Zentangle Your Way Into Process and Out of Resistance: Guest Post of Phyllis Smith

July 31, 2014

Phyllis Smith's Zentangles

Phyllis Smith’s Zentangles

I love to hear about new forms of creative play for Process especially from my students and coaching clients. One person’s creative play can be another person’s tedium, so I like to have lots of options to suggest.

Phyllis Smith, a student in one of my online classes, introduced me and her classmates to Zentangle, a Process activity any writer can enjoy. I invited Phyllis to share her passion for Zentangle in today’s guest post.

When I first read Around the Writer’s Block, I puzzled over what I might choose for a satisfying Process practice. I wanted something I could do for the sake of doing it and not for the end result. But it had to feel good and be easy to do so I could build a strong habit. I experimented with games and a dream journal as Process activities, but I was drawn to Zentangle for its simplicity and how it makes me feel.

I was amazed to find that someone had created an art form similar to the little doodles that I sprinkled on my class notes in school. However, Zentangle is more than simple doodles; it is a meditative practice that serves to relax and focus your mind. It requires no particular skill, but the outcome is beautiful and inspiring. It’s art for the art-challenged.

Zentangle bookMaria Thomas and Rick Roberts say that their Zentangle Method lets anyone take a pen to paper and create appealing images using simple, repetitive patterns. I’ve heard it called “yoga for the brain” because practitioners can achieve the same sense of calm and centeredness from their Zentangle practice.

Zentangle is unplanned and is more about a creative process than an accomplishment. There is no “right” in Zentangle. What might initially look like a mistake simply becomes part of the design. The final step in creating a Zentangle is to reflect on your piece of art and admire it.

The Zentangle motto is “Anything is possible…one stroke at a time.” Each stroke is drawn deliberately and with purpose. The focus is always on the present, allowing the image to reveal itself in good time.

As a writer, I’m often tempted to write towards a preplanned ending. Zentangle reminds me to simply write to see where my words take me.

Unlike some other forms of art, Zentangle is inexpensive, easy to learn, and travels well. While Maria and Rick offer a variety of papers and pens in their store, you can use any sketchbook and a good quality fine-tip black pen. It’s easy to try out Zentangle for Process without spending a lot on tools or supplies.

The Zentangle Method uses structured patterns. None of them are difficult and it’s easy to find detailed instructions on the Internet. I have my favorites and return to them again and again in my practice. I have benefited from workshops with Certified Zentangle Teachers (CZTs), but formal classes are not essential.

Zentangle is perfectly portable. A pen and small Zentangle tiles or a small sketchbook fit in your pocket. You can work on your tangles in a coffee shop, on an airplane, or even at your writing desk. Wherever you can write in a journal, you can play with Zentangle.

If you’re looking for an alternative way to play with Process, you can learn everything you need to know at the official Zentangle website. You might also want to check out Linda Farmer’s TanglePatterns website. Linda collects and organizes instructions for hundreds of tangle patterns. Of the many books available, I suggest One Zentangle a Day: A 6-week Course in Creative Drawing for Relaxation, Inspiration, and Fun by Beckah Krahula.

Remember the most important part of Zentangle is to relax, let go of your expectations, and let your artwork evolve.

Phyllis Smith lives in Georgetown, Ontario. She and her husband provide business strategy consulting to technology companies. Phyllis has published nonfiction in trade journals and is working on a memoir about the adventures she, her husband, and then-young sons had when they lived in France. Phyllis uses Zentangle every day to refresh her creative energy.


Platinum Rule for Effective Writer’s Groups

July 30, 2014

In a recent comment, Teresa asked how to form an ideal writer’s group. I made recommendations in my last post, but it really comes down to the Platinum Rule.

Everyone knows the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But do you know the Platinum Rule?

Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, don’t give another writer the kind of responses you want; give them what they want and need.

We tend to give others what we want to get ourselves, but one writer’s expectations of a writer’s group can be strikingly different from another’s.

For example, a writer preparing a manuscript for submission wants line edits; a writer exploring a new story does not need or want that level of feedback. What’s the point of fixing the commas when you don’t yet if what you just wrote will even be in the final draft?

Common Purpose

common-purpose-2Before you can form an effective writer’s group, you all need to discuss and agree on the group’s purpose. Beyond the basic question of whether you’re forming a Support and Accountability (S&A) group or a critique group, what does each potential member see as the primary purpose of the writer’s group?

Start with everyone freewriting about her/his definition of the group’s purpose. Then discuss what you have in common and where your perspectives differ.

You may be able to compromise to find a common group mission. But if the group is too diverse, it’s better to recognize the incompatibility now and part ways with respect.

Define Expectations

expectationsjpgAn effective writer’s group should also define and share expectations about what group members will do for each other.

If you’re a critique group, how many pages will you read and respond to? How much time will you devote to reading and preparing critique? How will each writer communicate what level of feedback s/he is looking for? How often will you meet and how often can a member expect to have her/his manuscript reviewed?

If you’re a support and accountability group, how often will you share commitments and check-in on your progress? What kind of responses will you give each other? In the Appendix to Around the Writer’s Block, I advise:

“Your S&A (Support and Accountability) group will benefit from discussing two questions in advance:

  1. How you want to support each other (by hitting the Like button or adding comments like ‘Good for you’ to a check-in post or by adding comments or sending email messages with more details).
  2. Whether or not you’ll give each other advice (never, only when asked, whenever you see something the other person might not see) and if so, how you’ll give advice (marked ‘Advice Alert’ similar to ‘Spoiler Alert’ or only as questions or in ‘you might want to think about…’ terms or in straight out directives).”

Both types of groups need to decide in advance how much of their group time will be spent on casual social conversations and how much will be reserved for the “business” of the group.

Shared Experience

Members of a critique can be most effective when they share a genre and even a sub-genre. Meaningful feedback comes from other writers who know your genre’s canon, conventions, clichés, vocabulary and history.

S&A groups benefit from shared vocabulary concepts like Process, Self-care and Product Time, Saboteur, tracking, rewards, etc. They can find this shared experience taking a class together or reading the same book or blog.

Making a writer’s group functional requires a blend of foresight – to bring the right people together – compromise and service – to extend yourself for others – fun –if you don’t enjoy each other’s company, don’t bother– and the courage to be honest. The benefits of having such a group are well worth the effort!

Please share your experiences with effective or ineffective writer’s groups.

Finding a Writer’s Group that Really Works

July 25, 2014

feedbackIn response to a recent post about writer’s groups, Teresa commented that she connected with an online group, but when she signed on recently, she discovered “no one was doing the challenge. I got mad and let them know it. Then I didn’t do any better, wrote zip last night and surfed instead. Trivia.”

Teresa’s reaction to her online group demonstrates the power of mirror neurons; the company we keep can boost us up or bring us down.

Teresa added “I’d like to build the group into something like this ideal [described in the post]. I don’t know how.”

There’s a certain amount of luck in finding other writers you can build an effective writer’s group with, but there’s plenty of work we can do to make the group work. The Appendix to Around the Writer’s Block details what I’ve learned and observed about writer’s groups. I’ll excerpt and expand on parts of the Appendix in this and upcoming posts.

What Kind of Writer’s Group Do You Want: Critique or Support?

In AWB, I wrote:

“When most people think of a writer’s group, they think of a writer’s critique group where members read each other’s manuscripts and give feedback on the writing. A support group is focused more on sustaining the process of writing than on evaluating the quality of any particular piece of writing.

“This isn’t to say you can’t get support from a critique group or that you can’t get insightful feedback from a support group; it’s a question of the group’s primary purpose.”

Why Would You Want a Support Group?

check-in canstockphoto1873204 (2)Many writers make the mistake of dismissing support groups as a place to hold hands and give each other easy approval without the rigor of a true critique. It’s true that some writer’s groups become more social get-togethers than focused discussions of writing. But this can happen with both critique groups and support groups.

Support groups can be just as challenging and rigorous as a critique group, just in a different way. Instead of listening to others tell you what they think about your writing, the group listens to you be honest about your writing process.

When you get clear about what your commitments are and what you do to honor those commitments, you have the information you need to hold yourself accountable and keep improving your process. Believe me that is just as challenging as revising a piece in response to your colleagues’ feedback. After all, if you don’t have a reliable writing practice, you may never get around to doing that revision.

Why I Recommend You Choose a Writer’s Support Group First

Both kinds of writer’s groups are valuable, but unless you’re already in each of the two kinds of writer’s groups, you’ll need to choose what kind of group to join or form first. In AWB, I observe:

“Writers do need feedback at times, but you can make substantial progress without a critique group; writers always need support and accountability.”

I happen to be of the opinion that good writing comes from rewriting. The better we get about showing up consistently for our writing, the more opportunities we have for rewriting, and the better our writing becomes.

I also happen to be of the opinion, based on years of experience as a writer myself and as a teacher and coach of thousands of writers, that there are times in the development of a piece of writing when the last thing the writer needs is other people’s opinions and criticisms.

If you’re in a critique group, be sure the piece you’re planning to submit for critique is ready for feedback. If it is, identify what level of feedback the piece needs.

Even more importantly, be sure you’re really want and need feedback. If you’re inclined to dismiss that with “Of course I want feedback. What else would I be in a writer’s group for?” read this.

Next post we’ll take a look at principles that make it easier to form a new or re-form an existing writer’s group of either type.

Invite Your Writing Demons in for Tea: Guest Post by Joli Jensen

July 22, 2014

tea partyI asked Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and Director the Henneke Center Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa, to revise an article she published in the July 9, 2014 issue of VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. She generously accepted my invitation and in turn invites you to:

Invite Your Writing Demons in for Tea

By Joli Jensen

Writing can spark ambivalence, fear and uncertainty even in the most successful writers. In my previous guest post, I detailed some of the common writing myths – the unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be – that intensify fear and interfere with our writing. Let’s talk about how we can respond effectively to these myths.

When she was a child, a friend of mine misheard the phrase “taken for granted” as “taken for granite.” Writing myths seem engraved in stone until we recognize and address them. The best way to deal with them is to figure out what writing myths we are “taking for granite.”

Can you recognize which myth my colleague was “taking for granite?” She struggled with a writing a paper for her admired mentor as part of a training program she was thrilled to be in. When I asked her why she thought she was having trouble, she talked about not having enough time or the right focus. Then she stopped and her eyes filled with tears.

“It’s worthiness,” she said softly. “I don’t feel I’m worthy of writing this for her.”

In that moment, my colleague let go of her cover story and recognized that she had bought into the Imposter Myth.

Writing myths are revealed by the thoughts and feelings we try to eradicate. We stuff these feelings, hide from the thoughts or try to bully them into leaving us alone. But as long as the myths that feed them remain etched in stone, these thoughts and feelings will keep us from writing.

With my struggling colleague, an Imposter Myth with a side order of the Magnum Opus Myth, fueled her feelings of unworthiness. They kept her from a writing project she was fully capable of doing about something she deeply believes in. What are her options now?

I don’t believe that she should start pumping herself full of self-help slogans. She should not try to talk herself out of her feelings. Neither affirmations nor logic are effective antidotes to writing resistance.

And even though she becoming aware of a sense of fundamental unworthiness, I don’t think she needs years of therapy before she can write her paper. What she needs is to really listen to what she is telling herself and get curious about it.

There is a Buddhist story about the futility of trying to overpower whatever is bedeviling us. The monk Milarepa was trapped in a cave with demons and tried various attacks to defend against them to no avail. Then he remembered to open his heart and become compassionate and curious. When he invited his demons to talk with him over tea, they disappeared.

Likewise, our writing demons will be powerless to interfere with our writing when we find ways to converse with them instead of trying to defend ourselves against them.

Our writing issues are rarely about the practicalities of time, space and energy. If you are working on a project you care about, but are unable to move forward with short, frequent writing sessions, identify (with compassion, not hostility or criticism) what you are telling yourself. What belief about writing are you “taking for granite?”

Is the belief really true? If it is, what can you do to support yourself so you can write anyway? If the belief is not really true, what is more accurate, and therefore more reasonable, to believe?

This gentle process invites your writing demons in for tea. You learn to stop fighting, avoiding and denying your thoughts and feelings. You stop wasting energy resisting and instead learn from what is happening in your head.

What are your demons nattering on about? Give them a fair hearing. If they have something true or useful to say, take them seriously. But if they are telling you myths that stand in the way of your writing, you don’t have to listen to them any longer.

Compassionate exploration is far more effective than bucking ourselves up with slogans, or pretending we’re fine when we really are not. We can keep pretending that all is well, or keep trying to overpower our writing demons through sheer force of will. But these strategies don’t work. Instead, I suggest that we figure out which demons are bedeviling us and invite them in for tea.

This is a revised version of “When Doubts Bedevil Your Writing, Invite Your Demons In For Tea”, one of a series of columns on academic writing by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, appearing in VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. Related VITAE posts cover how hard it is to write productively in academic life and the three specific techniques – the project box, ventilation file and daily brief writing sessions – Joli recommends to “tame” our writing projects. She also provides strategies to secure the elusive but necessary writing time, space and energy we need to do our best work. You can reach her at joli-jensen@utulsa.edu


Myths We Stall By: Guest Post by Joli Jensen

July 17, 2014

guest Joli-Jensen-small

Joli Jensen

Today’s guest blogger Joli Jensen is the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and directs the Henneke Center Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa. She shares insights based on 30 years of helping colleagues and students complete writing projects. She acknowledges that her suggestions are “also based on my own finely honed ability to find all kinds of ways to delay my own writing.”

Writing Myths We Stall By

By Joli Jensen

Writing resistance arises from myths – unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be. Left unrecognized and unaddressed, these myths deflect us from writing.

It’s vital that we learn to recognize these myths, so I’ve compiled a spotter’s guide to the common varieties.

The Magnum Opus Myth: your work has to be extraordinary, world-changing, the best that has ever been. The truth is your writing just has to be good enough to say something interesting or valuable in a way your readers can appreciate. You make a contribution; you are not solely responsible for astonishing or transforming the world.

dragon canstockphoto7274728 (2)The Hostile Reader Fear: reviewers, colleagues, editors and readers are eager to shred your meager but beloved effort into bloody little pieces. Critics exist, but most of your readers simply want to find out what you have to say. To counter this myth, assume you are creating your project for the most supportive, interested and kindhearted friend you can imagine, and go from there.

The Cleared Deck Dream: the belief that if you can get all this Other Stuff out of the way, THEN you’ll have the time you need for the project. This is my personal favorite, but the truth is that there are always loose ends and tons of Other Stuff that needs doing, and this will never change. Our in-boxes are always full, which is why spending ten minutes a day on your project is far more effective than waiting for the deck to magically clear.

The Perfect First Sentence Myth: you can’t move forward until you have the first sentence, first paragraph or first section perfect. Actually, you can start on the easiest and most fun part even if it’s at the middle or the end. You really can’t tell what the best opening will be until you’ve written most of the rest of the project, so start where you are. You might not even need the part that you’re stuck on anyway.

The Imposter Syndrome: someday “they” will realize how inadequate and flawed you really are. The truth is that everyone’s talents and insights are incomplete. Instead of trying to hide your inadequacies behind an impermeable façade of perfect competence, pompous writing, grandiose projects or snide remarks, accept that you’re imperfect like everyone else. The best work comes when we seek to express, not impress.

The Wait Until it Comes Together Myth: all the information, ideas, sources, quotes and content you’re flooded with will magically sort itself into a perfectly proportioned project if you wait long enough. This myth can keep you waiting for years. You don’t have to use everything you’ve gathered, so put whatever feels extra aside—it can be the ember for future projects. Today, focus on your current, lively, central question.

Compared to X, I’m Inadequate Fallacy: your writing process and output doesn’t measure up to a specific person or a nonspecific ideal writer. The only way out of this trap is stop comparing yourself with others. Your writing is yours alone, with its own pace, possibilities and contribution to make. It doesn’t matter if your friends are splitting the atom, winning the Nobel Prize or writing their 10th book. Their progress has nothing to do with yours.

In Joli’s next guest post, she’ll explain how we can bypass these myths by Inviting Your Writing Demons to Tea.

This is a revised version of “Myths We Stall By”, an essay by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa. Her monthly columns on academic writing productivity appear in VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. Related VITAE posts cover how hard it is to write productively in academic life and the three specific techniques – the project box, ventilation file and daily brief writing sessions – Joli recommends to “tame” our writing projects. She also provides strategies to secure the elusive but necessary writing time, space and energy we need to do our best work. You can reach her at joli-jensen@utulsa.edu.

Is Your Writing Blocked by Trivia?

July 15, 2014

Not exactly what I mean by clearly defined goal...

Not exactly what I meant by a clearly defined goal…

“In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”  – Robert Heinlein

Even when you have a clearly defined goal, resistance can push you away from the writing. Goals are vital, but by themselves, they are not enough to eliminate daily acts of trivia and other expressions of resistance.

Each goal must be accompanied by a list of actions you will take to achieve the goal. These actions must be specific, you must know what you’re going to do and how.

If the writing project is large or something you haven’t done before, you can’t foresee everything you’ll need to do and how you’ll do it. That’s okay – the action list (or Action Map) doesn’t have to be exhaustive, it just needs to give you a place to get a toehold and make a start.

You need traction to take action.

The actions must also be simple and small enough that you can take the action in one day. You may need to repeat the action tens, even hundreds, of times to achieve the goal; that’s okay. But the action must be small enough that you can do it at least once on any given day.

“Write a novel” is a goal; “draft for 15 minutes” is an action. You need both.

“Vision (aka goal) without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” – Joel A. Barker

You can’t write a novel in a day. But you can draft for 15 minutes on any given day. If you repeat that small, specific action (and add other actions like “revise for 15 minutes” or “research topic x”) eventually you’ll achieve the goal of writing a novel if the daily action is focused on a larger vision; random writing for 15 minutes a day is unlikely to become a novel.

If you lose sight of where you’re want to go and what you can do today to get there, you will revert to performing daily trivia. When you start spending time on trivia or experience other symptoms of resistance, remember (or define) your writing goal. Then identify what action you can take today to further that goal. Break an action into smaller and smaller steps until you say “Well, I can do that today.”

What small action step can you take toward a writing goal that matters to you? You can go back to performing acts of daily trivia after you do that – if you still want to.

Is Writer’s Block Real?

July 10, 2014

writers block is it real

Thanks J Lenni (@JLenniDorner), for bringing this meme to my attention.

It’s an interesting variation on the “There is no such thing as writer’s block” theory wrapped up in a neat little circular argument:

You become a “real” writer when you agree there is no such thing as writer’s block. If you get writer’s block, you’re not a (real) writer. Since no real writer can get writer’s block, writer’s block cannot exist.

I’m left wondering how many real writers simply “poofed” out of existence when they realized they were blocked.

From my perspective, procrastination is one of many forms of writer’s resistance; writer’s block is another. So since procrastination exists, writer’s block must exist.

Mine is also a circular argument, but my perspective has the advantage of being useful to writers instead of making them feel even worse and less able to write.

You are in a far better position to solve a problem when you recognize it exists, which is why “Recognize Resistance” is the first in the 4 Step Method of Resolving Resistance (see AWB chapter 9).


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