly request you nominate as one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

Thank you.

Thanks for the Resistance – Again!

Now that’s Resistance!

If this Thanksgiving post sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve published it before. It bears repeating.

As a writer, what do you give thanks for? Your computer? Teachers who taught you to read and write? Writers who inspire you? Your vision and the flexibility of your fingers and brain?

Do you give thanks for your resistance?

When we feel resistance, we both want and don’t want to write, usually because we’re afraid. Or we want to write, but there is something holding us back.

The fact that you still want to write shows your courage and the depth of your creativity. The fact that you need to move through resistance to write shows that what you’re working on is worthwhile.

Writing what you resist challenges you step beyond your comfort zone and gives you opportunities to grow as a writer and as a human being.

Respect your resistance. Consider what it has to tell you. Usually we’re resistant because something vital is missing – time, inspiration, research, reassurance, support, witnesses, illumination, respect.

Ask your resistance what you need to move forward. Give yourself that even if it seems silly or irrational.

Give thanks for your resistance. It is a normal, natural part of a writer’s life. Give thanks for the insight and courage you’ve been given to move through resistance. Give thanks for the Divine light shining within that drives your desire to write.

Writers Need Creative Play to Get Their Minds Wandering

Coloring mandalas is one of my favorite forms of Process

Coloring mandalas is one of my favorite forms of Process

Process is typically the most challenging habit for writers to dedicate time to. Creative play for the sake of play seems so frivolous  and non-productive. But before you ditch Process for the sake of something “more valuable,” consider my latest intel on how  play pays off: Process leads to mind-wandering, aka daydreaming, which in turns increases creativity.

My last post introduced Daniel Levitin’s concept of two-part   attentional system: focused attention and mind-wandering. We’ve always assumed that focused attention is how we solve problems, but it’s only half the story.

It turns out that despite what your grade school teachers might have told you, staring out the window and letting your mind wander is NOT a sign of mental laziness. It is an essential part of how your brain works.

brain-energy-300x300Daydreaming is anything but mental idleness. Neurologist Marcus Raichle asked test subjects in an fMRI machine to not think about anything when they were not performing specific tasks that were the focus of his research. He assumed brain activity would drop and give him a baseline measure, but instead it soared.

As Raichle observed, “When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle isn’t doing much. But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing, it’s really doing a tremendous amount.” Because the brain is energy-efficient, Raichle concluded the increased neural activity meant something significant was happening. When he set out to find what, he realized people were daydreaming.

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes Raichel’s research: “[when daydreaming] there is a particularly elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain… These cortical areas don’t normally interact directly; they have different functions and are part of distinct neural pathways. It’s not until we start to daydream that they being to work closely together.”

It’s seems paradoxical, but despite the extra oxygen and glucose mind-wandering requires to fuel increased neural activity, it simultaneously restores mental energy.

brain energy 2In an interview with Mother Jones, Daniel Levitin said: “That daydreaming mode…turns out to be restorative. It’s like hitting the reset button in your brain. And you don’t get in that daydreaming mode typically by texting and Facebooking. You get in it by disengaging.”

In addition to refreshing the brain, mind-wandering causes disparate parts of the brain interact in a more fluid, non-linear fashion that allows the brain to make the new connections and associations that are the heart of creativity.

Levitin observes, “The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on—not consciously anyway—the daydreaming mode solved the problem for him, and the answer appeared suddenly as a stroke of insight.”

Daydreaming inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, revealed a theory of relativity to Albert Einstein and prompted August Kekule to recognize that benzene’s structure is circular.

What have you discovered or gained insight to while doing Process? Where might Process lead you next?

Why Writers Need Free-Range Brains

mind wander canstockphoto13928121When was the last time you left your mind wander free? Ignored your work projects and To Do list? Unplugged from social media, stepped away from your computer, phone, tablet and TV and even stopped reading? Simply let your eyes take in what’s in front of you and let ideas bob to the surface and float away?

For some of us, it’s been so long that we get a little squeamish at the mere idea of not having some external thing direct our attention. We’re like city folk in the woods, so accustomed to noise and activity, we find the stillness unsettling.

Yet, the research is clear that the brain needs downtime. The human brain needs time in a state that is not sleep, but not constant activity and concentration either. Writers and other artists in particular need time for our brains to range freely.

Loose Brain, Focused Brain

The brain has two different attention states: mind-wandering and focused-attention. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind, describes mind-wandering:

“This distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts. It also can lead to greater creativity and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. Its discovery – a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking – was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries in the last twenty years.”

info-overload-21-300x300It is ironic that the last twenty years has also seen a decline in our availability to this creative brain state. Back in the day, before cell phones and the internet became omnipresent, we didn’t have devices constantly demanding our attention and allowed our minds to wander more often. We weren’t expected to be available and productive 24/7.

We actually did nothing *gasp* when we stood in line at the post office or store. We didn’t have  cell phones to send/receive email or play games with or discover a new app on. Sometimes we chatted to the person next to us in line. And we stood in line more because we didn’t shop online.

It is also ironic that electronic distractions and our desire to be constantly engaged interferes with the focused mode of thinking as much as it does mind-wandering.

Creativity Needs Both Brain States

brain both sides canstockphoto16123448Creativity requires shifting from intense focus concentrated on solving a problem to intervals of mind-wandering (aka incubating). Most creative breakthroughs come when we stop trying – in the shower, driving, watching a fire, daydreaming. Of course those eureka moments can’t arrive if you don’t also invest time and attention on researching the problem and striving for solutions.

Nearly constant stimulus from electronic devices, a flood of email and social media, movies and TV that can be streamed at anytime and a flood of information from media makes it harder to achieve either focused-attention or mind-wandering.

I’m not being a luddite. I not suggesting we toss our phones/tablets/computers and unplug forever. I see the advantages of our electronic devices. I also see the costs of overusing our devices. One of those costs is that your brain never wanders. Creative people need free range brains.

sunsetAnd now if you’ll excuse me, my brain is wandering as I gaze out the window at how the trees in our park are silhouetted against the mauve sky and midnight blue clouds.