The Wrong Question Writers Ask

September 18, 2014

Chances are you’ve asked “Who can I get to read my writing and give me feedback?” There’s no good answer to that question.

Because that’s the wrong question to ask.

In a recent episode of Holmes on Homes, homeowners needed help with a leaky basement. In the process of taking down walls to discover the source of the water damage problem, Mike Holmes and his crew discovered one problem after another. The most frightening were the multiple unsafe electrical “fixes” throughout every room in the house. It was luck the place hadn’t gone up in flames.

I suspect that one of this older house’s multiple owners asked, “Who can we get to rewire the kitchen?”

bad electrician 2 canstockphoto9222141Maybe someone’s nephew was recommended. “Bruce took a course at the tech school, didn’t he?”

Maybe the owners created the dangerous situation themselves. “How hard can it be? I’ll run over to the hardware store and pick up a dozen junction boxes and we’ll be set.”

Maybe an unscrupulous contractor made the changes. “These folks wants the work done quick and cheap. We’ll just bend the code a little.”

“Who can we get?” as in “Who’s available?” is a dangerous question.

The question the homeowners should have asked is “Who is qualified to rewire our home?” Likewise, you should ask “Who is qualified to read and respond to my writing?”

Picking unqualified people to rewire your house because you can “get them” can cost your home, maybe even your life and the lives of those you love.

Picking unqualified people to read your writing because you can “get them” won’t cost your home or life, but it can cost you months, even years to heal from the damage – years when you could have written some wonderful stuff.

I know this for a fact – I’ve worked with courageous and committed writers who invested a lot of time and effort to recover from creative wounds caused by inappropriate feedback.

The pool of available beta readers can be small. Don’t let that tempt you to take whatever and whoever you can get. The pool of qualified and available readers will be even smaller. Don’t let that stop you.

You can read more about feedback in a series of posts that starts with Feedback Should Be a Crystal Ball Not a Wrecking Ball. Steven Pressfield offers another perspective on who’s qualified to give feedback in his post Nobody Knows Nothing.

Wise Writers Step Back From Procrastination

September 10, 2014

one step forwardOne step forward, one step back. Two steps forward, two steps back. Does this sound like a route through the push-pull of procrastination?

It is. And it makes perfect neurological sense.

Let me tell you about our dog Kelda to illustrate. As I mentioned in a previous post, Kelda notices anything that is out of place or different. She used to be fearful in these situations, but she learned to be brave by following the “check it out” command.

“Check it out,” means Kelda should touch the palm of my hand, which I hold close, but not too close, to whatever it is that startled her. When she touches her nose to my hand, I give her a treat. Then I move my hand closer to the startling object and repeat the process until Kelda learns that what scared her is really okay and actually a source of good stuff (i.e. treats).

Kelda studies her next move

Kelda studies her next move

Our trainer told me it’s essential that I let Kelda back away from the scary object after she checks it out. In other words, let her take one step forward and one step back. Then ask her to take two steps forward and let her take two steps back.

When you challenge yourself to step toward a writing goal that makes you anxious, your limbic system will trigger, which turns off your creative and problem-solving cortex.

If you then take a step back, your limbic system will back off, too. You disengage the limbic system and bring your cortex back online. You can relax and feel good about what you did.

Then you can challenge yourself to take a slightly bigger risk. When you take two steps forward, you start with your limbic system disengaged. Because the first step will be familiar, it’s less likely to trigger your limbic system. When you take the second step, your limbic system will engage, but by then you have forward momentum.

On the other hand, if you take one step forward (which triggers the limbic system), and instead of allowing yourself to step back (to disengage your limbic system), you immediately challenge yourself to take another step forward, you start that second step in an already anxious, fight-or-flight state. The stress escalates. And the procrastination gets worse.

It is much easier to step into a challenge when you’re in a neutral state than when you’re anxious before you even start.

If you keep your brain in a near-constant state of anxiety and stress, you quickly get entrenched in the push-pull of procrastination. You keep yourself too scared to move forward because you never let yourself back up long enough to let your limbic system calm down.

If you’ve been in the habit of driving yourself or if your push-pull procrastination pattern is entrenched, you may need to repeatedly practice taking one small step forward and one step back to rewire your limbic system. You need to learn that you can relax after taking a risk.

Stop thinking about stepping back as “slacking off.” You aren’t procrastinating – you’re calming your limbic system so your cortex can choose your next creative step forward. Or you’re doing the cha-cha.

Break Free of the Push-Pull of Procrastination

September 3, 2014

procrastination writers blockProcrastination is one of the most common forms of writer’s resistance. You know how it goes: some variation on “Of course I’m going to write. But first, I’ll just…”

No doubt you’ve berated yourself for procrastinating at some point in your life. Or you’ve questioned your will power, discipline or desire to write because you procrastinate.

The truth is, if you didn’t have will power, discipline and a powerful desire to write, you wouldn’t procrastinate, you would have given up years ago. People who don’t care about writing, never procrastinate about writing — they just don’t write.

The Neurological Perspective on Procrastination

In an article in Wired UK, noted neurologist David Eagleman writes:

“Consider this lab experiment: if you put both food and an electric shock at the end of a pathway, a rat will pause a certain distance from the end. It begins to approach but withdraws when it receives a shock; it begins to withdraw but finds the courage to approach again; and so on. It oscillates, conflicted. If the rat is connected to a Newton meter, you can measure the force with which it advances towards the food and retreats from the electric shock. The rat pauses at the point where the two forces are equal, where the push matches the pull.”

Your cortex is “hungry” to write, so you move toward the act of writing. When you approach writing, you remember pain associated with writing in the past, get anxious and your limbic system moves you away. Even experiences you can’t consciously recall can trigger anxiety.

When you move away, the anxiety drops, your limbic system releases control to your cortex and you think about writing again. But the closer you get to writing, the more anxiety you feel, so you pull back again. This is the push-pull of procrastination.

Even though it had nothing to do with the decision to step away from writing, your cortex tries to explain why you aren’t doing what you said you were going to do, and you come up with some story about how something else needed to happen first.

Sometimes your cortex  notices, “Oh, I’m procrastinating. I better stop that and get down to business.” As if the cortex had a choice in the matter!

around procrastination writers blockProcrastinators Rejoice!

Your procrastination is proof of your desire to write and your courage to keep trying.

All you have to do is find a way to another “pathway to the food” — a way to approach writing without getting shocked or anxious about the possibility of being shocked.

How do you do that? Find out in my next post.

What’s Missing In Your Writing?

August 29, 2014

computer writer's blockA pen, a pad of paper, a computer. What else could a writer need?

Feeling stuck, blocked or resistant often comes from not having what you need. Your resistance is there because something important isn’t. You need something to move your writing forward: it might be reassurance, support, time, training, experience, tools.

Looking for a new tool or technique can be a trap. Installing Scrivener, for example, can take distract you from actually writing until you know how to use it. And Scrivener isn’t going to write your project if you don’t show up to work with it.

But there are times when you really do need a new tool or technique. Today, I am profoundly grateful for both.

New Tools and Techniques Help Me See New Possibilities

novel in progress 3I’m revising my novel using scene cards (that is, index cards with one scene per card and one card for every scene in the manuscript). The new technique is to revise my novel at the level of scenes, not at the level of the hundreds of pages in the manuscript.

When I lay out the scene cards on my dining room table, I see more of the story than I ever could trying to look at manuscript pages.

I also give myself an 30,000 foot view with a Word table that identifies the POV character in each scene, a fragment that describes the main action in the scene, and the timeline (e.g. Card 1 happens on Day 1, Card 12 happens on Day 3, etc.). At this level, I can see where to add new scenes for a new POV character. I can also see scenes that are probably no longer necessary.

I could never do what I’m doing at the level of words on the page.

For example, I deleted three entire chapters today. I haven’t altered the manuscript yet and I might salvage some of the dialogue from those scenes to copy somewhere else before I hit the Delete key. But I wrote Delete on three scene cards and pulled them from the deck. When I start working with the manuscript again, those pages will go.

I wouldn’t have the courage to contemplate deleting those chapters without agonizing over the great stuff that’s there. At the level of sentences and pages, I’m too attached. At the level of sentences and pages, the way the story is in the current draft seems to be the only way the story could unfold.

51FS4ND305L__AA160_I wish I’d created scene cards first instead of drafting my way through, but I didn’t know about this technique when I started this novel. I learned the foundation – e.g. dreamstorm and create scene cards as you imagine an entire novel at the level of scenes, rather than trying to outline (with the analytical mind) or just sitting down and drafting your way through – from Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. (I used this method to write a novella.)

Student Requests Led to New Tools and Techniques

I’m developing new tools and techniques as I beta test exercises for a new class I’ll teach this fall. Many students who took one of my Entering the Flow classes have dreamstormed and created scene cards for memoirs and novels. Some of those students requested a “next-step” Flow class to help them transform the cards into a draft; some created a draft and want a “next-step” Flow class to help them revise it.

I am deeply grateful to those students for nudging me to create a new class, which meant creating new exercises, which in turn led me to create new tools and techniques. Of course, I also thank the Loft’s Education Department for accepting my proposal for Revisiting the Flow.

I needed my students’ requests and the Loft’s support as much as the new tools. I know I wouldn’t be as far in the revision as I am without them.

What are you missing? Tools and techniques? A community of writers to nudge you forward? New ideas and exercises? Reassurance and support? You can find these things in many places, including in a Loft class like Revisiting the Flow or one of the other marvelous classes the Loft offers.

I hope to see you at the Loft. If I don’t, I hope it’s because you’re in your writing space moving your story forward.

Three Myths that Cause Writer’s Block

August 27, 2014

trumpet canstockphoto14437804This morning while I walked the dogs in the park, a young man sat on a park bench playing riffs on his trumpet.

Because I’m an introvert, I often have more involved conversations with strangers in my head than I do in reality. In my head, I said, “I used to play trumpet. But I’m not like you. I was never good at it.” (What I said out loud was “Good morning.”)

I quit playing trumpet because I believed three myths about creativity. The facts that I was 14, the only girl in the brass section of the junior (aka remedial) band, and two boys always teased me during band practice may have played a role in my decision to quit. But if I didn’t believe the myths, those facts wouldn’t have mattered.

Have you bought into any of these creativity-crushing myths? Any one of them can be the source of writer’s block and other forms of resistance.

Myth #1: You’re supposed to be “good at” everything you do. If you’re not naturally talented, not naturally good at it, whatever it is, you should give up and go find something you are good at.

Truth #1: You can’t be good at everything. You can learn a lot and have a lot of fun doing things you’re not good at when you stop believing that you’re supposed to be good. A primary point of Process play is to mess around with something you’re not good at.

Being good is not nearly as important as getting better. First drafts truly are supposed to be shitty. That’s why you write another draft.

Toddlers do not give up trying to walk because they aren’t good at it.

Myth #2: It’s supposed to be easy. If you don’t immediately and effortless get good at something, you should give up and do something that is easy.

Truth #2: Sometimes creativity is effortless joy. Sometimes it’s just plain hard work. It’s supposed to be challenging – that’s what keeps it interesting. Believing it’s supposed to be easy all the time only makes it harder.

As David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote in Art and Fear “The artist’s life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast.”

Myth #3: Anything less than 30 minutes of practice is pointless.

Truth #3: If only I’d known about the power of 15 Magic Minutes back then. You can write entire books 15 minutes at a time.

If I’d stopped worrying about not being any good, it would have been easier to practice for 10 or 15 minutes a day. I might never have been “good at” trumpet, but I might have discovered how fun it can be to play without worrying about being good.

What did you give up because you believed these myths? Entire genres like poetry or fiction or nonfiction? Entire art forms like painting, dance, music, comedy?

Which of the things you gave up do you want to explore and possibly reclaim first? Which might be fun to mess around with now that you know you’re not supposed to be good, you’re just supposed to play?

New Book Update: An Unexpected Breakthrough

August 22, 2014

fist bump wirters blockKudos to me! I reached my target to create a scene card for every scene in the novel I’m revising. The pile of index cards is over an inch high. I wanted to complete this stage in August because it’s an exercise I’ll ask students to do in my new online Revisiting the Flow class.

But of course, that brought me back to the challenge of transitioning to the next stage. As I’ve said before, transitions are tough. This one was tougher because I was in the doorway, clutching the jams and struggling not to go through.

In other words, I experienced a tiny bit of writer’s resistance to moving on.

What’s the Hold Up?

hold upI’ve known for several months that my main character’s daughter, Katy, needs to be developed. In the current version, Katy isn’t much more than a pawn I moved around to create conflict for my main character, Peregrine.

I brainstormed and dreamstormed Katy’s character even while I was creating the scene cards of the current draft. I “saw” her (in a dreamstorming session) with a boyfriend, which opened all kinds of juicy questions: who is he, where is he from, what are his intentions with Katy, who’s side is he on, will he be involved in Katy’s capture or her rescue?

I’ve explored whether this man is a dangerous and secret antagonist for Katy and her mother or simply a self-serving scoundrel. I’ve pondered just how bad things will get for Katy. And pragmatically, how many tertiary characters do I want to add to interact with this secondary character?

I circled this uncertainty for several weeks. One day’s brainstorming took me one direction, the next day’s freewriting pushed in a different direction.

I love the “aha” thrill of discovering new stuff – “Oooh, what if he’s spying on Katy? Or he uses Katy to spy on her dad?” But…

At first, I wasn’t ready to make choices; I needed to keep dreamstorming to let ideas percolate.

chase tailAbout two weeks ago, I had the nagging sense that I was chasing my tail. My freewriting was more an exercise in rephrasing the same questions in different ways than discovering new possibilities.

I needed to make choices so I could keep moving forward with the revision. As I said before, choosing is difficult for me – I’d much rather keep my options open.

I couldn’t figure which way to go. I couldn’t see how to fit (“shoehorn” might be a better verb here) the new stuff of Katy and her “bad boy” into the current draft. I need to shift something and frustrated that I couldn’t figure out what.

A Tangential Exercise Provided a Breakthrough

Not knowing what else to do, I tried one of the exercises I designed for the new Revisiting the Flow class: I listed the fixed points in the novel.

doctor whoIf you’re not a Doctor Who fan, the term refers to events in history that cannot be altered, not even by the Doctor.  For writing prose, I define fixed points as the scenes that the author knows in her/his heart of hearts are essential. Changing these scenes would mean writing a different book.

If you want to try this, just list the scenes you know have to be in your story. Don’t look back at your draft, notes, outlines or anything else. Off the top of your head, what points are fixed in the time and space of your story?

Because I listed the scenes without looking at the cards or the manuscript, I wasn’t narrowing from a huge list to a small one. Creating a list out of nothing helps keep the number of fixed points reasonable. I wrote the list a few days ago and put it in the pile of novel-revision-stuff.

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough. I saw how some of the Katy and her “bad boy” scenes could fit without over complicating the story. I saw it because I had unconsciously detached from a scene that is not a fixed point no matter how much I love it.

When I realized that the poignant goodbye scene between Katy and Peregrine didn’t have to be where and how it is in the current draft and that it might not even need to be in the novel at all, other possibilities opened up. If Peregrine isn’t there with Katy when Katy placed under military arrest, she can learn about Katy’s capture in other ways and from other characters, including Katy’s “bad boy.”

This opened the door for “killing darlings” at the level of scenes.

Now I’m excited about creating cards for the new scenes and re-ordering the cards in that section of the novel. The revision not insurmountable now; it’s a fascinating puzzle again. (Intellectually I knew it was a puzzle all along, but that’s sure not how it felt.)

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play with my story now.

Only the Good Get Blocked

August 19, 2014

billy joelCome on Virginia Woolf, don’t make me wait,

Perfect writers start much too late.

I’d rather laugh with the hacks than languish with the saints,

To the hacks, fans have flocked,

You know that only the good get blocked.

(Apologies to Billy Joel)

I am a fan of Robert Olen Butler. I’ve recommended From Where You Dream and the dreamstorming method he describes there to a LOT of students and coaching clients. I also warn them to read with a grain of salt because in addition to the outstanding insight and advice Butler provides, he also offers occasional examples of disturbing literary snobbery.

In addition to dismissing all genre writing as beneath a true literary artist (excuse me Mr. Butler, but your novel My Spaceman looks an awful lot like science fiction to me), he writes:

“Bad writers never get blocked… I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they’ve got to get to the unconscious. But they’re not getting there… writer’s block of that sort is the most common kind among writers who have any talent.”

I object to Butler’s assumption for many reasons, not the least of which is the negative impact this can have on impressionable, young writers who might, in an attempt to be cool, experiment with procrastination. As many of us know through painful personal experience, procrastination is a gateway drug to hard-core writer’s resistance.

Then there’s the fact that this sort of “block” could more accurately be identified as the Incubation stage of the creative process.

But most objectionable is the elitism behind the idea that only certain writers get writer’s block. In Butler’s version, only good writers have the taste to not impose bad writing on the world; they’d rather selflessly endure the pain of writer’s block than inflict imperfection on their readers.

According to other writers, writer’s block is an excuse used by self-indulgent, lazy, unoriginal writers who don’t have what it takes. “Real writers” push through.

The argument that “I’ve never been blocked; I don’t know any real writers who’ve been blocked, therefore there is no such thing as writer’s block,” is equivalent to “I’ve never had polio and no one I know had polio, therefore polio doesn’t exist.”

The truth is that all writers experience some form of resistance at some time. Some of us call it writer’s block. Some of us call it “waiting for inspiration.” Sadly some don’t realize how natural it is to feel this resistance and end up calling it a day on the hope of being a writer.

There is nothing inherently noble – or damning – in being blocked or feeling other forms of writer’s resistance. There is no need to endure it as a badge of honor or to hide it in shame. There is only the need to find your way around it.


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