“Quiet Mind” Writing Days

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

I’ve created several creativity programs for writers within the past six months and I’ve noticed something interesting among the participants: they try to jump into the “words on paper” part. Sometimes we need to quiet the mind first to allow ideas to surface.

Why do writers think they aren’t writing if words are not flowing onto the paper? Sometimes we simply need to sit, think about our stories or projects, or even brainstorm with friends. If you’re a writer, it is okay to sit and stare off into the day and consider possibilities for your characters or plot. It’s okay to find the best events in a personal experience you plan to craft. In fact, current neuro-research suggests that quieting the mind is how we allow ideas from our subconscious to surface. (This is why you might get great ideas while you’re doing something monotonous such as washing dishes, gardening, or scrubbing the shower.)

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

Where does this idea come from that writers shouldn’t think about our stories or craft in our heads before heading to the computer? (Even my college students jump to the drafting stage too quickly.) Pre-writing is important, and while students learning how to write are expected to show their pre-writing in the form of mind maps or outlines, professional writers often do all that planning in their heads. I think this idea that we should not sit quietly may come from a need to be taken seriously as writers. If we look busy and are clicking away on the keys, maybe our families will allow us to make progress on our novel or project. If we look busy, maybe life won’t get in the way. Or, perhaps staring into space and thinking about plot events for a work-in-progress doesn’t feel the same as having something to show for the time and so busy work keeps you from actually writing.

I know that my own life gets busy too quickly and then that frantic pace sets in. Sometimes it’s not even frantic action but simply frantic thoughts. I used to clear my mind every morning by dumping all my thoughts and worries every morning. Then I could focus on my project or making progress on contracted work. Some may recognize this as “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I followed that advice when I worked full time and tried breaking into print part-time.

Now that I write full time I need to take breaks to recharge during the day. Sometimes I need to quiet my mind and I use painting or music or cooking, or what I call productive procrastination. People may think the character collages I create are simply a way to avoid writing but I’m making progress on a specific book project. In actuality, these “arts and crafts” activities help me clarify details for my story.

 

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

While I am actually making these collages, my mind is quieting and I have time to pre-write or plan plot details and so on in my mind. When I return to the keyboard, I’m mentally refreshed. The progress I make doing this is far exceeds the results when I force myself to sit in front of the computer screen until I reach my “word or page quota.” In the end it’s about making progress toward a completed manuscript. Some days our work is easier to show than on other days, than on the “quiet mind” days.

The next time you hit a wall with your writing, try sitting and quieting your mind. Think about options for your narrative, or how you might shape the story. If you can’t shake the feeling that you aren’t writing if you think about your project, consider it “pre-writing.” Since the writing process is recursive, remind yourself that you’re going back to “stage 1” to develop the idea and settle into the plan for the next chapters or scenes. Project do benefit from “quiet mind” days. You’re still working; you’re still writing.

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Breaking through Blocks

Alcott-sailDuring a recent creativity for writers workshop I presented, it occurred to me that the publishing industry is riddled with negative phrasing and insinuations. Editors send rejections in response to submissions, people talk about “failure,” and both pre-published and published works get critiqued. During writing workshops I often address the anxiety and fear newbie writers experience and discuss the “inner critic” (or “gremlins” as my graduate professors labeled the negative self-talk). Both these gremlins and publishing terms can cause blocks (for writers at all levels) and delays in getting started. Many writers fear what others will think of the finished piece though there is not yet anything to shape into a polished product).

In fact, for this creativity workshop, one of the first activities (which I have adapted successfully with writers from grade 4 through college freshman) was to create a visual representation of that inner critic. (I wrote previously about this activity in “Gag the Inner Critic.”) Later we were to write a letter to that critic, and after more activities and info (at the end of the workshop) I planned to have them write a response to that letter in the voice of the critic. The idea was to work through the blocks to creativity and put a positive spin on the “negative” views we often place on the creative process. We never got there–because one participant didn’t want to do half the activities and another took issue with the “negativity” behind the label critic/gremlin. The idea behind all the activities was to allow inhibitions to drop away and OPEN ourselves up to the ideas and creativity we each possess.

“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart & to turn on your creativity.
There’s a light inside you.”
~Judith Jamison

In order to tap into our creativity, most of us need to learn to silence the inner critic (or whatever label you want to place on the editor in your head). During the initial creative stages, we need to be free to play with ideas (without yet deciding whether they are worth pursuing or not). We need to knock down the obstacles in our path, whether they are believing in our own creativity or wrestling with finding time to write (or draw, or paint, or sculpt, or find new solutions to old dilemmas). In the midst of the workshop, I didn’t realize that despite getting stuck on the label I used for one of the biggest obstacles writers face (the inner editor or critic), one participant was mired in “self-limitations” (essentially a block to creativity, perhaps even a gremlin scampering beneath the surface and inhibiting creativity).

“Any little bit of experimenting in self-nurturance
is very frightening for most of us.”
~Julia Cameron

Using a long list of activities, from looking at the world around us with fresh eyes to playing with nouns and verbs and words, the participants worked with tools designed to spark creativity. There are two types of thinking important to creativity and which easily deepen our writing : divergent thinking (in which we see new uses for common objects) and associative thinking (in which we link two thoughts, experiences, items, words, etc to create new ways of seeing something). Associative thinking, especially, is important for writers because this is the type of thinking we use to create analogies and paint vivid pictures using few words (think metaphor, simile, and comparisons for description).

 ducklingsIt’s easier to let go of fears we have about our writing or being “good enough” to get published if we focus on  the joy behind creating and do what’s needed to stifle the gremlins, inner critic, or joy snatchers. (I previously covered this topic in Find Your Writing Joy.) Having writing and creativity exercises on hand to get the juices flowing doesn’t hurt either. Some of my favorite activities come from the following books (dog-eared and within easy reach on my bookshelf):  Writing Done the Bones by Natalie Goldberg;  Pencil Dancing by Mari Messer; and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron.

May you break through your blocks for happy writing (or creating)!

Fresh Step Forward

I always enjoy this time of year. Granted, it comes earlier here in Florida, but back-to-school time is ripe with fresh starts. As a kid I loved buying new clothes and school supplies. As a writing instructor I stocked up on pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, and paper for my own use as well as to offer to my students who needed them. As a freelance writer I find uses for quirky and unusual office supplies.

InsectPaperClipsMore important than these things is the mindset for a fresh start. This year I prepared by refilling my creative well during a week during which I “retreated” from social media and distractions. My intent was to give myself time to create new routines, but I now realize it allowed me to take a fresh step forward.

Like a true retreat, my aim was to quiet my mind so I could make decisions on which direction to take my coaching/teaching business as well as my writing career. To quiet my mind and refill my creative well, I spent time:

Devour books!

Devour books!

Reading. Not only did I devour books from one of my favorite services, Book Bub, but I discovered Overdrive, the service my local library system uses for ebook borrowing. I read so much there were a few days I only ate, slept, and read. When the stories began to merge together, I knew I needed to slow down–and work on some of my other goals for the week.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

Reorganizing & Planning. This was another key goal for my “retreat” and an important step toward creating new routines. (Not to mention releasing the clutter so I could make decisions to move forward, which I blogged about earlier.) I also returned to diligently using my planner. This year I bought it from May You  Bloom and love the quotes and petals on the “life wheel.”

Fun with watercolors.

Fun with watercolors.

Tapping into my inner child. I love the May You Bloom site and weekly Blooms I receive by email. One of the best parts about this site is the “permission to be playful” and do something for ourselves every day. So, I embraced that idea and pulled out paints, colored pencils, and markers. I colored as if I were still a kid. Then I painted quick and simple quirky angels to place around my office. They inspire me.

Meditating and relaxing. You can’t “retreat” without tapping into the quiet. One of my favorite guided meditation coaches is Max Highstein. I love the Healing Waterfalls and others, which I used during my downtime. It helped me find calm center from which to make these important decisions and to work toward goals.

Two weeks later I’ve maintained a balance of work and relaxation that is both creative and energizing. Though I’ve cut back on all my teaching (dropped the college level altogether), I still keep my hand in through local workshops. So, technically, I’m not facing a new school year. Still, it’s gratifying to to put a fresh foot forward toward new goals. And my “retreat” helped make it happen. What are you doing to create a #freshforward this autumn?

Writing in “snippets of time”

Half of my teaching programs are on spring break this week. I intended to take time to write, revise, and work on projects. Instead, life has gotten in the way and I’m writing in snippets of time. I’ve shared this method with workshop students, who often express how they struggle in finding time to write. The “snippets of time” suggestion is simple: if you can carve out 15-20 minutes here and there, you can write a few paragraphs at a time until your draft is finished. Then you revise 20 minutes at a time.

Basically, if you badly enough want to write, you’ll find time, even if it’s snippets of time. My writing students appear dubious. Have I really done this?

I have. A one time it was the only way I could  make progress on my writing. During a five-year stretch, when I worked a full-time day job, I used my “snippets” during my lunch break. Later, when I found a job that allowed me to arrange a 4-day work week, I still used the “snippets” to work on one magazine article a week. At this job I received an entire hour as a lunch break. Though I didn’t need an entire hour to eat, I did need to get away from my desk. I began walking the two blocks to the local library and spent the rest of my lunch hour researching the next article topic, reading a book about writing, writing a few paragraphs, drafting a cover or query letter, or researching markets. During the weekend I revised the draft written throughout the week. Every Monday on my way to work I’d mail off a manuscript or query letter.

Eventually, the credits added up, led to other writing credits, and finally to my first book series: Kids Throughout History for the PowerKids imprint of Rosen Publishing. When I took on that project, I left that 4-day-a-week job for a half-time job at the District Library in that town. That job offered resources and encouragement from library staff and patrons. I doubled my output of writing—and accumulated bylines.

Now that I write full-time and teach part-time, I still use snippets on occasion. This method comes in especially handy during Season when the number of writing workshops I teach increases and it seems I’m teaching more than I’m writing. I can always find 20 minutes here or there to create a paragraph or a page at a time because writing is that important to me.

So, begin to think about when you can find 20 minutes here or there and see what you can accomplish in “snippets of time.”

Nature-inspired Meditation

It’s Season in south Florida and for me that means teaching a lot of different writing workshops. I enjoy it but life becomes quite hectic.  One of my favorite ways to begin the day is to slip outside while the coffee’s brewing. I have an incredible view of a pond surrounded by greenery—trees, shrubs, and tropical vegetation—and a multitude of wildlife. The sun rises in the front of the building and I’m able to watch as it slowly illuminates the pine trees just beyond my lanai.

Squirrels play tag in the trees, causing the scales of pine bark to crackle and the needles to rustle as they bounce from branch to branch. Meanwhile birds sing and call as egrets and Louisiana heron stalk fish in the pond. I’m grateful for this natural serenade and beauty of dawn.

Once my coffee is ready, I sip it as I listen and watch, allowing my mind to ponder the drape of the long white pine needles or the patterns in the fanned palmetto fronds. It’s sort of a meditation, this routine; a quiet but energizing start to my day. It’s a luxury now, but one I can indulge more frequently during the summer. After this ritual, I’m ready to put pen to paper as I record in my journal the day’s beginning and then turn to filling a blank screen with words.

Drawing from the Creative Well

Both my writing and teaching draw from a large well of creative energy. Grading papers and editing or technical writing drain it. Some writing sessions energize me while others deplete my creativity a bit. (It depends on the project and where I’m at in my writing process.)

I always seek activities and tasks that refill the creative well. Reading books, watching movies, discussions with friends over coffee, and attending conferences and workshops all fill the well. So do my “productive procrastination” tasks. (These are non-writing creative endeavors such as creating character trees or scene collages, painting my “inspiration angels,” or cooking.) Different things fill the well in smaller amounts but they still help refill it.

I’ve had to work hard to see some events as beneficial to refilling the energy, such as the reaction of the children at the library after a story time, seeing things click with my students in creative writing classes, good editorial news (for myself, writing friends, or students), or discovering support in unusual sources.

Whether you realize it or not, you are doing things that also refill your creative energy or help you feel motivated to write. If you focus on what you enjoy about your writing and the success in small accomplishments, your creative well will replenish itself, too.

In Search of the ‘Perfect’ Journal

Questions continue about writers and journals. Since it’s a tool for your writing, it can be used in whatever manner helps you. Some writers simply keep a notebook to collect quotes, ideas, intriguing names, and record bits of dialog or scenes. I have one of those, too, which I take with me to the park, pool, and beach. Other writers think of a journal as a book with entries to collect thoughts and ideas or recollections.

Along with dwelling on the purpose and content of the journal, new writers ask me what kind of journal to use. Again, it’s your personal preference. Whatever works for you.

Any notebook will do for your writer’s journal. You can use a spiral notebook or composition book from the school supplies section at your favorite store or visit the bookstore for a selection of blank books. The variety is impressive, from lined or unlined sheets to various sizes (and
shapes). The important thing is that you feel comfortable with the book so you’ll enjoy writing in it often.

You might even prefer to use your computer to journal. Many writing friends insist this is the best method because of the “search and find” features on most word processing programs. I prefer a portable, handwritten journal. If this is your choice, too, choose a writing instrument with as much care as the journal itself. Do you want to hear the scratching of a pencil or marker on the page or feel the glide of a gel-ink or fountain pen? I like the feel of smooth, thicker paper and the fast, flowing ink of a Roller Ball. But, I also prefer different colors to help me designate different days at a glance. The choice is yours.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to keep the first few pages blank. Record favorite writing exercises or prompts on those opening pages. You’ll be able to quickly find writing prompts whenever you want to write during unexpected spare time. Each time you complete an exercise,
you’ll gain something more from it. Draw from these completed exercises, just as you’ll glean from experiences recorded in each journal entry in developing writing ideas.