Writing With Spirit

By Liz, doing everything under the sun to call in the muse!

You may have noticed that I can be a little bit “woo woo.” Luckily I have Jessie to commiserate with when everyone else thinks I’m a little too crazy! But my woo woo-ness has served me well over the years, and even more so lately as I take on more writing projects and at the same time, think through what I want my future as a writer to be.

So many of us creative people have, at one time or another, experienced blocks to our creativity. These blocks could range from not knowing where to go next with a current project to being unable to start writing or creating at all, possibly because of something you learned as a child about creativity being shameful or unrealistic to pursue as your life’s work. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls these blocks “creative injuries.”

I experienced those creative injuries myself along the way, including an ingrained belief that writing was not something I could do for a living. I spent years writing only peripherally, and when I did finally take jobs that centered on writing, I wasn’t paid well (you hear me, fellow journalists??). Eventually, through a lot of work – and applying Cameron’s practices – I found my way to the page and, well, here I am.

But I was still missing something. Even though I was successfully writing two series, I was still struggling – with process, with procrastination, with plots. With taking myself seriously enough to expect more for myself and my writing life.

Until I remembered that writing is my soul work. Which meant that everything I need to be successful – and peaceful – is within me, and I simply had to tune into it. Once I started applying my “soul practice” to my writing life, everything started to change. I stopped procrastinating, started turning out more words daily, “found” more time where there used to feel like none was available, got more inspiration. As a result, my two looming deadlines aren’t causing me stress. I’m approaching my writing time with joy, and I’m confident everything will get done. When I think back to where I was a year ago – stressed to the max, racing to meet a seemingly impossible deadline amidst a spate of personal crises, getting barely any sleep – it’s almost like I can’t even remember who that person was anymore.

So here’s my five-step process for how I did that:

  1. Ask. Ask that place inside you – whether you call it the universe, your muse, God, your soul, it doesn’t matter – for help. Set your intention for creativity and inspiration. It can be as simple as, I need guidance today. Help me find the right words and put them on the page. And be confident you’ll be heard!
  2. Meditate. I know, going completely still and breathing used to seem impossible for me too. Especially with crazy writer brain, where other people are always talking. But I’m telling you – it works. Five minutes a day can totally change your writing life. You can use a guided meditation, music, or nothing at all. You can walk in nature and try to still your thoughts. I started using guided meditations by Kris Carr and Gabby Bernstein, and one of the key things I learned from them is that thoughts are always going to interrupt you – you just need to bring your attention back to your breath and your intention. There’s also a fabulous app called Insight Timer that offers both guided meditations and music to meditate by, whatever your preference. But really, you need to remember to just breathe.
  3. Journal. This is my other non-negotiable practice. Journaling daily can help you get out of your own way. By releasing some of those thoughts that won’t leave you alone, you clear the space for your inspiration to show up. I still use Cameron’s practice – three pages a day, and it can be complete crap. Doesn’t matter. Just get the clutter out of your head.
  4. Use affirmations. Yes, the way you talk to yourself really does matter. If you’re always saying, I can’t do this, I can’t meet this deadline, I have no imagination, my characters have nothing to say, I have nothing to say, I’m going to have to go work at the grocery store because my contracts will be cancelled any minute…Well, you get the idea. It’s much better to plant positive seeds, even if they feel like complete and utter BS at the time. The more you say them, the more they’ll stick. I created this affirmation for myself:

    Say your affirmation daily. Feel it.
  5. Have fun and be thankful. How lucky are we to be creative people? And we’re all creative. It doesn’t matter if you write or not. However you express your creativity, be grateful for it. And most of all, enjoy it. Often we as writers put too much pressure on our work. We need to get back to the joy. And really, what else is there?

The Detective’s Daughter – The Creative Ones

Kim in Baltimore sitting in the heat after foolishly taking all the air conditioners out of the windows.

In August I took a job a job as an assistant to the artist Maxine Taylor. Though art had been my minor in college, nothing compares to first hand experience. I have lately given great thought to what it means to be creative and have gone as far to buy journals to help me develop my own work more creatively. This led me to ask the question: Does our level of creativity form the path we take in life or does it hinder our plans?

One of my many journals

My dad was both a creative and talented artist. When I was a child he would sit and sketch my dolls as I pretended to be on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. He would give me the finished sketch and I would hang them up just as my parents did with the portraits we brought home from vacation.

Dad showed such promise as an artist he was encouraged to attend the college of art after his high school graduation by his teachers. My grandmother had hoped that he would work in the advertising department of a big store like Hoschild Kohn. True to form, Dad would not commit himself to Nana’s plan. She told him she would be happy with any career he chose as long as it wasn’t police work. Legend has it he applied to the police academy that day. Their relationship is a column for another time.

Despite joining the force, Dad did not abandon his art. At work he was known for drawing

The mascot Dad designed and drew for his homicide unit.

detailed accounts of crime scenes and designing mascots for the different divisions in the force. At home, in addition to his sketching, he dabbled in jewelry making, ceramics, pottery, velvet painting and interior design. He made a small fortune designing and making chess set, a small business venture he stopped because the demand for his games became more than he could produce. Near the end of his life he had a small mail-order business selling puzzles of police badges from across the country that he had painted.

Dad and Mom, who was an expert seamstress, collaborated on two projects. The first was a Halloween costume for my sister. The year she started crawling they built her a turtle shell. It was cute and she won a prize. We always won prizes for the costumes Mom made for us. Their second project was creating a Bicentennial room in our house. Mom sewed, Dad painted and in the end the room was so red, white and blue it gave us all migraines.

A ring Dad made in the 1970s.

Nana always believed Dad had wasted his talent by joining the police force, but he hadn’t. He had a unique way of observing situations and an uncanny ability to read people. Those were the skills that saw him through a forty year career of solving crimes and retiring as a homicide detective with no open cases on the books. Now, that takes creativity and talent.

Readers, how has your creativity formed your role in life? Tell us in the comments. [Note: Kim is out of town on a writing retreat and won’t be able to reply to comments – but she’s thinking of you!]

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I’ll do it later…

By Liz, pondering life instead of working on book six.

I’m sure you’ve seen the meme on Facebook depicting the long timeline meant to capture a creative project. Basically, the beginning of the timeline is where the work begins. Then most of the rest of the timeline is colored in red with the words “F*** off” underneath. Then a small spot of yellow labeled “Panic.” Finally, a tiny patch of green labeled “All the work while crying,” until we reach the deadline.

Folks, this is often me. I kick myself for it every time, and swear I’ll never do it again. Sometimes I have what I think is a good reason to put off a big project, like my latest book (the day job, personal drama, moving, sick pets, fill-in-the-blank). Other times, my only good reason is that I’ve been watching too many Gilmore Girls reruns. Either way, good reason or bad, I’m stressing myself out for no reason.

dont-let-your-want-for-perfection-become-procrastination

I’ve always been this way. I remember the time in high school that I put off studying for my geometry final until 9 p.m. the night before – then asked my dad (a math teacher) to help me study.

“Sure,” he said. “What chapter?”

I looked at him with a puzzled frown. “Well, all of them,” I said, as if it were a perfectly reasonable request. He almost passed out.

Another time I waited until the day before a big paper was due to write it. And by write it, I mean sit at the computer and bang out the first and last draft. It was going well – until the computer had some malfunction (these were the VERY early Apple days) and the document disappeared. After a minor heart attack I figured out how to restore it, but it was stressful. Still, I finished the paper, turned it in and got an “A.” At least in this area, I’m fortunate that I’m good enough at it that I can operate this way. But it’s still not optimal for mental health.

As a reporter, I got used to writing under the gun. After all, most of the time stories came in at the eleventh hour and you had to run out, get the interviews, then run back, write, and file—usually within an hour or two. And usually with a scanner blaring next to your ear and an editor breathing down your neck. I know there’s a big difference between a 15- or 17-inch story and a 70,000 word story, but the goal is the same: To write something that informs/entertains/keeps the readers’ interest. And write it in the timeframe you’ve agreed to, whether that’s two hours or nine months.

So why do I continue this bad habit? I’m really not sure. I used to beat myself up about it, until I saw this quote by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way:

“Procrastination is not laziness. It is fear. Call it by its right name, and forgive yourself.”

If I really stop and think about it, she’s right. It’s fear of not being good enough, not doing it right, not living up to reader’s expectations, not being able to figure out the plot, you name it. In this case, it could also be fear of the end of a contract, without knowing if it will be continued. If I finish the book, will I have to say goodbye to my friends in Frog Ledge?

But part of this job—this life—is uncertainty, and learning how to live with it. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. So with that in mind, I’m going to stop putting off that next scene, and get back to writing.

Readers, what chore/hobby/job do you procrastinate?

The Blank Page

News Flash: Barbara Kay and Cynthia Balevre are the winners from yesterday’s post! Check your inboxes, ladies, and congratulations.

Liz Mugavero: Every time I finish a book, especially after a particularly harrowing deadline crunch, I feel like I want to crawl into a hole. A hole with no computer, more specifically. I feel like every piece of my creativity is completely wrung out, like I’ll never be able to turn out another word.

But I also have an immense sense of freedom, of being able to join the living again, to answer the 10,000 emails that have piled up, to actually leave the house.

The last thing I want to do is write. I say it will be at least two weeks, maybe a month, before I can even think about a new story or my Blankcharacters or a good opening scene. I happily push it all out of my mind and begin to go about my new, free life.

But during those relaxing walks around the town green, while Shaggy sniffs trees and we watch birds, I find myself typing notes into my phone—quick thoughts about something I saw that would fit into a story, or an overheard conversation that would make a great first line.

Or I’m in the car and suddenly an entire plot line jumps into my head and I have to tell Siri to take notes for me so I don’t lose it before I get home. Then I go home and start working on my synopsis for the next book. And guess what? It’s only been three days since I swore I wasn’t working on a book.

Am I crazy? Obsessed?

Nah, I’m just a writer. I can’t stop. I’ve never been able to. Telling stories is what I’m here to do, and it’s not something I can simply turn off. And in that free space that comes from finishing a project, new creativity has even more room to blossom. It doesn’t so much need time to return, but rather space to blossom.

Then I’m overcome with the possibilities of what’s going to happen to my characters this time. What dire problems I can bestow on them, and how they’ll figure a way out of it.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

It is. I do admit, I like a finished book that needs editing. It feels like I’ve climbed a mountain and can now linger on the way down the other side, taking my time and being all the things I didn’t see in that arduous climb.

But there’s something to be said for that blank page.

Creative Recovery

By Liz, still wishing she’d missed that plane home from Key West

I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes it feels like my creative spark has been doused by an ocean wave.

This usually happens when my deadline is looming somewhere between 60 and 30 days away (like right now) and I’m feeling those first stages of panic (How will I ever get this book done?). The panic attracts the inner critic, and then it becomes a whole host of self doubt and procrastination.

In the past, I would beat myself up abut this situation. Berate my slacker tendencies that put me in this position every deadline. Curse the wretched day job that prevented me from putting the lion’s share of my time into writing. Deprive myself of anything good until I finished the book, which I was still convinced would be horrible, even if it was finished.

But that doesn’t work so well. While I may manage to slog through and claim victory, I feel like I’ve been through a war. I don’t want to look at or talk about the book. I want to watch Gilmore Girls reruns for a week. It takes a bit to get back into the writing habit.

So this time I’m trying something different. I’m trying to be kinder to myself. To “be” with the book wherever it is in the process and have faith it will get done. And I’m trying new tactics to get my mojo back.

Here are a few of them: IMG_0878

  • Morning pages – Anyone who’s done The Artist’s Way is familiar with this journaling practice – 3 pages right after you wake up. I’ve been doing them for years, but in the last few, not consistently. I’ve made a concerted effort to get back into the habit. It gets the juices flowing and gets all the extraneous stuff out of your head so you can get back to the important work.
  • Coloring – Yep, I’m a colorer. And I’ve totally given myself permission to stop and pull out the crayons for a bit if I’m too stuck.
  • Playing with the dog – Of course, this is my favorite. A game of fetch with Finn or aFinny Ball game of tug with Shaggy and all is well.
  • Reading creativity books – Sometimes reading other fiction isn’t a good idea when you’re in a writing rut. I’ve been returning to books about harnessing your creativity. I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and I’m in the process of re-reading some of my SARK collection. Big-time inspiration.
  • Visit Key West or other island paradise – This one is a no-brainer, right? I definitely came back from my vacation itching to get back to the computer. Sometimes your batteries really do just need a recharge.

Beach

And hopefully, that deadline won’t come too soon….

Readers, what do you do to get your creative mojo back?

Filling the Well

Jessie: Gleefully gazing at crocuses sprinkling the lawn!

wish-704561_1280The snow is mostly melted and sooner rather than later, wells will be filled to the brim with the year’s supply of water, water that will be used to make things grow. Which got me thinking about the well of creativity and how that needs replenishing too.Creativity relies heavily on connecting and combining seemingly unrelated elements in new and unexpected ways. In order to make those combinations you have to have a lot of material floating around in the subconscious. Over the last few years I’ve come to realize how valuable it is  to recognize when I am starting to run dry and how best to address the problem before it develops into a drought. Here are a few of my tried and true strategies:

1. Take a long walk with a good friend. My favorite walking friend is one of my beloved sisters. We tool along country roads solving the world’s problems and many of our own as well. All that brainstorming and oxygen flow fires my creativity.

2. Try a new food. I’m a decent cook and I like experimenting with all sorts of recipes from around the world. New flavors are one way I like to awaken my senses and to enjoy some of life’s little surprises.

3. Map a new route to a routine destination. Ever wonder where a road goes? Ever turned left when you usually go right? Discovered a shortcut that you never realized existed? Shaking things up in the physical world can do the same for your mental map.

4. Make batch decisions. When I am writing a first draft and things are grinding along slowly I try to reduce as many decisions from my life as possible. The creative energy required to make decisions can leave too little left over for large-scale projects. In order to ration the supply I plan what I will wear, a menu for a week at a time and my schedule to the greatest extent possible. By eliminating the need to think about what to have for lunch or when to exercise I can turn more of my mind over to red herrings and plot holes.

5. Spend time pursuing another creative discipline. I love to knit. I always have at least two projects on the needles at any given time. I find the time I spend knitting does something to my brain that nothing else seems to do.I even keep a pair of needles and a ball of yarn on my desk most of the time to help me sort things out. Whenever I get to a sticking point in a draft I pick up the needles and fall into a sort of meditation mode. Ideas usually begin to flow once more. It works with other pursuits too like gardening or painting; anything so long as it doesn’t rely on the same set of skills as the main creative endeavor.

So readers, how do you refill your creative wells?

Consumption

Jessie: Surrounded by twinkling lights and sparkling snow of mid December New Hampshire

Every year about this time I begin to feel the weight of consumption. Consumption of goods, food, music, all available free time. I look at the to-do lists and calendars and feel the burden of the disconnect I see between them. Invariably I start to think about what all of this consuming means and why it feels so draining. Why does filling yourself with so much from without make you feel so empty within? What is really going on and more importantly, what is the antidote?

Not long ago one of my beloved sisters and I were talking about consuming and the ravages it places upon the soul. I mentioned that what I’ve noticed was that it wasn’t really that consuming of television programming or books or baked goods that was the heart of the problem. It was the fact that all the consuming of things created by others squeezed out time spent creating things oneself. That the way through to morass was not really to worry about lowering consumption but to raise creative production.

I find that I am utterly replenished by creating things. Whether I knit a pair of socks or plan a party or write a few scenes on my latest novel, I am filled with a sense of absorption and delight while engaged in the act of creation. The pleasure lingers long after the time spent in the activity is over. It permeates my attitude, maybe even my aura. Invariably, days where I act as a creator as well as a consumer are happier days then ones during which I simply consume.IMG_1011_2

Which makes me ask why sometimes it is so hard to create? What holds us back? Why are excuses not to try so easy to concoct? Is it perfectionism? Fear? Sloth?

Readers, do you find creating things refreshing? What types of things do you produce? If you don’t, what do you think keeps you from doing so?