How To Keep Writing When Life Throws You A Punch

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So you’ve been writing your 500 words a day, researching your new novel, making the revisions your editor suggested, starting a new essay, approaching an article deadline… when life throws you a punch. Your boyfriend leaves. Your kid is failing school. Your mom breaks her hip. You have a major fallout with a friend. Your mammogram is suspicious.

You’ve had one of those days. Or weeks. Maybe one of those months. You’re knocked off kilter. And so is your creative output.

Your focused mind becomes a traffic jam of negative thoughts. The words sit lifeless on the page. Whatever you’ve written, now seems crap.

Trying to write a book is challenging on the best of days. Now, the sadness or worry you’re feeling is compounded with each passing unproductive day. The fewer words you write, the more frustrated you become. 

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On days like these, I wish I were the kind of person who can don emotional blinders and keep churning out the pages. 

Writing itself sustains me during ordinary times, which is why it is essential to keep at it during hard times. Yet sometimes I find this extraordinarily difficult, particularly during the past two and a half years since my father was killed. The traumatic experience shed my already thin skin and it hasn’t grown back. Despite my healing, my brain remains sensitive to shock and perceived threats.  It doesn’t take much to knock me over. 

It’s happening right now.

How do you keep writing when life throws you a punch? 

Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when,” because it will happen. Often in waves. Disappointment. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Grief. Worry.  Emotions that can cut through creativity. 

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

1. Take time out—but not too long

You wonder how you can possibly write anything worthwhile when you feel so bad. Your first impulse is probably to cast writing aside and attempt to numb yourself or engage in distracting activities.  Give yourself permission to have a bad week, to take time off—just try to designate a time limit. When a student I advise is crushed about a college rejection, I give him 3 days to mope, rant, or binge watch Netflix. Then it’s time to move on. So go ahead, curl up on the couch…just don’t stay there.

2. Switch writing gears

If you find it impossible to connect with your current project, try starting something new (but not too big).  Revise/edit an older manuscript.  Work on submissions.  Engage in research or brainstorm ideas.  Or write in a different genre. (Like I’m doing now with this blog post.) Read something inspiring. Journal writing can help you grapple with the problem and clear your mind.  Any writing you can do will make you feel better. 

3. Expect something good

There’s a Yiddish saying that originated in Chassidic teaching, “Tracht Gut Vet Zien Gut “—“Think good, and it will be good.”  The idea is that positive thinking will not only help you weather hard times but can actually make positive things happen.  I take this to mean that if you expect good things, you are more likely to attract them. The Universe may surprise you by sending a salve for your wound. Strange as it seems, this has worked for me.  Just this week, when feeling my lowest, I heard from a special person I hadn’t spoken to in years but had been recently thinking about. I also had a story accepted for publication.

Sometimes, though, the punch is more than a bad week or a misunderstanding. It’s a serious illness. The break-up of a marriage. The death of a loved one.  It may take a lot more time to find your words again, to rise out of the darkness. During such trials, I hope you have a special person to lift you up. 

Famed American novelist, Henry James, wrote, in July 1883, a most tender and compassionate letter of advice and comfort to his friend and fellow writer, Grace Norton of Boston.  Grace was despondent after the death of a family member.  Henry encouraged his dear friend not to give up on life.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.

James’s concluding words to Grace lift me each time I read them.

Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us… we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.

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Paul Christian Gelutu

You can read the letter in its entirety at  Letters of Note–Henry James or hear it on YouTube.

Do You Need An Accountability Partner?

 

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Do you have something big you want to accomplish but haven’t?  Do you have trouble sticking to a long-term goal?

Last month, I wrote about finding inspiration when you are creatively stuck. One reader wrote me that she has no problem finding inspiration. “I’m filled with creative visions.  My problem is always follow-through, especially when the going gets rough.”    

As a writer, I relate to this predicament. Ideas come easily to me. The beginning stage of writing a novel is kind of like falling in love—everything is new and exciting.  Possibilities abound.  But sticking with it through the long haul inevitably means experiencing frustration, disappointment, and dry spells. And yes, sometimes loneliness and despair.

Whether you’re trying to write your first book, save for retirement, lose 20 pounds, or train for a marathon, staying on track is the hardest part.  Meeting any long-term goal requires continual motivation, discipline, and fortitude. Let’s be honest–who has an abundant supply of these traits?

If you recognize yourself here, then you may benefit from an accountability partner. An AP is a trusted individual who holds you responsible for achieving your goals. In working with an accountability partner, you identify goals, then come up with a short-term plan of action. You then report your progress through regular checkpoints via email, phone, Skype, or in-person.

An accountability partner can also offer:

-Advice and perspective

-Ideas and resources

-A listening ear

–Support and motivation

–Brainstorming

Sometimes, an AP is just a kind soul who volunteers 15 minutes a week to keep you on track. Then there’s the reciprocal partnership in which you serve as each other’s AP. Psychological research backs up its effectiveness. Just finding a partner with whom to share your goals increases the likelihood that you will achieve them. It’s  a lot more fun to take a daily power walk with a friend than go at it alone for 45 minutes. Knowing you must check in with your weight-loss buddy each week makes it easier to pass up that chocolate donut. Reporting your daily word count to a fellow writer keeps you glued to your laptop (and off Facebook). 

By working with an AP, you are harnessing the power of positive peer pressure to motivate change.

Tips for finding an Accountability Partner:

Look to a trusted friend, neighbor, co-worker, classmate, or family member. If you’re a writer, try posting a request on a writer’s forum. Check out local writer’s groups. Network at a writing conference.  

Tips for Making it Work:

—Know what you want to get out of the partnership.

—Find a partner who is looking for similar goals/results.

—Find a partner who is in a similar place of experience.

—Decide on the method and frequency of communication.

—Be honest.

—Be willing to invest equally in the relationship.

 I recently found my AP—or I should say, she found me.  Connie and I live 800 miles apart.  We email and talk on the phone. We share goals and next action steps. We identify challenges and offer each other feedback. Why is it always easier to help someone else with her problem areas? Though we are working on different types of writing projects, the process is similar.  We both must make time for our writing and avoid distraction. We both need to track our word/page count. We both must troubleshoot and problem-solve. 

Since I have a lot more writing and publishing experience than Connie, I’ve had to identify the areas in which she can best help me. I won’t be looking to her for critique—I’ve already found someone for that.  Rather, it’s the act of stating my goals out loud to another human and reporting my progress that matters.  If I don’t complete my stated goals, Connie helps me figure out why. Her coaching background offers me techniques for deciding which projects I should invest my time in. In turn, I suggested that we each track our time and keep a Got Done list.  Already, I’ve noticed an uptick in my productivity.

This new relationship is a work-in-progress.  The only challenge so far is that Connie and I really enjoy talking to each other, so phone meetings go off in many directions. Maybe this just means that, in addition to finding an AP,  I’ve made a new friend.

Have you worked with an accountability partner? If so, what were the results?

Finding Inspiration in 2018

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“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”   

                     ~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare

 

Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim?  How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity?  As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?

Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.

l.  Start the day with beauty.

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Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in?  This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.

Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul.  Take in scenes of nature.  Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration. 

The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day. 

2.  Take A Walk

Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,  “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”  Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.) 

3.  Create a Playlist

It goes without saying that music can inspire.  Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.) 

4.  Learn from the Masters

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All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds).  The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you!   I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.  When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand.  I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

  ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

5.  Try Pen and Paper

If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.

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7.  Stay Curious

 Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them. 

7.  Show Up

Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today.  Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.      ~Jane Yolen

8.  Trust the process.

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration.  Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.

 “The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”

                     ~Ursula K. Le Guin

And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.

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 When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to.  Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.

My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine.  It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.

How do you capture inspiration?

Let There Be Light: 10 Ways Beat the Winter Blues.

In a previous life, perhaps I was a plant or a cat.

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I crave sunlight the way I imagine one might crave a drug. I need my daily fix. I plan my schedule and location around it. I feel sorry for people who have to work in a windowless office or worse—under fluorescent lights that make my head throb. I’m suspicious of people who keep their shades down on a sunny day. 

Summer is my most creative and happy time. I love warm nights, wearing sundresses, eating outdoors, and walking on the beach. But one can’t live for 3 months of the year. 

Did I mention I live in New England?

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My natural high energy state begins to dwindle in November when the clocks change to daylight savings.Most people experience an energy slump during the cold, dark days of winter. Some, like me, have an extreme version known as SAD-seasonal affective disorder which brings on a  gloomy sluggishness. I can sum up my state-of-being with two equations:

 Cold + Gray = low energy and depressed mood. 

 Dark + Cold = hibernation mode..

 Where ever you fall on the winter blues spectrum, here are 10 coping strategies to try.

l. Catch the rays

Try to catch the early sunlight through a walk or window. This helps to wake your brain, regulate biorhythms and lift your mood. Right now, as I write this post, I’m in my favorite indoor sunny spot. Even when life takes a hard turn, I always feel a little better when sitting near a sunny window. I call this winter sunbathing. So open your shades!   

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2. Light Therapy

My doctor wrote me a prescription for a light therapy box. You can buy them online. I use one from Verilux. These are not sunlamps that emit UV.  These type of light boxes mimic outdoor light. I read or eat in front of mine for 20-30 minutes in the morning.  It causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. It can help your body clock synchronize with the day. This response comes from the light going through your retina, not your skin.  Some people use a dawn simulator lamp to help the get out of bed on dark mornings. 

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3. Sunny Images

My brain relaxes when it sees pictures of flower gardens, tropical paradises, and ocean beaches. I keep photos of happy summer memories on display. Try setting your screensaver to your favorite sunny scene. Listening to ocean wave sounds can induce a relaxed state, as well. Every little bit helps.

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4. Fly South   

I’m lucky to have family I can visit in Florida.  Soaking up the sun and vitamin D for a week does gives me an incredible boost with lasting effects.  I haven’t been able to convince my doc to write me an Rx for this, though.

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5. Keep Warm. 

There is a Swedish saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  Even though I grew up in Michigan, I realized as an adult that I knew little about how to properly dress for winter.  So I Invested in a really warm coat, leggings, sweaters, gloves, and boots. This helped increased my cold tolerance. I hate shivering.

6. Exercise 

No surprise that gym memberships peak in the winter. The cold days make you want to move less and eat more. My salvation is dance and working out at the gym. Consistent exercise anytime of the year has been shown to ease depression. And exercising in bright daylight may intensify the effect. 

 7. Get Outside

Okay, I’ll admit that this one is really tough for me to carry out. Fresh air is good for you. Even in the cold. Still, my friends know not to ask me to go walking on a grey day below 40 degrees. I should go, but I won’t. On these type of days, errands get put off and the gym seems too far a destination. My body tells me I must feed it chocolate. Give me a sunny winter morning, though, and I might just venture outdoors for that good-for-you-walk.

8. Mood Music

Upbeat and cheerful music lift my spirits and gets me moving when the couch is calling. Make a  Winter Blues Crusher playlist. Some of my happy favorite tunes are:  Glad You Came (The Fighters), Feel Again (One Republic), Come to Me (Goo Goo Dolls), and Home (Phillip Phillips).

9. Winter Sports

 I was an avid ice skater as a teenager.  Now, I admit the sport holds less appeal. I’ll go if my daughter drags me along. Still, if you can find a winter sport you love, like skiing or snowshoeing,  you’ll enjoy the winter that much more. (Just don’t ask me to join you.  I’ll be indoors by the fire.)

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10. Surrender 

 “For everything there is a season.”  Wise words. Sometimes you just have to work on acceptance.  If winter is a hard time for you, figure out what can make it better.  Be kind to yourself. A Stanford University researcher who studied the residents of northern Norway, found that an attitude shift, or change in mindset, helped people feel happier during the long dark winter. This fascinating study got me thinking. Maybe this winter I will try to embrace the season, rather than endure it.

Want to join me?

So Get cozy. Build a fire. Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa. Make a snowman with your kids.

Wishing you a happ(ier) winter!

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