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


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

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).

Does Your Writer’s Group Contribute to Writer’s Block and Resistance?

July 8, 2014

writers groupThe previous post (Writer See, Writer Do) highlights the power of mirror neurons. This is why being part of an effective writer’s community — and having your mirror neurons fire in synch with other writers’ positive approach and experiences — offers so many benefits.

But our mirror neurons don’t discriminate which people are worth emulating. This means that being part of a dysfunctional writer’s community can be worse than being alone.

Spending time in presence of other writers who are haphazard about honoring their writing commitments or have pessimistic attitudes can degrade your habits and attitude. Writer’s resistance can be “contagious”.

So it’s essential to take stock of the writing groups and communities you’re part of.

Where and how do you connect with other writers?

  • Are you part of a writing group or a larger writer’s community?
  • Do you connect with other writers at readings or in classes?
  • Do you collaborate on writing projects?
  • Do you tap into what other writers are thinking and doing from magazines, blogs, Twitter or other social media?
  • What percentage of your connections with other writers are in-person? What percentage are electronic or remote?

Does the group have clear purpose and goals?

  • Do the group’s purpose and goals align with your writing purpose and goals?
  • Is everyone in the group respected and encouraged to share their experience?
  • Can you find a mentor and/or be a mentor in the group?

How do you feel after connecting with your writing colleagues? 

  • Are you enthusiastic, engaged and excited about your writing?
  • Are you motivated and eager to get back to your writing?
  • Or are you left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and discouragement?

What do you think after connecting with your writing colleagues? 

  • Do you have new ideas, perspectives and strategies?
  • Do you have a plan for your next steps?
  • Are you optimistic about your ability to respond to the changes and challenges you face?

Most importantly, what do you do after connecting with other writers?

  • What actions do you take?
  • What challenges are you more likely to embrace?
  • Are you more or less likely to take risks with your writing?
  • Is the time you spend with other writers worth the time you’re not focused and acting on your own writing projects?

Writer See, Writer Do

July 3, 2014

monkey see writers blockWhy is it so much easier to write in a class than when you’re on your own at home?

If you are 50% more likely to be overweight if your friends are overweight, are you 50% more likely to consistently show up for your writing if the others in your writer’s group or class do?

The answers lie in your mirror neurons, aka your “monkey see, monkey do neurons.” If you throw a ball, a collection of sensory and motor neurons fire in your brain. A related collection of sensory and motor neurons fire when you merely watch someone throw a ball.

These mirror neurons allow us to learn by observing. In some parts of the brain, mentally rehearsing what you’re going to do is the same as doing it. [But not in all parts of the brain and body; remember the “monkey do” part of the expression. You can’t just watch someone else working out and get stronger for example; you have to use the mirror neurons to motivate you to take action.]

Mirror neurons have been discovered near the language centers of the brain, which may prove to be essential in our ability to acquire language. We can assume that mirror neurons are at least part of what’s going on when writers get a boost from writing in a group.

Mirror neurons may be the source of the benefits writers get from reading and studying good writing. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

Reading excellent literature can be a mental rehearsal that activates your mirror neurons and prepares you for your own writing sessions. Be careful, though, reading junk probably makes you more likely to write junk.

Monkey Do, Monkey See Flipside

When you’ve practiced what you’re seeing, you get more benefit from observing others. Researchers compared the mirror neurons of ordinary people with those of professionally trained dancers while both groups observed a dance performance. The pros had significantly more mirror neurons firing. And more mirror neurons fired when the dancers watched dance moves they had practiced than when they watched moves they hadn’t learned.

writers mirror

Students in my Enter the Flow classes where we do a lot of in-class writing frequently tell me it’s easier for them to write in class and that they get more out of the in-class writing sessions than they do when they’re writing alone. Just being with other writers writing will get your writing neurons firing.

While in-class writing sessions are often easier and more productive than students’ solo writing, writing alone becomes easier and more productive than it was before the class. This ease and productivity boost typically continue after the class ends.

Choose Your Mirrors Wisely

mirrorNeuron-DalaiLamaMirror neurons are the foundation of empathy – we feel what we observe others feeling. So being with other writers who are excited about their writing will make you more excited about your writing.

Conversely spending time “Debbie Downers”  writers who are discouraged and giving in to their resistance will leave you feeling discouraged and more likely to abandon your writing.

Be choosy about who you spend time with – be choosy about whose neurons you want to mirror. The next post will explore questions to ask when deciding what groups of writers you want for your mirrors. 

Avoid the Shoulds that Cause Writer’s Block

July 1, 2014

Writer’s resistance often comes from fear, but sometimes it comes from not understanding and respecting the creative process and our own unique way of working within that process.

We can get so wrapped up in how we think we should write and worried that we’re doing it wrong that we cause the anxiety that triggers a limbic system takeover, aka writer’s resistance and block.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I should have this figured it out by now.”
  • “I should know what I’m going to write before I start.”
  • “I should be able to write the first draft perfectly.”
  • “I should be able to write no matter how chaotic my office or my life is.”
  • “It should be easy to write.”
  • “I should be more productive.”

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

When we believe in shoulds that have no real basis in reality, we set ourselves up for frustration and failure.

When we try to force ourselves to work in a way that isn’t natural, we create friction, aka resistance. It’s not the way we work that’s the problem, it’s thinking that the way we work is a problem that’s the problem.

Here’s a revolutionary idea: What if the way you work is really okay? What if you stopped spending so mental and creative energy beating yourself up for not working the way you should and just worked the way that works for you? What if you found out how the creative process really works and let yourself play with that?


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