R – Reflection

I hear many people share with me that they just ‘have to do this thing’ before they can relax and slow down.
The truth is that taking the time to be still and reflective actually increases productivity and gives more joy to what you’re doing when it’s time to take action again.
Maria Erving

Of the new writers I speak to, about 70% of them don’t understand that writing requires “off time.” Call it mindlessness, pondering, boredom, reflection, or chilling out, we need time for our stories to incubate, time to ruminate on the characters and plot. It takes idle brain time for ideas to come forth.

It’s no secret I advocate a simple lifestyle, and the biggest reason is that busyness hampers us creatively. Filling my schedule with tasks and places to be and calls to make leaves no time for my pre-frontal cortex to switch off and the creative mind to work it’s magic. I’ll even be so bold as to say social media and smart phones are major contributors for the frustration new writers feel.

Our writing forebears might have been greatly helped by life prior to modern conveniences. When one spends significant time weeding the garden, cleaning laundry, or going about any number of rote chores, the brain has a chance to enter this neutral state.  These days, we walk (as many great writers have done) or exercise. Showers and baths are great. So is housework. Handwork is also a good alternative (knitting, crochet, and embroidery work, but I’ve had less success with counted cross stitch as I’m constantly referring to the pattern. My favorites are machine quilting, swimming, sitting at the pottery wheel, and washing dishes. Of course, nothing beats sitting in the window with a hot cup of coffee and watching the world go by.

In all of these cases, the body is doing its thing without active thought. Indeed, the brain is in a form of automatic pilot. It’s a different mode from when we are watching TV or playing on our cell phones.  It’s different from listening to music or quiet activities such as reading. It’s more like that state just before falling asleep or just after waking up, when the brain waves are not yet affected by the cortex. It’s believed to be created in part by the synchronization of the heart and the brain into rhythmic movement, and in part by being in neurological “neutral.” In both cases, relaxation is a big part of it. That’s a hard place to get to when busy, rushing, or filling time with less important activities.

I certainly don’t want to go back to the days when I’d be kneading bread or washing clothes by hand, but I do realize such mundane physical tasks are the perfect environment for the brain to create. As soon as I can get new writers to embrace this idea, they are amazed at how fruitful their minds become.


How do you incorporate mental stillness and reflection into your life? Can you tell the difference when you don’t get that time? Do you think I’m nuts or controversial for telling people to pare down their calendars or do physical labor?

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P – Patience

One time, ,when I was very little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum, it hurt a lot. Mother said that if I’d just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn’t have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples.
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

I often think I was put on this earth for the sole purpose of learning patience. Though I am SO much better than I was 25 years ago, I suppose I will wrestle with patience all of my life.

It’s enough, I tell myself, to wait for things like houses, websites, businesses to get off the ground, to recover from a cold–do I have to exercise patience in my creative life as well?

Yep. Without a doubt. In so many ways. Sigh.

Wait for the amorphous inkling to coalesce into a character or plot.

Wait through the cutting and pressing to assemble a quilt top.

Wait for paint to dry to add the next layer.

Wait for adhesive to set, wait for materials to be purchased, wait for this, wait for that.

It’s all tolerable because I am a maker. It’s what I do, and patience is necessary. I’m fairly good at pacing myself and keeping steady momentum whether I’m writing a draft, assembling a mixed media piece, or binding an art quilt.

Except for one element.

It’s the span of time a draft is resting that fills me with the most impatient frustration. Why, when I want so much to be one of those authors who publishes six or eight times a year.  When my drafts come so fast, why must I be the writer whose novels must rest for upwards of two years?

Perhaps it’s simply another lesson in patience, or the price for other elements coming easily. Perhaps I am to easily frustrated with myself, too stubborn to accept reality.

Like eating green apples, I’ve felt the discomfort of not waiting. An unripened draft leads me to fret, struggle, and whine. I can’t revise my way out of a paper bag. But if I wait, if I let the draft ripen and separate itself from me, revision is easier, cleaner, and almost enjoyable. It’s all about the emotional distance, and I simply need more time than most.

I feel the most common time for impatience for creatives of all types is when they are learning a new skill or a new medium. What is seen in the mind is so far removed from what appears from our fingers, it’s a wonder artists aren’t bald from pulling their hair out. All I can do is ask the new and the untried to be . . . yes . . . patient with themselves while getting through the first few projects. So much of what we learn is learned by doing, not by research beforehand. And thereafter, be patient with the elements of your process that just take more time than you would like.

For me, it’s absolutely a matter of patience, and I’m still learning that lesson. How about you?


What part of your creative life leaves you feeling impatient?

O – Writing is an Opportunity

“How much I missed, simply because I was afraid of missing it.” 
Paulo Coelho 

As the old cliché goes: Life is full of opportunities. And the same is true of writing. I’ve been pondering this lately, as I try to convince myself to sit down and work on my novel. Each time we go to draft or to journal or to create with words, we are granted an opportunity to delve into other worlds, to meet and think as different people, and to practice and refine a craft. The opportunity only grows from there when we try to get published or to find other outlets for our ideas.

I talk sometimes quite negatively about my writing life, but writing itself has opened doors for me in a lot of various ways. As a product manager, I was required to write product specs and to articulate ideas to different parties who didn’t all speak the same “language.” As an editor, I was made better by paying attention to how other people wrote. For my master’s I got to think more critically of the process we take to reach a final, meaningful piece. And, last but not least, writing has always been the means by which I make sense of a chaotic world and express myself.

It’s no secret that I have a dislike of writing bad words. I know this, and I know I need to write badly first before I can hope to write well. But my own perfectionism has been a driving force in the way I approach my own writing, and because of it, I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed out. If I were braver about submitting my work, would I be published more already? If I were less afraid to write poorly, would I already have finished my novel? Am I losing opportunities this way?

I try to remind myself that fear of failure is not an excuse to forego potential opportunities. Failing even to fail is a missed opportunity itself. And in writing I think it’s more important than ever to fail, and to fail well. Otherwise nothing changes.

So what do you think? Have you ever felt like you’ve missed an opportunity?

N – Night

I’ve always loved the night, when everyone else is asleep and the world is all mine. It’s quiet and dark – the perfect time for creativity.
Jonathan Harnisch, Porcelain Utopia

I confess. I am a night owl. I like staying up until the wee hours. I love to write that late. I’ve not observed any difference in my writing based on the time of day, so it must be a psychological effect. Still, when it’s dark out and all the neighbors are asleep, the creative part of my mind easily opens and delivers.

I imagine the larks of the world feel the same way in the early morning when they are alert. How would this quote have been written had the author been a lark? As the day gets moving and people appear everywhere, do the larks relish the busyness the way I relish that silent quality of 2 a.m.?

Are you a lark or a night owl? How does that affect your writing schedule? How strong is your preference to write in the morning or at night?

M – Writers in Motion

“I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still”

― Sylvia PlathLetters Home

I have chosen the oft-quoted Sylvia Plath as the driving force of my post today. If you don’t have a copy of The Unabridged Diaries of Sylvia Plath (I don’t know if that quote is actually in that book), then I highly recommend it. In the late-night (more like very early morning) hours, especially in winter for some reason, I enjoy delving into some other writer’s broken brain for a while. It makes me feel slightly less alone on a lot of cold, dark nights. Also, slightly less broken. Mostly, though, what I like about reading diaries or these more introspective personal works by famous authors is that they are windows into the people within the words. And what I’ve found most interesting is that many writers share a common sort of psychological need for motion: the motion of passing moments into meaning, and meaning into something more enduring. This often indescribable need to set words free.

Each time I ponder Sylvia Plath’s words above, I think of the voice—the Voice—within myself that has always driven me to write. Not the conversations that go on in my head sometimes between characters while I’m walking down the street, or even the words I’m writing in my mind on the bus about the passing scenery or one lone passerby on the sidewalk. No, though these are all part of the thing in me that is writing, these are not what moves me to write. What truly moves me into putting words down is this feeling—this intense urge—that if I don’t write, I will shatter. The crack starts out small, but it grows and grows and grows. Before I know it, I’m breaking open in words.

A few years back, before I had other writers more consistently in my life (and the Muses), I wrote to a friend: “I hate that no one is listening . . . That no one can hear the words screaming in my head, begging to be written. That no one in my life feels the way they claw at me day and night, not like a passion or a talent, but an insanity.”

My relationship with words has always been a tenuous love affair. Though I cannot imagine a life without language, I often feel as if words dictate me rather than the other way around. I can go weeks sometimes without writing anything emotionally substantial, but the Voice, like carrion waiting on the fatal blow, circles and circles and becomes almost too heavy to carry; all those words I’ve stored up start to push back. And then BAM, I crack. Before I know it, I’m back at the computer or paper and away I go, back in motion, exhaling the Voice, releasing the words, so that I can, however briefly, come to a standstill.

As Dorothy Parker has said: “I hate writing, I love having written.”

As a confession: Sometimes I truly hate writing. You know how it is, when you’re trying to build a habit. Not to write sporadically but to sit down every day and coerce the words onto the page. Sometimes, despite the insistence of the Voice, it’s a real fight. But I love the silence within me that arrives after having written. I love feeling, however briefly, that I’ve moved some part of myself forward in the process, and, in doing so, arrived at a crossroads where nothing moves at all.

Only when I reach this point do I actually appreciate writing, at least the act of it: when my Voice is sated and my words are still and I am totally silent.


What does your writing Voice tell you?