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Creativity and Vulnerability

Rose Hips In Snow
Image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Creativity and vulnerability. Unfortunately, they often come as a pair. And, by the way, life itself is a creative undertaking. Hence, we can spend a lot of time feeling exposed and vulnerable. We risk becoming victims of the “buts.”

You know how it works. You have a great idea. And before it’s fully formed in your mind, along comes a big “but.” Dragging along with it all of the reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do it. Hey, you might fail. Or surely enough people have already done this or written this.

The excuses come flying out of thin air, propelled by fear, chasing you out of the creative chambers of your mind. And your heart. You go slinking out of the room.

Wait! Come back!

Consider an idea recently shared in an email from the author, Todd Henry. He posed the question “What would you do if fear had no power over you, and failure was an option? (His emphasis on ‘was’.) He attributes this question to commercial photographer and “creative mad scientist”, Jonbob Willis.

Let’s face it, failure is always a possibility. Not an option we’d usually choose but it’s always somewhere on the table. But at times we can conveniently forget. Remember the first time you learned to ride a bike, play the piano, or attempt sports? Did you approach them differently?

Perhaps these experiences weren’t immediately categorized as “creative.” When looking around in the creative world everyone else seems so freaking amazing, right? They’re all overnight successes. They didn’t have to face failure. Go ahead, roll your eyes. We know it’s not true and yet we go there at times.

Returning to the initial idea of the “but” statement, what if we substituted “and”? I’d like to try this creative thing and, hey, I might fail.

My process

Here’s what I do when I sit down to write, an arena rife with vulnerability. Feel free to apply it anywhere in life’s creative journey.

  1. I GET CURIOUS: Even before I sit down at my desk, I notice what’s coming up for me. There might be a quote, something I heard or read; an idea that emerged as I wrote in my journal, themes coming from multiple directions. I stay tuned in and watch for the synchronicities that keep me inspired.
  2. I MAKE A MESS: I make a mess on the page. Just the way you might pour paint onto a canvas, or take everything out of the fridge to conjure up a meal. The way a brainstorming session can go in an office meeting. Make a mess. While messes can be disturbing, they can also be a place for the unexpected to show up. Let it be a breeding ground for curiosity.
  3. I WALK AWAY: I step away from it. For those who have deadlines, can you take a five-minute break? Once in a while, I’ll switch tasks, do something more analytical. Or perhaps pay some bills, do mindless administrivia. I let the ideas percolate.
  4. I TAKE THE IDEA ON A WALK (OR INTO THE SHOWER): This isn’t a new idea. For example, Thoreau explored the connection between walking and creativity. I’m sure Socrates or Aristotle had something to say about it. I do this often. My body goes on auto-pilot and my mind is freed to roam. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon as you take a shower, do the dishes, drive a familiar route. Ideas flow. How will you capture them? (For instance, I once sent a client bathtub crayons so she didn’t have to wait until she’d toweled off to capture her great ideas.)
  5. I RETURN: I return to the project and look at it with fresh eyes. What stands out? What inspires more ideas? Is there a thread to pick and follow. I find that when I come back to a writing project a lot of what’s there gets edited out. Sometimes I start from scratch. But – and this is the most important part – I have found an entry point. I can continue from there, even if it’s on a fresh page.
  6. I RINSE AND REPEAT: Lastly, repeat as needed. Even this post had breaks. Instead of laboring over it, I took a lunch break, let it settle overnight, read a good book. I came back with curiosity, made things a bit messier. I might walk away again. Or it might be good enough.

Now you

This is the creative process. Whether on the page, on a canvas, in the office, or in your life. It’s never a straight line and in the end it’s worth your time.

Let me know how it goes. Contact me and we’ll have a coffee chat about our “buts”.

Be vulnerable. You’ll survive. Now, go do awesome stuff!

Here’s to the Journey

Image by Clemens van Lay on Unsplash

What might you discover in a daily writing practice? How about a magical journey?

Over 25 years ago my older sister gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. (If you know me, you’ll know her. Thanks, Ei!) It was 1996 and I was relocating halfway across the country for a significant promotion—the next step in my career. It was a huge step in my corporate journey. “Here’s to the journey,” she inscribed on the inside front cover.

The Journey Begins

But it was my creative journey that was stalled. And that’s the journey both Julia and my sister were encouraging me to explore and the one that I probably needed most. I should have been able to do both, right? Back then, however, my definition of success in a big job left no room for dancing, painting, or any of the other activities I would have labeled ‘creative’—things that used to be integral to my life.

The journey I was embarking on back then, however, was undeniably one of ‘success.’ Consequently, I kept work and creativity compartmentalized. It felt like each required more attention than I believed I could spare. In the end, career won. (I’ve since found both enlightenment and boundaries!)

But, the journey was afoot and as I embarked on my new adventure, I began reading the book and embraced Julia Cameron’s morning pages. I approached it with a “let’s see” attitude.

The magic quickly revealed itself to me. I began to detect a shift in the way I felt. My normal approach to a new job had changed. Could it be the morning pages, I mused? I kept going. I began to see how the humble act of gathering the cobwebs in my mind and depositing them on the page, loosened something in me.

Really, it was all just a stream of consciousness—blah-blah-blah—covering topics ranging from the weather (Chicago in February is unremittingly and unforgivingly cold and gray!) to the challenges of the job, the aloneness as I waited for my husband to join me, and the small joys and successes. Writing it all down cleared the decks for what I needed to do.

Magic!

The Practice

Over the years I have continued to be a regular journaler. Particularly, when my mind is cluttered or my heart is heavy, I make my way to the page. Some mornings I wake up and head for my notebook because something feels off and I know the page will tell me what it is. It will pose questions and provide answers. Many days it’s merely a dumping ground for an overactive brain. Always, it is loyal and honest. Even if I stray, it welcomes me back.

And my journal has been a huge supporter of getting me back to my own creative journey with a whole new definition of what creativity really is. The journey my sister and Julia set me on all those years ago.

You don’t have to be a writer to be a journaler, but journal keeping will make you a writer anyway. – Robert Moss

A Question and a Gift

What might you discover in morning (or any-time-of-the-day) pages*? The answer to a question you can’t quite articulate, a solution to a gnarly problem, a week of dinner menu ideas, your to-do list? Inspiration for a creative project, the right to write? The next leg of your personal journey?

I tell you always that you are a writer. As Robert Moss says in the above quote, journal keeping (or any writing practice) will make you one whether you think you are or not. And the gifts of writing extend well beyond the page.

My wish as we head into the new year is that you experience those gifts.

Here’s a little something for you: a simple collection of pages you can print out and use as a starting point for your own writing or morning pages. Look at it with a ‘let’s see’ attitude—a place from which to begin.

Contact me and let me know how it goes. How I can help you in your writing and other creative expression? Here’s to the journey!

* Morning pages or any daily journal practice only touch the surface of the expansive benefits of journaling. My friend, Mary Cash, is someone who is practiced, trained and knowledgeable in its various (and powerful) techniques. Sign up here for her monthly newsletter, “Spiraling to the Center.” Here’s a recent one to sample. Her website is the Writer’s Labyrinth.

The Stars and the Sky

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I’ve been reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. There’s one passage in which she talks about the conscious mind vs. the wild mind and urges writers to not diddle around our whole lives in the dot (our monkey mind or conscious mind) but to take one big step out of it and sink into the big sky and write from there.

I stopped and hung out for a while at that thought.

Let go of control – surrender the reins. Once a theme or idea starts to unspool, to allow ourselves to follow the thread. Find the end and let it take you. Up into the big sky.

In most parts of my life my tendency is to be neat and organized. To tidy up as I go. When I bake or cook, I’ll often assemble the ingredients beforehand, clean up as I go. And it works. In the kitchen.

But not at my writing desk. Even a short blog post like this.

Not in the beginning of a piece.

An author I know told me how she edits as she goes. In theory, her book is good to go by the time she gets to the last page. I’m going to suggest that the book was percolating in her head for a while, growing, plots materializing and shifting, characters coming and going. The story gradually told itself and the author transcribed it. Now, this in no way minimizes this author’s role in all this. It’s still a lot, a lot of work. But it works for her. She’s good at it. I’ve read her work; it’s magical.

For me, however, this method would trip me up. It would kick my perfectionism into high gear and put me into one of those endless loop processes. You computer folks have a name for that. For the rest of us it’s a descent into a rabbit hole.

Especially in the beginning.

This blog post started with reading Goldberg’s book. Then it came on a walk with me. It got splashed messily onto the page two days later. I let it settle, went for another walk a few days later and came back to it. I tidied it up; did a little organizing. It’s just about good enough. Although I know there will be at least one more pass before you see it.

Its beginning was a leap into the big sky. And that’s how it should be. At least for me.

There’s a poem I love and frequently use as a warm up prompt in my writing circles. “In Spite of Everything, the Stars” by Edward Hirsch. It begins: Like a stunned piano, like a bucket of fresh milk flung into the air or a dozen fists of confetti thrown hard at a bride stepping down from the altar, the stars surprise the sky.

The stars surprise the sky.

How wonderful it would be to feel free enough, to trust my process enough, to loosen my grip on my pen enough and toss my words up into the sky. To startle the heavens and then listen to the sky tell my story. To let word follow word and line follow line and watch as the story unspools from my consciousness onto the page.

That is where I like to begin.

Where do you begin? In your writing, in your projects, in your life?

Schedule a coffee chat with me and let’s talk about beginnings.

August, Slowing Down and Writing

I’m taking time to slow down this August. And a new book coaching program – Your Book Midwife – is rolling out! What’s happening with you? Are you able to downshift, maybe take some time off? Stop and smell the sunflowers? (Do they have much scent?)

I’ll tell you, when I turned the page on my calendar to August it felt like summer was over. Maybe I got a sneak peek at the next page but really, we have at least six more weeks. Is there an autumn version of Groundhog Day?

But I do love this time of year. It feels quieter in my neighborhood. Maybe everyone has gone “down the shore” as we say here in New Jersey. I watch the shadows lengthen, my limelight hydrangeas billow and, look, some of the other late bloomers are starting to strut their stuff. The cicadas are singing and katydids lull us to sleep.

I welcome August.

Slowing down

Many parts of my life have slowed down this month. Some of my regular meetings are on hiatus and my daily focus has narrowed to three priorities: Write, walk, reach out.

I’m spending more time on my novel and taking a writing class in Magical Realism offered by Story Circle Network. I’m increasing my daily step count (got my first 10,000 step day last week!!)

I’m also fleshing out my book coaching program.

After all, I’m a creativity coach; I love working with women in midlife and beyond; I love to write. I love to work with writers and facilitate writing. It shouldn’t take a genius to put it all together.

I’m not a genius and I finally did put it together. I am offering to be Your Book Midwife.

Those who work with me will find the footing of their book, the throughline and the path forward to the end of the first few drafts. We’ll do much more than that but in the end, their book will be birthed.

Why book coaching?

In addition to my reasoning process above, I have personally found that hiring a writing coach/teacher has helped me on many levels. That, in turn, it helps me to help you. For instance:

  1. I learn more about craft. (What I learn I can teach.)
  2. I learn about me. (Self-knowledge helps me recognize similar traits in others.)
  3. I learn about my characters. They speak to me in a clearer voice. (I hold space for yours to do the same.)
  4. I learn to forgive myself for dropping my writing ball. (We all do.)
  5. I get to celebrate picking back up the writing ball. (It’s much more fun to celebrate with someone else!)
  6. I get to talk about my work and hear it through someone else’s perspective. (With clients, they always say this is one of the most helpful parts of our coaching sessions.)
  7. I get to be in conversation with someone who knows what I’m going through and speaks my language. (This is invaluable.)
  8. I have accountability. (Do you need that?)

Through all this I have found my own rhythm and throughline. I have gotten to know Katie and Bertie and the little town of Stanley Gap quite intimately. (I hope so! This is at least my fifth or sixth draft. I’m losing count.) I can see the end; I’m almost there.

I can do all this and more for you and your book. And when it’s time to graduate to the next level I have tons of resources.

But first you need to start

Do you have a dream of writing a book? Or have you started and stalled? Or is your project moving at a pace that feels too slow for you?

In a lovely testimonial, Eileen Caroscio of Passageways Coaching said, “Kathy shines with helping those of us take happy “write” steps.”

I’d love to do this for you or someone you know.

Book a coffee chat with me. Not a sales call. Just a chance to get to know each other better, see where our interests intersect and what’s happening in each other’s worlds. To become more than names on a list of emails.

Memory is Fickle

Legacy
Photo by Sarandy Westfall on Unsplash

Memory is fickle. It is fractious. It can fool us and fake us out. It’s a shapeshifter. But capture and corral memories into words on the page? They are enlightening. They become our legacy.

Many years ago, I listened to a radio program about memory. Ironically, I will not remember it perfectly. However, that was the point of the program. How each time we dip into our memory bin and pull something out, it changes.

A memory from even longer ago, when I was about twelve, was when I quit the Girl Scouts. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my father later that day telling him about it. My father said “we don’t quit.” I rescinded my quit and returned.

Memory takeaways

That conversation rose out of my memory decades later when I was preparing my ice breaker speech for Toastmasters. I realized at that time that quitting was very difficult for me even when it was in my best interest. Staying in a career that was not a good fit was a perfect example. Forcing myself to be successful at a high cost. I associated this with that long ago conversation. My father was long gone at this point and I relayed this story to my mother.

“Oh, he never would have said that!” she exclaimed. I didn’t argue with her. I didn’t remind her of how he stayed at his job for decades. How he encouraged my brother-in-law to go off on his own rather than staying in a secure job. (Was there a little wishful thinking back then on his part? I thought so at the time.) How he died on his way to that very job when he was 62.

Instead, I said, maybe. But I knew it was what I took away that was more impactful than his actual words. It was how I constructed and internalized that memory.

Because memories are fickle. It’s what we take with us that’s important.

Why write about our memories?

Writing about our memories helps us extract their essence. It lets us take them out and inspect them, see them in a more objective light. And when we share these memories and their impact in our writing, it lets our reader connect with us in a powerful way that can be a catalyst for their own memories.

Writing about the memory of my conversation with my father as I prepared that speech illuminated hidden drivers in my working life. It helped me understand that quitting isn’t always a bad thing. Knowing when to let something go is actually wisdom. In unpacking that memory I found the permission to continue the shift of my career into writing and coaching. It was okay to “quit” the old career that didn’t fit anymore.

Writing our memories is like panning for gold that transforms our lives over and over again while giving value to our readers.

What memory can you pull out of your virtual filing cabinet that, in retrospect, vividly colored your life? A memory that shaped your identity or influenced your decisions? It could be things you took for granted that, when seen for what they were, free you in tiny ways. (Why did we keep frying pans in the oven? Oh, because there was no room for them anywhere else!) Big and small, deep or funny, lesson learned or crisis averted.

Memory explored and written down is alchemized into memoir.

Memoir is a statement that we were here.

When teased out and captured on the page, it is our legacy.

I have a Legacy Writing group in the works for the fall. A workshop leading to a published anthology. More on that as we move into summer. There will also be a few taster  workshops in between. Interested? Contact me and I’ll add you to the Legacy Writing interest list.

An interview with Fear 😉

No Fear
photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Note to reader: There’s not a heck of a lot new here. Just having some fun- doing it anyway! – in spite of fear trying to tell me this is too silly. In fact, it’s a good reminder of what usually gets in your way especially when “change” is standing in the wings. It’s also a big factor in why you’re not writing that book, or moving ahead on your creative project!! Whatever’s holding you back, I can help. Contact me to see how. It’s what I love to do. Please read on…

I recently had the chance to sit down with my old nemesis, Fear. It was early morning; his guard was down. There he was, relaxing in the back of my head readying what he calls his daily alerts. I call them salvos. (Yes, it’s a “he”. Not sure why but that’s how he showed up!) What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity (as well as to delete some expletives.)

KK: Good morning, Fear. Glad I caught you before you started your busy day. You know, you wreak a lot of havoc in my life.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Sure, some of it’s necessary but most of it isn’t. I wonder how you would you describe your role in our everyday – and professional – lives?

Fear: Ah, I am a big deal, aren’t I? <a cocky smile on his face> My basic function is to keep you safe. Some people say it’s your ego trying to do that. I say, ego – schmego. That’s my job. I create the tension, the drama; I keep you on high alert. Makes you feel alive, doesn’t it! I get your adrenaline pumping!

K: You certainly do. And frankly, I could do without it at this point of my life. Life’s too short for your nonsense! Any time I decide to move out of my comfort zone you kick in with your opinion. When I want to try something new you say ooh, what if someone doesn’t like this! What if you stink at this! You’re such an imposter! 

You stop me in my tracks. And off I go – procrastination, second guessing, cleaning toilets…

F: You’re welcome. That’s one sparkling toilet you have!

K:  …feeling overwhelmed. I can try to ignore you but that doesn’t always work. Because you’re also quite crafty. Half the time I don’t even realize it’s you sending me to graze in front of the refrigerator or go down an online rabbit hole.

F: I’m good, huh! By the way do you have any more of this Irish tea?

K: Let’s cut to the chase here. I’ve got the street crossing and hot stove thing down. I know it’s not wise to go hiking alone in the deep woods. Blah, blah, blah. But it’s the other stuff. For all of us. Writing a book, career changes, growing a business, new relationships. Maybe going back to school. Any creative pursuit, really. As soon as any of us wants to try something new, there you are with your “what-ifs”. Safety-schmafety! I, for one, am tired of being safe! You say Ego-schmego. I say you two are in cahoots. How about you guys duke it out while I go do something new!

F: Ok, ok, take it easy. It’s not always me you know. Try looking at things from a different perspective. Just because you’re dithering over something, not getting to it, doesn’t mean it’s me.

K: What do you mean? Who else could it be?

F: You!

K: What!

F: Did it ever occur to you that I’m not to blame for everything? That maybe, just maybe, whatever it is that you’re avoiding isn’t what’s best for you? It might look like I’m sticking my nose in – you, know the avoidance, the self-sabotage, the toilet cleaning – but it could actually be that in your heart of hearts, you know it’s not for you.

K: <snort> Right. Sure. Make excuses. You’re waking up now…

F: It could be that your gut brain that knows on a deeper level that you don’t want that job – it’s not for you. You don’t want to move – here is better than there. That you don’t want to take on that project or partnership and so on. You have so much intelligence in you that you might be missing because you can’t hear it. Okay, I know I’m loud. It could be getting drowned out. I’m just trying to get your attention.

K: So, it could still be you, right?

F: Sure. But what I’m telling you to do is to listen to your heart, first. Pause. Listen. And then do what’s best for you. Because if you’re listening to your heart, you are safe. You are being a loving steward of your dreams. Ugh! Listen to me! I can’t believe I’m saying these things. If you tell anyone…

K: But what if my heart’s telling me to connect with that person, to write that book, to go back to school. And, in spite of this I’m still cleaning my toilet?

F: Well, yeah, that’s on me. Here’s what you do. Um… Well…

K: What are you looking around for?

F: It’s only us, right? I wouldn’t want any of my fellow fear masters to hear me. We’re unionized, you know. I’ve got a lot to lose if I’m seen as a calming influence. Pension, benefits, the whole megillah. But listen. If your heart is telling you to do this thing then you must do it. You must or all this wonder and possibility will die with you. That is the greatest tragedy. And you know how to do it. You know how to sneak past me and my pal, amygdala. Small steps, small questions. Listen first and then take a step. You don’t need to know the whole way when you start. Just start!

K: I know. I know.

F: I’ll still be around you know. But at this point it feels like we’re buddies, doesn’t it? So go do your thing. Claim that dream. Just say hi once in a while. I’ll do the same. I’m just telling you to pay attention. I’m telling you to ignore the shoulds, stop trying to please everyone. Remember I’m only here as an alert.

K: Ha-ha! Like those stupid weather alerts that tell me it’s raining. Like I can’t look out the window!

F: Yeah, like that. Remember, I never said don’t do it. I only said what if…

K: And that’s where the trouble starts…

F: Hey, I’m not the boss of you. That beautiful heart is the boss. I wouldn’t mess with it. It’s got a lot of power. I clear out when she gets going. Whoa! There’s no stopping her. But you and me? We’re here for the long run. So, buckle up!

One Writer’s Journaling Journey

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Have you ever thought about how keeping a journal might enhance your writing? Here are some thoughts and tips from one writer who also been journaling for many years…well, maybe decades! Mary Cash is a teacher, journal keeper and writer (to name just a few things) who lives in Colorado and, along with her husband, shares life with John Snow (the cat) and Shadow (the dog.) More about her here.

One Writer’s Journaling Journey

by Mary Harris Cash

Do you journal? I’m curious what you journal about. Do you keep track of everyday events? Vent about someone in your family who makes you angry? Plan for the future? Talk yourself through a big change happening in your life? Perhaps you write about the birds that show up at your bird feeder. I do. The nifty thing about keeping a journal is that there are no limits to what you can write about. You can find blogs, books and research studies that offer suggestions on journaling techniques, but in the end, it’s your journal, and you’re in control of what you write in your journal. I wonder though, when it comes to journaling, do we tend to forget we can use our journal to help us with our writing projects?

Me? I’ve kept a journal since my mid-20s. Of course, I’ve had some down time. When I had twins, I didn’t pick up my journal until the girls were well into toddlerhood. And, this past November, when I got a new puppy, my journaling went out the window for a few months, and it took quite a bit of effort and schedule juggling to get back to it. Overall, however, my journal has been my constant companion through the adventures of graduate school, relationship ups and downs, parenting tribulations, the joys and stresses of several new jobs, the sadness of my girls going off to college at the same time, the uncertainties of a couple of scary medical diagnoses and more.

Doing it my way

These days when I journal, I like to do my version of Morning Pages, complete with a daily weather report (it’s 7:45 am and 10 degrees on March 27 – will winter ever end?), bird report (Crow! Stellar Jay! A cute woodpecker!), and my tarot card pull for the day. I fill my three pages with whatever concerns I have for that morning, and I find that I can write about anything that pops in my head, including my latest writing project. This morning I used my journal to brainstorm for this guest blog post.

However, I’ve not always thought to use my journal for my writing projects. For some reason, when I decided to try my hand at writing fiction several years ago, I had this idea that I needed to keep my journal and my fiction separate. I bought a spiffy 3 subject spiral notebook and diligently used that for my brainstorming and for drafting scenes for my cozy mystery. I carefully made sure not to write about my cozy in my journal. I had to keep the spiral notebook next to my journal so I could hop over there if I had some grand idea in the middle of journaling about my day.

A place to capture my brilliant ideas!

Eventually, because I’m one of those people who has brilliant ideas either in the shower, or right after while I’m getting ready, I found myself putting down ideas for the latest scene or questions to ask my main character as I was writing my morning pages. That way, I got my ideas out of my head, and on paper so I wouldn’t forget them. At the same time, the instructor I was working with for an independent study class through the Story Circle Network gave me suggestions for dialoguing with my characters or brainstorming about the setting or some other aspect of my mystery and she always suggested I journal about it. Sooner than later, my journal and the spiral notebook bled together. I would bring both to my desk so I could work on my scenes on the computer.

To be honest, I’m not sure where the idea of not using my journal to help with my cozy mystery project came from. When I took time to think about it, I realized in the past, when I was working on research papers and even course updates for the college English classes I teach, I always used my journal to write about some aspect of those projects. I can’t say books on fiction writing told me to not use my journal because some actively encourage using one. I guess it must have been a brain glitch at the time.

The safety and freedom of your journal

From my experience, if you plan on using your journal to help with a writing project, it’s best to consider your journal as a safe place where you can write anything. It’s important to ban that critic when journaling, especially when you’re focusing on your writing. Start out your journaling session by telling your inner critic to go wash the dishes, do the laundry, or better yet, get busy vacuuming. And if they threaten to pop into your journaling session, just push them out the door with another task to complete. Also, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or format. Find some engaging tasks for the Grammar Queen to do when you’re journaling, or better yet, get her to help your inner critic clean out the downstairs closet.

Now that I’m back to using my journal for my writing projects, I got curious about how others might be using their journals to facilitate their writing, so I did some research. While there’s not as much information available on journaling for writers as there is on the benefits of journaling on mental health and learning, there are some great suggestions out there.

Now your turn

Here’s are three ideas to encourage you to use your journal to boost your writing.

  1. You can use your journal to grow a daily writing practice. No matter what you write about, remember, the more you practice your writing, the better it will be.
  2. Use your journal to clear your head – if you’ve got lots of ideas or perhaps something is going on in your life that’s blocking your writing – do a brain dump write and get all that muck out of your head so you can move on to do some great writing.
  3. Capture life around you. Write about people, places, events in your life. You can go back and pull out juicy tidbits and use them in your novel/short story or even your non-fiction.

How do you incorporate your journal into your writing practice and projects? I’d love to hear from you.

You can email me at mary@writerslabyrinth.com. Want to learn more about journaling? Sign up here for my newsletter.

The hidden treasures of the writing brain

Treasure Box
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Do you have “shoulds” about your writing? Do you fret that you’re not writing enough? Let it go. Yes, at times you have deadlines. But consider the riches accumulating as you go about your days. There’s a lot happening under the surface even when you’re not putting words on the page.

I haven’t been writing much the last few months. I had taken a brief hiatus in December but that hiatus lingered into January. And then February. Why, I wondered. What’s wrong? The answer that rose up was that my joy in writing had been muscled out by the “shoulds.” I should be working on my book. I should get a blog post out. I should get a newsletter out. I should, I should I should.

I was should-ing all over myself.

Seriously, shoulds take the joy out of everything.

At the same time, I was still journaling. I was still running writing circles. But my book and my blog, well, I felt lots of resistance there. So, this time I decided to do something a little different. I just let it be. (More on the shoulds here)

However, I’m still comfortable calling myself a writer.

I recently read an old article in The Writer where the author suggested that when she wasn’t writing – in between projects or on a break – that she could no longer call herself a writer.

I don’t agree and I’ll tell you why.

A writer is someone who writes.

I am familiar with – and subscribe to – this definition of a writer as “someone who writes.” I also believe that the writing process is not limited to placing words on the page. Writers continue to think in writerly ways. Just like an artist or a photographer whose eyes soak in their surroundings. Or a gardener who doesn’t need to have her hands in the dirt to let ideas germinate.

We constantly take in stimuli that will eventually make their way into our craft. Even when we think we’re not paying attention, ideas are wheeling around in our subconscious.

Some other things that happen off the page:

Our ideas continue to speak to us.

Literally. And sometimes at very odd times.

Characters wander in and out of our consciousness. Inspiration pops up randomly. (A little aside: how do you capture those thoughts?) The mill continues to process the grist.

Bertie, the main character in my novel, hadn’t been speaking to me for a while. Actually, it was this blog that was doing most of the talking. However, she did pop in recently with something to say.

I was on a walk and as my feet developed their own rhythm my mind began to wander. I started noticing how many dog walkers were on my path. Nodding and smiling to each other, some dogs pulling their walker; others, obediently trotting alongside. I suddenly wondered if Bertie had a dog.

No, she told me. She would never have a dog. That would require her to be out and about, possibly having to greet others on a daily walk. That’s pretty uncomfortable when you’re trying to keep a low profile. And no, she wouldn’t let a dog loose in her yard because her garden, well, that’s another story for another day.

I walked and thought about her. She is squirrely. I already knew this. I think I know her but then sometimes she surprises me. She wakes me up in the morning with start. “I did not know that!” I think. She might have a cat, but definitely not a dog. I’m always listening for her. Even when I’m not working on the book.

We get to stockpile wonderful words

Writers are collectors of words. In her book, Poemcrazy, writer Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge talks about collecting words and creating wordpools. A wordpool is a fun writing prompt and a great way to loosen up your creative muscles.

Me, I like to visualize a small wooden treasure chest into which I tuck my words.

In my writing circles we write together and read our fresh unedited work. We look for what’s working (there’s always something working) and those words, phrases, passages that stay with us. I tell the writers that even if it’s just one phrase that’s working, that’s still gold. Save it. I mention my treasure chest.

But even off the page small gems are dropped into your consciousness. Save them! Use index cards, journals, post-its, the notes app on your phone, and yes, maybe even a small wooden treasure box. Save them! You never know when you might need a perfect description of the sound of a screen door slapping closed on a summer day.

We continue to read

Writers are often voracious readers. I know I am. I find myself observing what’s happening on the page and how I’m reacting to it. Oh, look at how she did that! I wonder if that would work for me. I notice the devices the author is using; how the prose was a bit too flowery. I note what I like and also what I don’t like. I see how he makes me want to turn the page. I delight in the surprises I find.

I was in grade school when I picked up Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It was on my older sister’s summer reading list. I already loved to read. I fell in love with language with that book. I learned how words could be transformed into something of stunning beauty. I suspect that somewhere the dark recesses of my mind I am trying to emulate him.

I store all this in my mind for when I return to the page.

Because I always do.

Shedding the Shoulds

Molting Bird
Photo by Jack Bulmer on Unsplash

I am shedding my “sh*&%y shoulds”. I am a little molting bird, casting off the ought-tos, the had betters (can you see the wagging finger?), the supposed-tos. They weigh us down and keep us from our creative work. I’m lightening up in this second half of life. Enough! They. Have. Got. To. Go!! And, as synchronicity would have it, this need to shrug off the shoulds recently hit critical mass. More on that later.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that, as I notice and let go of the shoulds, the inner battle wanes. I find myself paying more attention, pausing and running the ‘shoulds’ through a new filter. They come out the other end as a yes (want or need) or a no (should)

How about you? Does this ring any bells for you? Where do you stand on the “sh*&%y shoulds”? I can’t be alone in this! Especially in midlife and beyond.

What we lug around

“Shoulds” carry baggage. They’re short on commitment and usually drag along a sidecar of “but’s”. Yet, many of us go through life diligently toting around a sack of old voices, habitual thoughts, guilt, and lots of assumptions.

And for me, after so many years, those shoulds had turned into “I just don’t wanna!” When something was presenting itself as a should, up would jump my inner rebel. The process of tending to those “sh*&%y shoulds” had become fraught with irritation and resentment.

That sent me into procrastination and avoidance.

Definitely not where I wanted to be!

Hence, the conscious work of shedding my shoulds.

A knock-out call

Back to critical mass. Recently, after a day of cleaning and organizing my home office I sat down in front of my computer. I’m here to tell you that I am living proof that sitting is bad for your health.  My chair decided to break and sent me to the floor. All the impact of the fall was taken up by my right shoulder. A sprain of the ligaments and tendons around my collarbone.

Do you know that in Chinese medicine pain in the right shoulder can be an indicator that we are resisting something or trying to do too much of the wrong things? There is an imbalance. For me, the imbalance is the struggle with the shoulds. I knew I was off kilter but this just drove it home.

The genesis of shoulds

Shoulds begin to creep up in childhood. We should be a good girl/boy. We should eat our spinach and be seen and not heard. (Yes, I’m dating myself!)

They get strengthened in adulthood. We should work hard, be successful. The outside world imprints their shoulds on us. Authority figures in school, church, the culture. The list can continue.

And that’s where we begin to get in trouble. Because we begin to use the word should too often. We become oblivious to the language we use.

Actually, I want to be a good person. I want to be kind, work hard and be successful. But I want to operate from the inside out. In too many cases I’ve turned my wants into shoulds.  I want my actions to be inner driven, not outer directed.

Needs vs. shoulds

Consider the word “need”; how much lighter it is. It feels quick. It doesn’t loom large.

Try this (out loud):

I should brush my teeth.

Now this:

I need to brush my teeth.

Do you feel a difference? Now, of course, I’ll brush my teeth either way but the second version feels different. Yep, let’s brush our teeth before we move on to the next thing. No big deal. Done and done.

Much of what we call shoulds are really needs (and even wants!) and are part of our normal routine. I need to grocery shop or pay my bills. It often boils down to language which is so powerful.

Examine a should. Is it really a need? Call it that. Better yet, if it’s a want, call it that.

Shoulds are externally driven. Wants and needs are inner driven.

Wants and Needs

If shoulds are externally driven,  the inner driven wants and needs are so much more personal. And for some reason that can make them harder to address. We are curious humans, aren’t we?

However, what I have found is that when I recognize that what I’m calling a should is actually a want – or a need – and is congruent with my personal vision and goals, it becomes simpler. The action may be challenging – like some of the tech chores I do – but I want to do them and therefore they are easier to get to.

I want to be healthy therefore I will brush and floss and eat better (most of the time!) I need to tend to my business (and this stems from a want) so I will do the challenging and the mundane tasks my business asks of me. They’re often items on a list. Check, check, check. Done and done.

Needs and wants are not inherently easy. But they are simple.

I also recognize that when I ask myself what wants to be done, the answer sometimes surprises me. They are real and doable and tend not to squabble with any shoulds. It all gets done and I am a much more relaxed and happier girl.

Language

So often, the problems rise up from our choice of language. Next time you hear yourself starting a sentence with “I should”, pause. Can you reframe it to a need or want? Where is it coming from? Inside or outside? If from outside, is it possible to take a longer pause and weigh the cost of saying no? It may not be as steep as you initially think!

Shoulds get in the way of our creativity. Whether it’s creating the life you want or getting to your creative work. I can help you shed your shoulds. I am a great sounding board, a collaborator in solutioning, a bringer of creative tools to give you accountability and make it all easier and fun. Contact me and we can chat about it. Life is too short for the sullen shoulds! 

Back to my collarbone and critical mass. Laying on my side on the floor as my husband hovered over me asking if I was alright, I realized there was a want buried in this. I had wanted to get a new chair. Even with an achy shoulder I’ve been able to craft a happy ending.

Pen + Thoughts = Power

Photo by MJ S on Unsplash

The pen is mighty. Put that pen to paper and record your words and thoughts… power.

Why write? I’ve asked that question many times in this blog. This time I’m inviting you to consider writing as a powerful agent of change.

A leather bound journal. A diary. Any simple, humble notebook that can capture your words. Julia Cameron recommends this type of writing it as a daily ritual in The Artist’s Way:  3 longhand pages first thing in the morning known as morning pages. Dorothea Brande proposed something similar, what she called “unconscious writing”, in her book Becoming a Writer first published in 1934. Your writing can be impromptu or just thoughts dashed onto the page. In coaching I sometimes offer prompts followed by a 2 or 3-minute writing sprint. In our Find and Follow Your Spark program we call them Magic Pages. And they are truly magical.

Broad Impact

What I have found is that a writing practice can impact you in ways far beyond what is usually thought of when we say “writing.” It doesn’t always have to be about a finished products, publication or book sales.

Your words, captured on a page are powerful. You cannot set your thoughts down, day after day, and remain the same. You will be transformed.

I would suggest you start by doing the morning pages suggested in The Artist’s Way. Experience the effect this will have on you as you develop a writing habit. Power through to that third page because I guarantee you will go someplace deeper and unexpected. But don’t feel this is the only way to do this, that it’s  “all or none.” Do one page. Do it several times a week. Just do something on the page.

Here are some other reasons to develop a journal practice and some of the ways I use my journal.

Writing will amp up your listening skills

Listening to yourself, that is. Thoughts run amok through our mind all day. But if you stop to jot them down, you have the opportunity to actually “hear” them.

You might be surprised at what you hear. You might realize that you say these things all the time, both out loud as well as to yourself. You might recognize that these thoughts/words are an engrained habit, not necessarily true. And, unfortunately, those habitual thoughts are not usually encouraging. They tend more toward the “why am I so ____” with the “_____” not very flattering.

How will you capture these thoughts? Those small spiral notepads that fit in your pocket or purse can do the job quite efficiently. As can the notes app on your phone. It doesn’t need to be fancy. The power is in the act of capturing.

Writing is an act of resolve

You may not realize it at first, however if you keep up the practice you will discover your beginning.

In my writing circle, naturally, there are women who want to write. There are also those who have been told they “should write that book.” There are others who are heeding a call for creative expression. And there are some who are there to just see what they’ve got.

There are lots of reasons. And the end result is always the same.

They begin to understand that they have something to say. They recover memories; discover depths. They become reacquainted with themselves. Gradually, change takes over. They find a new beginning

Writing is a place to ask a small question

Ask a small question on the page and keep going. (There’s an art to the small question. Read more here.) But ask them frequently, day after day, or however often you write. Ask and then listen. As you go about your day, notice what emerges: the email, the phone call, the song on the radio, the quote someone shares. Just keep your antenna up and stay curious. Answers abound.

Writing can be a space for praying

In the book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the maid, Aibileen, keeps a prayer book. A simple, cheap notepad. For her, putting her praying words on the page was like “electricity, it keeps things going.” So, put your wishes and dreams on your page so they can keep going. Put them out in front of a higher power along with the needs of others in your world who can use this “electricity.”

Writing is a place for affirmations

Affirmations are a way to create new thinking pathways. A journal is a place to test out those statements. Saying it is quicker. However when you speak it the “but” that whispers in the back of your mind could be missed. There’s something about the physicality of writing them, the way it gives your brain those milliseconds to catch up with your hand, that makes a difference. If it’s not quite believable to you – as in the “but” in the back of your mind – you have the chance to edit it until it feels right. If it feels right and believable it will seep into your subconscious and do the work. Dare I say it again? Magic!

There are lots of ways to use a writing practice. You will find things that are particularly helpful for you. Try it. Be curious. Be open to the magic.

Need help getting started? You don’t have to do it alone. Contact me to see how I can help.

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