Sidetracked but Not Derailed

I have a passion for railroad trains. As a child, when I was tucked into bed at my grandparents’ house, I loved to listen to the distant choo choo of passing trains. As an adult, I enjoy living on the wrong side of the tracks, where I can hear the call of the trains’ whistles while I work.

Railways have been a thing since the seventeenth century. They’ve been in use in the United States almost since the country’s inception. But for the first two hundred years, the cars were drawn by horses. In the early nineteenth century, John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, came up with the idea to combine a locomotive with the steam power that was being used to propel ships along American rivers, and it was game on.

The things we love always seem to find their way into our writing, whether we mean them to or not. I often find myself sneaking train metaphors and imagery into my writing without realizing it. Train terminology has made its way into our everyday language, too.

For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin of the word sidetrack:

sidetrack (n.)

also side-track, ‘railway siding,’ 1835, from side (adj.) + track (n.). The verb meaning ‘to move (a train car) onto a sidetrack’ is from 1874; figurative sense of ‘to divert from the main purpose’ is attested from 1881.

 

Originally, a sidetrack was a short length of track to which a train could be diverted for purposes of loading freight or so another train could pass. But the 1881 figurative use of the word has stuck. Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb sidetrack as “to turn aside from a purpose.”

Derail also has its origins in railroad jargon, but comes to us from the French language:

derail (v.)

1850 (Dionysius Lardner, ‘Railway Economy’), in both transitive and intransitive senses, ’cause to leave the rails or run off the tracks; to run off the rails or tracks,’ from French dérailler ‘to go off the rails,’ from de- + railler.

 

If a train is derailed, it is a much more serious, permanent, and catastrophic departure from the train tracks. Like sidetrack, the word derail developed a figurative meaning. Today, Merriam-Webster defines the verb derail as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.” Again, a much more serious tampering, with potentially permanent results.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train at Roaring Camp, Felton, Santa Cruz County, California.

 

Writer, why am I talking to you about trains? Because I’ve been thinking about trains as I work my way back into manuscript revisions.

I decided at the beginning of summer to set aside work on my book for a month, in favor of catching up on some other things and finishing a few projects that were hanging over my head. It’s hard for me to focus on writing when other things are pulling at me. And it’s never a bad idea to give a manuscript a rest, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Once I was in a better place, I was thrilled with the idea of getting back to my book without anything hanging over my head. I woke up early in the morning and headed straight to my keyboard, free of anything else that I felt like I should be doing. But then, life happened, as it always does. Over the past several months, my day job became increasingly demanding. I worked a lot of extra hours–long days, evenings, and weekends. I found myself skipping over my early morning writing to get a jump start on my day work. I really hate having things hanging over my head.

I let myself get sidetracked from my writing.

But Writer, that’s no way to live for any length of time. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and a little blue. I like my day work, I really do–I help people, and it’s rewarding in a real world sort of way. But my family and writing and working with writers are the things I’m passionate about; those are the things that make my life worth living. If I don’t have a balanced mix of all of those things–if I consistently allow my day job (or any one thing) to get the biggest share of me–then I’m not a happy person.

I like being caught up on my work–like I said, I find it difficult to focus on writing when I’m not. But there’s always something to pull us away from our writing, am I right? I can say that just this once I’ll skip writing and start work early, but it can become too easy to do that again tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next. It’s a dangerous mindset to sidetrack the things we love too often or to feel that we must do all the other things first, before we can sit down to write. The most important things should come first if we are going to live the lives we were meant to live.

Let’s face it. Things come up. We’re going to get sidetracked from writing now and then. That’s okay if it’s an occasional thing because, on a particular day, because of particular circumstances, something else has to take precedence. But let’s make a promise to one another, Writer: we may get sidetracked now and then, but we will never be derailed. We will always get back on track.

Writing and Warring

I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). At the risk of oversimplifying, the book’s advice boils down to this:

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

Writer: “But–“

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

I enjoyed the foreword by Robert McKee immensely. McKee is an author, lecturer, and story consultant, perhaps most famous for the “Story Seminar” he developed and taught at the University of Southern California and for Brian Cox’s portrayal of him in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. “Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me,” McKee writes. “He undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for procrastination.” McKee is funny–his foreword made me laugh out loud.

Pressfield starts out strong. The first section of his book defines what we writers are up against. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he writes. “What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Yes! Resistance stands between “[t]he life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Yes! “[T]he battle must be fought anew every day.” Yes, yes, yes! I felt seen as I read the opening pages of The War of Art. I’ve often wondered what goes on in my mind when I come up with excuse after excuse not to sit my butt down in the chair and write. Now I feel I know.

The second section was my favorite. It discusses becoming a professional and applying the same kinds of principles to our writing that we apply to our day jobs, like showing up each and every day and doing our work. Pressfield is right–I show up at my day job every day and do my work. I stay at my job all day long, whether I want to or not. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I don’t employ the same kind of self-discipline. If I called out from my job as often as I call out from writing, I wouldn’t have to worry about it, because I wouldn’t have a job anymore. I’d never thought of it this way.

The third section explores muses, angels, God … “the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.” The book leans a little heavily into religiosity toward the end. I am spiritual, and beyond that, I strongly believe there are forces we can’t begin to imagine, not to mention little-used parts of our brains, at work when we write. Many times, I’ve been surprised by the ending of a story I am writing–an ending that comes out of nowhere and writes itself. Countless mornings, I’ve awakened from a good night’s sleep with a solution to something I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the day before. Frequently, when I’m out for a walk or shopping for groceries or enjoying a few minutes’ peace in the carwash, an idea will pop into my head unbidden, when I am thinking of something else or nothing at all. So spirituality and these kinds of concepts speak to me personally, but they may not be for everyone. To his credit, Pressfield acknowledges this.

The War of Art is 167 pages of no-excuses advice for writers and other artists. I respond well to this kind of upbraiding. I need a kick in the pants now and then. This is what I needed to hear. It works for me. My writing life will change because of it–I’m turning pro.

My only criticism is that the advice sometimes comes from a black-and-white, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps perspective that fails to consider systemic racism, ableism, and poverty, as well as the disparate treatment of people based on age, gender, or sexual orientation. For Pressfield, no excuses means no excuses. Again, this works for Pressfield, and it works for me. But I think we must recognize that it doesn’t work for everyone. We aren’t all on a level playing field. It is much harder for some to work toward or realize their dreams than it is for others. The solutions Pressfield offers may not work for every person at every point in their life. I recommend the book with that caveat, and I’m going to write about limiting belief theory for next week.

5 Great Keyboard Getaways

So, I’m aware of the fact that I often seem to be advising writers not to write. But it only seems that way–all the things I encourage you to do as a writer will ultimately feed your writing, even if that means taking a break from writing so your subconscious brain can do its share of the work. Still writing.

Today, I want to share five ideas for writing that get you away from your computer screen and keyboard.

  1.  Take a walk. Or listen to music. Or paint a picture. Or take some nature photographs. I give this kind of advice so often, you probably already guessed it, so I may as well list it first and get it out of the way. I used to be such a hard taskmaster when it came to my own writing. I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of all the subconscious writing tools my brain has to offer. And my writing suffered for it. My subconscious brain is much more creative than I am. These days, when I’m stuck, I don’t try to force it. I set the writing aside and take a walk. I’ve had great mentors in my life who’ve taught me that taking a walk or engaging in other creative endeavors or doing a mindless activity like washing the dishes is writing. Our brains need time to work out those plot twists and mind-blowing story endings, without the stress and pressure that stifles creativity. When I am working too hard and not taking breaks, I notice it now. The writing isn’t as good, and it doesn’t come as easily.
  2. Write the Old-Fashioned Way. Grab a notebook and a pencil and outline your novel or scene or story on paper. Do it away from your computer and your desk–sit in the comfy chair in your reading nook, or better yet, sit outside in the sunshine. This is a great way to brainstorm too. Not sure how your story is going to end? Brainstorm many possible endings in a stream-of-consciousness way. You may be surprised with the brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. Not sure what your character wants? Write a character sketch. If you dare, start writing your story or novel by hand. In a 2020 study, professor Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “the brain … is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.” She writes that: “The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.” (Why writing by hand makes kids smarter.) You might also consider printing out your keyboarded pages for reading or editing.
  3. Use Print Research Materials. Twyla Tharp suggests that artists have a box or some sort of container for each project they are working on. I love this idea and am just beginning to use it. This means that, instead of bookmarking all my research materials on the computer (although I’m doing that too), I’m printing some of the materials out so that I can read them in a more relaxed (and creatively productive) way, with a highlighter and a pen nearby. Then I toss them in the project box so they’re available when I need them. Depending on your research needs, consider visiting the library and checking out books to read for your research, instead of spending all that time on the internet which, for me, ultimately has me going down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
  4. Try Dictating Your Work. Consider writing your book (or parts of it) by dictating the words into a recording device. Our ideas begin in our minds, and like handwriting, speaking them out loud has its benefits, especially for writing dialogue. It activates different parts of the brain, stimulates spontaneous thought and ideas, and increases creativity. Try dictating hands-free while driving a long distance, gardening, or doing chores around the house, then listen back later and see what you’ve come up with. Another idea: read your printed pages aloud, or better yet, record yourself reading them and then listen back.
  5. Use a Typewriter. Like handwriting, typing offers benefits the computer keyboard doesn’t. Author Natalie Goldberg advises that “[W]riting is really a physical activity.” In Writing Down the Bones, she writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.” Many writers swear by the typewriter. John Mayer says it keeps him from editing himself when he’s writing a song. Sam Shepard says it’s more creatively satisfying, feeling the key hit the page and seeing the ink sink into the paper. I’ll go into more detail about typewriting next week.

Write Hard

I’ve been reading about writing, editing, and creativity lately, and a theme that keeps popping up is the amount of time and hard work it takes to acquire natural born writing talent.

We’ve all read stories of “overnight success”–talented actors, writers, musicians, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere. What we don’t hear about are the years of hard work these overnight successes put into honing their craft, not to mention the innumerable instances of rejection. When it comes to overnight success, what it boils down to is this: when their moment to shine arrived, they were well-prepared. They were ready.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp discusses the phenomenon of the overnight success: “It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. … I come down on the side of hard work.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, widely accepted as a genius whose talent and skill came fully-formed and naturally to him at birth. That’s what this excerpt from Mozart’s Wikipedia page would have us believe anyway: “Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five … .”

The thing is, we are all born with a talent, and often more than one talent. Part of the difference between someone born with musical talent who succeeds, and someone born with the same talent who does not succeed, is the luck of the draw. What the legends about Mozart often fail to mention is the family Mozart was born into. There was a clavier in the house, among other instruments. Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a talented musician in his own right–he was a violin virtuoso and even has his own Wikipedia page. He was a composer, played several instruments, and made his living as (get this) a music teacher. He noticed his son Wolfgang had musical talent when the child was a toddler, and he had the skills and the time to nurture that talent.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791 at age six

I mean, yes, Mozart wrote his first music compositions when he was four or five years old, but so what? I wrote and performed my first poems at the age of six and wrote a complete book series at the age of nine. The question for both of us is this: yes, but how good were they? Tharp notes that, “Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five.” Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that my book series about two frog brothers never found a publisher.

The other difference besides luck, I firmly believe, is hard work. Talent and luck without hard work are candles in the wind, in my opinion–weak, fragile, likely to burn out. This was true even of Mozart, who had everything going for him. “Nobody worked harder than Mozart,” Tharp writes. “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

Mozart acknowledged this himself. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

I thought of these things recently, when I watched the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. As the story tells it, Richard Williams and Oracene Price had two daughters with the intention of raising them from birth to be tennis greats. Both Williams and Price became tennis coaches in order to coach their daughters. They instilled a tremendous work ethic in their daughters, and the Williams family worked hard together and made many sacrifices, each and every day, to achieve their dreams.

Tennis stars Venus Williams and Serena Williams

I can extend this example to Will Smith, too, the actor who played Richard Williams in the film. I once heard actor Penn Badgley (You; Gossip Girl) respond to an aspiring actor who asked him how to break into acting. I wish I could find the exact quote or the clip–if I’m able to, I’ll add it here and share it on Twitter. It was so good. But basically, his response was to keep acting, to keep working at it. To practice. He pointed out that attorneys go to seven years of college before they can practice law, and doctors go to eight years of college and then several years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice medicine. Acting is a career choice, he said, and actors have to put in those same years of study and practice.

Anyway, my point is, Will Smith had been acting for 12 years before he received his first Academy Award nomination for Ali in 2002. That’s 12 years from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to greatness, and he was actually acting even before that, in music videos for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” in 1989 and 1991. Smith was nominated for an Academy Award again in 2007 for The Pursuit of Happyness, and he was nominated this year for King Richard. Perhaps this is the year he will win. If so, it won’t have come out of nowhere. It will have come after nearly 25 years of hard work, commitment, and tenacity.

Actor Will Smith. Photography credit: Lorenzo Agius

 

If hard work = genius, then practice = excellence.

When I was a student in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, I had the incredible good fortune to work on my short stories with Mary Yukari Waters for a year. Waters is an award-winning writer, the author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites, and an exceptional human being. She’s won an O’Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for her writing, and her own stories have been in Best American Short Stories … three times. When I struggled to get my words onto the page in the same brilliant way they came to me in my head, Waters explained not only the importance of practice, but its significance.

Consider this: Babies spend their first three years learning to talk. They begin making sounds at around six months. By the age of nine months they can understand a few words and begin to experiment with making many sounds. From around their first birthday to the age of 18 months, they learn to say a few words. By the age of two, they can string short phrases of two to three words together. By the age of three, they have a rapidly expanding vocabulary and begin to string short sentences together.

Although babies can only speak a few words at the age of 12-18 months, they can understand many more words–around 25 according to experts. Although they can’t speak sentences until around the age of three, they can understand them and respond to them. Last night, my granddaughter Louise, who is ten months old today, was trilling her tongue and saying, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da-da-da” on repeat. She was practicing. She can’t say the words, but she uses sign language to signal when she wants to “eat,” when she wants “more,” and when she’s “all done.” No, she can’t say the words, but she understands the words and their meanings. It’s all in her head, although she can’t articulate it in speech yet.

It’s the same with writing, Waters explained. When it comes to writing, we are like babies, with ideas in our heads, but without the ability to articulate them. The words are in our heads much sooner than we’re able to express them fully on the page. We are baby writers, and with practice, the words we write will more and more closely resemble the ideas we picture in our minds. It takes practice to get them from our brains and into our writing.

Mary Yukari Waters, author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites

For a writer, perhaps nowhere does the hard work of writing show up more than in a writer’s devotion to rewriting. Revision. Self-editing. Hard work. In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell recalls: “There is a saying: Genius is perseverance.” Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, she writes with admiration about the intense work Fitzgerald put into the novel. She calls the novel “a tour de force of revision,” and she means that as a compliment of the highest order. Commenting on the words critics use to describe the novel, she concludes: “Careful, sound, carefully written; hard effort; wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised; structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to willful editing.”

The bottom line is, excellence in writing (or in anything) is more a matter of hard work than innate talent. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome after reading your contemporary literary heroes’ latest work, like I am, think about what it took for them to get there. You have those same tools at your disposal–hard work, dedication, persistence, perhaps a stubborn streak and a thick skin. Excellence and genius and mastery reside in you, too. Add hard work and practice, shake well, and pour it onto the page.

WRITER TIP: Perhaps no one acknowledges the need for practice more than golfers. Ben Hogan and Gary Player are generally considered to be among the greatest golfers of all time. “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good,” Hogan said. Player put it this way: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Keep in mind that what we call genius is made up mostly of hard work, daily practice, and stick-to-it-iveness. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

 

Ways of Writing

In my teens, I thought writing was agony. I read The Bell Jar and emptied my broken heart into reams of bad, hand-scrawled poetry about the boys who didn’t love me back.

In my twenties, I thought writing was detached, hard-rock glamour. It meant jeans and a band T-shirt, dark shades to block out my bright future, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. I etched my brilliant words into the page letter by letter, with forceful taps on my typewriter’s keys.

In my thirties, I learned better. Writing was a lot of hard work. It meant sitting at the keyboard of my newfangled home computer, forcing the words until they came, then rearranging them until they didn’t make me sick. I wrote this way for twenty-five or so years.

If writing was hard work, then it couldn’t be fun or play, right? A very wise woman, my first fiction mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA, taught me that, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

I studied with Mary Yukari Waters for a year; it was a life-changing year. Mary and all the professors I worked with taught me so much about writing. But Mary also taught me so many things about living a creative life.

Mary taught me that writing a piece of fiction is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires persistence and patience. It requires pacing yourself and giving yourself time and space to breathe. Yes, writing involves work, but it shouldn’t be work. Not completely anyway. The physical act of trying to get the ideas from your brain to the page can be frustrating and difficult and stressful, but creativity shouldn’t be any of those things. Mary taught me that creativity withers and dies in a stressful environment. It runs away when pressed too hard.

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” –Agatha Christie

I’m a list person. I once sent Mary a first draft of a story I wasn’t yet proud of. I loved the idea, but in execution, I knew it needed a lot more work, and I wanted her to know that I knew that. With the draft, I included a list of all the things I saw wrong with the story and all the things I planned to do to improve it. I still have the handwritten note she gave me–it went something like this: “How can you write like this? This list gives me anxiety–I can only imagine what it is doing to you.”

What I learned from Mary is that writing takes many forms. It isn’t only the time we spend writing. It’s the time we spend thinking about writing, maybe while we’re doing the dishes or taking a walk. It’s the time we don’t spend thinking about writing too, when we’re doing something else entirely, and seemingly out of nowhere, the answer comes. Because while we are washing dishes or taking walks or watching movies or putting puzzles together, or even while we are sleeping, our subconscious brains continue to work on our stories.

What a relief it was to learn that. I came into my MFA program with revision anxiety. I tend to be driven, anxious, stressed out. I’ve been called a workaholic. A therapist once told me that, somewhere, somehow, I’d come away with the idea that being an adult is not supposed to be fun. I work a lot. I don’t say that as a humble brag because I think my need to work so hard grows out of a lack of confidence rather than the reverse. I work hard in part because I feel like I need to in order to be considered a person of worth and value. I need permission to take breaks, and when left to my own devices, I don’t give myself that permission. Now I was being told by Mary that, not only was it okay to go easier on myself and to take breaks, it was necessary.

Life-changing advice, right? Breathe it in, enjoy a cup of coffee, and go for a long walk.

“[I]f you sit with a problem long enough, the decision makes itself. The rational brain is overrated. It seems to me that the truest decisions, in life and in art, happen on a visceral, almost subconscious level. It’s like the needle of a compass: at first it swings wildly over the surface, but eventually a deeper magnetism asserts itself and the needle finds its place.” –Mary Yukari Waters, “After the Happy Ending.”

Here’s Mary’s full essay in The Rumpus about writing … and not writing:

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: After the Happy Ending

And here’s a video on creativity and the subconscious brain recommended by Mary:

WRITER TIP: Build downtime into your schedule every single day. Take breaks away from your keyboard. Get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep. Engage in activities that feed your creative soul: painting, gardening, playing the guitar. Go for a walk, a hike, a run. Go into the backyard and play fetch with your dog. Take the kids to the park. Do a chore that doesn’t require brainpower: wash the dishes, wash the car, take the garden hose to your patio furniture. Being overly busy crushes creativity–your subconscious brain can’t help you write if it’s constantly occupied thinking about your mile-long to-do list or your taxes or brainstorming your grocery list.

 

Young african-american woman covering her face with palm saying no. Girl denying proposal, making stop gesture with her hand.

Saying No to Myself

We all know we’re supposed to say no. We’ve heard the advice ad nauseum–say no to things that aren’t serving you. Say no to things you don’t have the time or the energy for. I set out to do just that this year. I have a lot going on. I’m going to say no to things. I’m not taking on anything new.

The universe tested me right off the bat, tempting me with things I want to do, but don’t have time for. A week into 2022, I was asked to be on the advisory board for a local university’s women in leadership program. I am all about women in leadership. I was tempted to say yes, and I considered it, to be honest. It’s so important, right? But I remembered my promise to myself and respectfully declined.

Something I realized while I was considering the invitation was that I wasn’t only saying no to the university. I was saying no to myself. I have major FOMO. I am not inclined to say no to much. I don’t want to miss out on things. Plus, let’s face it, there’s something more sinister at play. It was more than the university’s mission that was tempting. My ego got involved too. How nice that they asked me. Me! How nice that they thought I was qualified. How cool and prestigious to be able to say I’m on a university advisory board.

I used to have a boss who used my ego against me. “Leanne, I know it’s a holiday, and I know you have plans to go out of town, but I really need you. You are the only person in the entire office that I can trust to get this job done right.” Heady stuff, to be needed. To be the only person someone can trust. To be the only person who can get something done right. Heady stuff–at least the first few times, until you realize you’re being manipulated. Until you acknowledge that anyone in the office is just as qualified to type up the hours of Saturday dictation your boss left on your desk before he went golfing. Then it’s downright embarrassing to admit you can so easily be dragged around by your ego.

When I said no to being on the advisory board, I acknowledged my fear of missing out on things (a fear likely born of being an unpopular kid who was always picked last when choosing sides for sports). I acknowledged my fear that I would never be asked to do something like that (or anything) ever again. I acknowledged the part my ego played in my desire to say yes. I was not letting anyone down by saying no–someone just as or better qualified would be thrilled to serve.

I said no to myself.

Then I started thinking about what saying no to myself means. It means saying no to things that stroke my ego, yes. It means dealing with my fears. But it also means not being so demanding of myself. This year, it means postponing some of the goals I’d set for myself while I focus on others. I’m finishing copyediting school this year, but I’m postponing my goal to get all my photos organized and digitized. I’m reading more books by Latinx authors this year, but I’m postponing my goal to read each and every book on my bookshelves. I’m rewriting my book this year, but I’m postponing my goal to watch all 94 of the Academy Award Best Picture winners in order. I’ll have more time for those things next year, after I finish school.

WRITER TIP: When I was deciding what to say no to this year, I also reminded myself there are things I need to say yes to. Yes to time with my family. Yes to sunshine and walks on the beach. Yes to reading in the evenings. Yes to lounging in bed a little longer on a Sunday morning. I tend to be a little too driven–how about you? It’s easy for me to get so busy that I’m living, but not living. While you’re saying no to things that don’t serve you, be sure to say all the yes to the things that make life worth living.

 

Woman walking barefoot on black sand beach with dress

Self-Care for Writers

This morning, I gathered some resources on self-care for writers. I’m definitely a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of person, so these resources were a good reminder to me to get up from my computer once in a while.

First, I’m including two videos. Below the videos, I’ve included links to some other resources.

The first video was my favorite. It’s a 15-minute video by T.A. Hernandez, who is not only a self-publishing author, but a mental health professional. One of my favorite bits was her reminder that our physiological needs are at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for a reason. These are the things we need to survive, things like air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sex, and sleep. We need to take care of these things before we do anything else, including writing.

 

This second, 20-minute video by Shaelin Bishop is a close second. Bishop is a writer who explains why self-care is so important, gives tips on putting self-care into action, and gives a refreshingly open and honest account of her own efforts to practice better self-care as a writer. I especially enjoyed her discussion of workshopping and turning your work over to beta readers.

 

Here are some other resources to help you practice better self-care as a writer. My favorite tip came from Hayley Eyer, a freelance content writer who often writes about freelancing. In her piece “Self-Care for Writers: The Ultimate Freelancer’s Survival Guide,” Eyers says: “[S]aying no is an act of self-care.” I got chills when I read this. I’d never looked at it this way. She goes on to explain that setting healthy boundaries for yourself is an act of empathy to those you work with too. Reading this not only gave me permission to say no, but helped me see that it is my responsibility to say no when it’s appropriate to do so.

Look After Yourself: Self Care for Writers (The Creative Penn)

Self-Care for Writers: The Ultimate Freelancer’s Survival Guide (Indy)

The Writer’s Guide to Self-Care and Preservation (NY Book Editors)

Self-Care for Writers (Writers Write)

30 Unique Self Care Ideas for Writers (InkWell Spills)

10 Ways to Care for Yourself as a Writer (Well-Storied) (NOTE: Also in podcast form on the page)

50 Self-Care Ideas for Writers (Website Designer Pauline Wiles)

 

WRITER TIP: Eat, drink, breathe, and move. Of all the self-care tips out there, I think this is the most important. Your body is the instrument you use to transmit words from your brain to the page. Appreciate it. Feed it, hydrate it, and give it plenty of oxygen and exercise. A brain that is deprived of these things isn’t going to give you your best ideas or your most inspired language. Work in cooperation with your body and your brain in order to have a long, lasting, and enjoyable writing career and life.
2022 goals, New year resolution. Woman in white sweater writing Text 2022 goals in open notepad on the table. Start new year, planning and setting goals for the next year.

The Power of Persistence

Over the past month, I’ve been setting out the steps for turning your writing dreams into attainable goals:

1.  Set your dreams down in writing (The Power of Words);

2.  Create specific goals (The Power of Goals);

3.  Create a plan to reach your goals (The Power of a Plan);

4.  Focus on one goal at a time (The Power of Focus).

And now:

5.  Reaffirm your goals on a daily basis and never give up. This is the power of persistence, and it’s the final and best step in any successful plan to reach a goal.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually, you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable trait is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler

Once you’ve set a goal for yourself and designed a plan for reaching it, the secret to getting there is to keep going and never give up. Take steps toward that goal each and every day. In football terms, keep moving the ball forward. You might periodically re-evaluate your goals and re-work them or revise them, but never forsake them. As long as you keep moving toward your goals at a steady pace, you will eventually reach them.

I firmly believe persistence is the most powerful element in turning a vague dream for the future into a tangible goal. Some people in my family might call it stubbornness, but when I have a setback, I generally (after the appropriate amount of whining) try and try again.

To be persistent, you have to be ready to weather periods of discouragement. I assure you there will be days when you return to your previous, negative patterns of thinking and convince yourself you will never achieve your dreams. The key is to be tenacious, to ride out those bad days, and to wake up the next morning with renewed resolve.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge

Let’s take quitting smoking as an example. Some smokers joke, “I can quit smoking whenever I want. I’ve quit 236 times!” It’s kinda funny and sorta sad because it plays on how addictive tobacco is. But actually, quitting smoking over and over again is the key to eventually kicking the cigarette habit for good. Quitting smoking is an area where persistence really pays off. Studies show that the more times a smoker tries to quit smoking, the more likely it is they will eventually quit for good.

So, if quitting smoking is your goal, it’s possible you may quit smoking for a couple of weeks and then relapse and smoke a cigarette, or two cigarettes, or even binge on a full pack of cigarettes. The key to eventually kicking the habit for good is persistence. This means not using relapse as an excuse—give it your best effort without keeping relapse in mind as a possibility. But if you do relapse and smoke again, don’t give up. Wake up the next morning resolved to quit again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. You resolve to quit smoking every single day, however many times it takes, until it sticks.

It’s the same with any goal. For example, if you dream of becoming debt free, your first goal might be to freeze your level of debt by developing the habit of not incurring new debt. Your second goal might be to reduce spending to free up more cash to repay your debts. Your third goal might be to start an emergency savings account so that you aren’t forced to borrow when life’s emergencies come along. A fourth goal might be to earn a little extra income so you can pay off your debts more quickly.

You will likely face some setbacks, especially in the beginning. You might have to charge a necessary auto repair to a credit card because you don’t yet have enough in savings to cover it. You may spend unbudgeted money on dinner out because you haven’t yet developed a strong habit of planning ahead for meals at home. You might skip a deposit to your new savings account in favor of buying those fabulous new shoes with the kitten heels you saw in the Avanti store window. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep trying in the face of obstacles and to forgive yourself for mistakes. The fastest path to giving up is to dwell on past mistakes until you are too discouraged to keep trying.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler

Persistence is a secret weapon. Persistence will turn any dream into reality. This is especially true of writing dreams, because writing can be one hell of a rollercoaster and often consists of a whole lot of rejection. Artists often suffer from imposter syndrome–when you convince yourself you aren’t good enough or you don’t belong, it’s easy to convince yourself to abandon your dreams.

If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to slough it off when you’re rebuffed. In the writing business, rejection is not personal. It’s just that—business. And it means nothing more than this: you haven’t yet found your perfect fit in terms of a market, agent, or publisher. Remember that your very best writing is perfect, just as it is, for someone.

Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Even more importantly, don’t listen to negative talk from others–it’s amazing to me that the most supportive friends and family members in a writer’s life often have no problem discouraging that writer’s dreams. Be determined, keep at it, never give up. If you do, you will eventually reach your goals. That’s a promise.

I return to this video time and again when I’m feeling discouraged. If nothing else, it puts a smile on my face:

WRITER TIP: Keep trying. Persistence is nothing more than trying over and over and over again. How do you become persistent? You get up every morning and do it again. The more days you do that, the more proud of yourself you’ll be, and the easier it will be to do it again the next day. Another good idea which I’ll blog about soon is to develop a plan for those days when you’re not feeling very tenacious or motivated. What can you do today toward your goal, even if you don’t feel like doing anything?
Burned out writer sleeping at her desk in front of open laptop.

Knowing When to Quit

Author Tyler Dilts recently made an observation on social media that helped me solve a mystery:

Tweet by author Tyler Dilts @tylerdilts on November 15, 2021, that reads: Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a guarantee that you'll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again.

Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a
guarantee that you’ll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again. @tylerdilts 11/15/21

 

Dilts was talking about the unrealistic, overly demanding, and unkind expectations we often impose upon ourselves as writers. Like the way I throw myself into National Novel Writing Month like I’m throwing myself in front of a steamroller–I approach it with ferocity, like I’m going into the ring up against The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and The Million Dollar Man, all at once.

This year, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the 5th time. I did so because I’ve been overwhelmed with work and other commitments, I’m trying to finish a novel, and I’m not getting as much writing done as I’d like. So right as my schedule began to clear up, I decided it would be a great idea to add something new to my plate and force myself to write more. I wrote over 27,000 words in the first 16 days of November. I wrote at least 1,667 words on each of those days because, in addition to other achievements, participants are awarded a virtual badge for meeting the average word count daily, without fail. Something in me won’t let me fall short of my daily word count. And something in me won’t let me not win that badge.

Something in me.

I’m not here to disrespect NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic idea and a great organization that does a lot of good. It can be quite beneficial for writers. I think it’s especially helpful for writers who are where I was eight years ago–writers who are trying to get into the habit of writing regularly or who want to prove to themselves they can write a book (reader, you can). For even established writers, it can help jump start a new book, and it can be a fun way to engage with your writing community. It’s a nice annual tradition as we head into the dark winter months. As a matter of fact, the book I’m polishing up now started as a NaNoWriMo half-novel in 2013. It was an empowering experience for me to actually finish writing that half a draft. It showed me I could write regularly during a time when I was telling myself I never had time to write, and it showed me I could write a book. It was a life-changing experience. But over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that NaNoWriMo, much like Farmville, is no longer good for me.

It came to me shortly after I posted this on Twitter on Tuesday morning:

Tweet by writer Leanne Phillips @leannebythesea on November 16, 2021, that reads: Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG & NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about it, but this year, they're replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH & I've had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH?

Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG &
NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about
it, but this year, they’re replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH &
I’ve had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH? @leannebythesea 11/16/21

 

And then I saw Tyler Dilts’s post come up in my timeline again and retweeted it. And then I began to put two and two together. Is it by coincidence that I’ve gotten seriously ill every time I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, when I don’t get so seriously ill other times of the year? And when I don’t get so seriously ill during other Novembers in which I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo? Maybe. I don’t know.

But I do know this: One of the reasons I’ve done NaNoWriMo in the past is because I know myself. I’m highly strung. I’m wound up tight. I can’t stand to fail. I hate not following through on something. Participating in NaNoWriMo weaponizes those traits. If I commit to writing 1,667 words every day for a month, I will do it even if it kills me. In 2013, it nearly did. Midway through November, I became so stubbornly ill my doctor wanted to hospitalize me. Twice. I don’t blame NaNoWriMo for my illness. I had an antibiotic-resistant infection, and I refused to slow down and listen to what my body was trying to tell me. I kept going until I no longer could. And what did I do as soon as I began to get well and was able to drag myself to my kitchen table again? I wrote between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day for three or four days to catch up and finish NaNoWriMo. Of course I did.

This year, I started feeling short of breath on Thursday, November 4th. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me. I’d gotten my COVID-19 booster the week before. I’d had my flu shot. I tested negative for COVID-19 twice. A chest x-ray was clear. My lungs sounded fine. My temperature, oxygen saturation, and respirations were all normal. “Have you been feeling anxious about anything?” the doctor asked.

“Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.”
–Chinese Proverb

I kept writing those 1,667 words a day. By the following Thursday, I was feeling much worse. I also felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do all of the things I normally enjoy doing, including going out for walks or writing. Of course, you don’t know me, so you’ll have to take my word for it: I am a human dynamo. I get things done. This wasn’t normal for me. Over the weekend, I didn’t think I could write another word. But I did. I wrote thousands of them. And then on Sunday evening, I slowed down. After a long, hot shower, and over a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, I began to relax. I began to consider quitting NaNoWriMo, and I began to feel better. Which meant, of course, that by Monday morning, I was feeling well enough to continue NaNoWriMo.

To be fair, there were other things causing me anxiety, too. I had a deeply personal essay come out on November 9th. The gas in my bungalow was shut off for three weeks, which was a nightmare. And I live in California–there’ve been controlled burns in my county the last couple of weekends in an effort to prevent wildfires, which has meant a great deal of smoke in the air. Then there’s work, school, volunteer commitments. A global pandemic going on two years.

Most of that, I can’t control. I can’t control how people respond to my essay. I can’t control how fast my landlord replaces the gas lines. (And neither can he, God bless him, he’s doing the best he can.) I can’t control the wildfires. I can’t control the pandemic–I can only do my part. But there was one thing causing me anxiety that I could control. I could decide not to force myself to write 1,667 words a day every day for a month, when my body clearly needed a break, for no good reason other than my aversion to “failing.” (And the badges.)

Woman from torso down walking barefoot on black sand beach wearing floral dress.

What I’m writing here may sound contrary to other things I’ve written. I wrote recently about some of the things I like and don’t like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words), and I also wrote about Structuring Your Writing Life. In both of those posts, I extolled the benefits of writing each and every day. I’ve written about Game Theory and Writing–I do believe gamifying writing goals can help writers achieve those goals, and NaNoWriMo is a great example of that. In another post, Time Is on My Side, I wrote that I have a daily writing practice–I keep a large calendar on my wall and mark an X through each day once I reach my daily writing goal.

But in those same posts, I also wrote that “long strolls and … periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential,” and I shared that my daily writing goal is this: to write for ten minutes each day. Only ten minutes. I’m easy on myself in my daily writing life. I wasn’t always, but I’ve learned to be. My writing mentors and role models have helped me to create a productive and enjoyable writing life. Mary Yukari Waters helped me see that I was sapping the joy out of my writing life by being overly rigid. Jill Alexander Essbaum was particularly instrumental in teaching me to take my creative days as they come and to revel in wherever those days may take me. She showed me what a productive and enjoyable writing life can look like, and she taught me that such a life should include things like getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. Deanne Stillman taught me that things take as long as they take and not to rush them. Tod Goldberg taught me that it’s okay to take a break, but it’s not okay to give up. They all taught me to enjoy being creative and to be more kind to myself.

This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.”

I do believe in building good habits and in working hard to reach your goals. But NaNoWriMo may not be the thing that works for everyone. And it may work at one point in life and not at another. My personality can be hardcore. I take things to extremes. Left to my own devices, I can turn just about anything into such demanding work that I take the fun out of it. I’m the Monica Geller of writing competitions. For me, NaNoWriMo brings out an unhealthy side of my personality.

These days, I choose to write at least ten minutes a day because that gets me sitting down at the keyboard. Once I start writing, I usually get into it and write for much longer than ten minutes, and I enjoy it. Most mornings, me and Walter Mosley can be found at our keyboards well before sunup and for several hours after. But if all I’ve got in me is the ten minutes, that’s okay. I stop and mark the X on my calendar. Beyond the ten minutes, my daily writing practice usually means continuing to work on my current WIP. But sometimes, my definition of writing is much more flexible. It might mean submitting a few stories to literary journals–I’ve done something toward my writing goals, so I mark the X on my calendar. It might mean taking a walk on the beach while working out a plot point in my head, getting to know a character, or brainstorming an idea for a new story. Counts as writing. I mark the X on my calendar. Today, writing this post counts as writing. On Sundays, taking a break from my computer to rejuvenate my soul counts as writing. As long as I do it deliberately and thoughtfully, it counts.

Tweet by Counts as Writing @CountsAsWriting on August 2, 2021, which reads: Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing.

Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing. @CountsAsWriting 08/02/21

 

I was already considering giving NaNoWriMo up by Sunday evening, because I was physically and emotionally wiped out and felt like dirt. But on Tuesday, Tyler Dilts’s tweet helped me connect the two things. I realized I was so caught up in word count that I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I started out like gangbusters, but after about 10,000 words, the words I was writing weren’t substantially contributing to me finishing my book. They were, however, substantially contributing to my anxiety. I’d fallen back into my old habit of being an overly rigid killjoy, and I literally made myself sick.

I deleted my NaNoWriMo account Tuesday night and went back to the daily writing practice I love. And I am feeling much better. To be fair, there are other reasons I’m feeling better, too. The smoke has cleared out of the air in my neighborhood. I got a lovely, heartwarming message in response to my essay that made all the anxiety leading up to its publication worthwhile. My gas was reconnected Tuesday evening and my hot water heater was fixed last night. And I took up coffee again after a three-day break–I love coffee. But I have to be honest–I felt a weight lift from my chest when I deleted my NaNoWriMo account. This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.

I came out of this aborted NaNoWriMo attempt with 27,000+ words, including a new, 10,000-word draft of a story that takes place in the desert on the 20th anniversary of Gram Parson’s death. It’s a story I love. I can’t stop thinking about it. I am anxious to start revising it. It suddenly made no sense to me to keep writing new words I wasn’t enjoying writing in order to earn quite-colorful-and-nice-to-look-at-but-still-virtual badges, when what I really wanted to do was to begin rewriting this story I am excited about. (The other 17,000 words are mostly rubbish, to be honest.)

“Knowing when to quit is probably a very important thing, but I just am not ready.”
–James Taylor

So I quit NaNoWriMo, and I’m okay with that. I deleted my account because my personality is also such that, if I hadn’t, two days from now I’d have logged back in and decided I could still buckle down and make my word count in time. It was one of those decisions you tussle with, but once you’ve made up your mind, you know it was the right decision.

Please understand, when I say to know when to quit, I do not mean to quit writing or to give up on your dreams. I don’t mean to quit NaNoWriMo either–if it’s feeding you and empowering you, fantastic. Keep going! You’ve got this! It’s a personal choice. But know when something you’re doing is no longer working for you. Know when a project you’re working on is no longer bringing you joy. Know when a writing practice is bringing you down. Listen to your body, and know when you need a break or to set something aside for a day, or a week, or a couple of months. And whatever else you do, please be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else.

These are my words for today, Thursday, November 18th. They count as writing. They were a pleasure and a relief to write, and I hope you found something useful in them.

WRITER TIP: Speaking of knowing when to quit, here’s a great tip about ending a writing session from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”

On Structuring Your Writing Life

I used to think of structure as the enemy. I believed that, if I tried to impose any kind of structure on my writing life, it would interfere with my creativity. Writers are artists, right? Artists don’t live a boring, rigorously scheduled, 9-5 life. Artists wake up when they please, go out for coffee in cafés where everyone knows them by name, then go for leisurely strolls on windswept beaches or in sun-dappled forests, depending on where they live. In the afternoons, they read and paint and take peaceful naps. In the evenings, they stroll again, this time down to the corner pub. At some point, when inspiration strikes, they sit down at their typewriters and dash off brilliant, bestselling novels.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This romantic notion of writing had me convinced that inspiration would strike when it was good and ready and that I had no control over it. The only thing I could do was answer its call when it did strike. I pictured myself, after a prolonged period of writer’s block, waking suddenly from a sound sleep, dashing to my typewriter, and writing madly for weeks on end, fueled only by coffee freshly ground from the best beans. When they were ready to come, the worlds would flow and take on a life of their own. At the end of that time, utterly exhausted, but glowing with satisfaction, I would pull the final page of my magnificent manuscript from the typewriter.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” –Neil Gaiman

This, unfortunately, is not how it works. For one thing, I don’t own a typewriter. Or a coffee grinder. And I’m actually out of printer paper at the moment and nearly out of ink. I do my writing at a decidedly unromantic computer keyboard. Yes, there are days when the words begin to flow and take on a life of their own, but the funny thing is, this usually happens when I’m already sitting at my keyboard tapping out nonsense. If I wrote only when I felt inspired, I wouldn’t get much writing done. The truth of the matter is, the more I write, the more I’ve written, and the better I get at it.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” –Jack London

The old adage that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration holds true for writing as much as for anything else. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. Write each and every day. Set up a writing schedule, stick to it as best you can, and write, write, write. Don’t pay attention to whether the words are any good or not—that is what interferes with creativity. Filling the blank page with words is the initial goal and all you should think about until you have a complete draft. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Hemingway said. We’ll talk about editing another time, because it’s November, and we’re on a mission to get 50,000 words written.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Brilliance, I have found, is a great deal more the product of arduous work and good editing than it is the product of creative genius. Dedication and persistence will win out over unbridled talent every time. Okay, well most of the time. Yes, those long strolls and those periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential. They have their place, and I’ll write about that soon, too. But in general, if you spend your life waiting for inspiration to strike, you will find yourself waiting for an awfully long time.

WRITER TIP: Author K.M. Weiland wrote: “Inspiration may sometimes fail to show up for work in the morning, but determination never does.” Make determination a part of your writing life. Schedule a dedicated time of day to write, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, and be determined to stick to your schedule.