Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Letter to Your Inner Critic--How to Stop the Invisible Sabotage to Your Creativity

If I had a way to capture the self-talk inside most writers' brains, as they sit down to do their writing practice, here's what I might hear:

“You need a lot more backstory here.”
“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”
“You need to explain what your character is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”
“For God’s sake, use bigger words. Everyone will think you’re uneducated.”
“Get to the action. How is anyone going to know what’s happening if you go on and on about setting?” “This is pretty boring, you know. Maybe wrap it up faster.”
“Your mother will hate this section. Kill it.”
“Why don’t you run out and get the dry-cleaning now, then write when you get back?”

Who is doing all this talking?  Who is making us hate our own writing?  I call this being the Inner Critic, and we each have one.  The challenge is to figure out what to do about its venomous voice, its worrisome messages, and how to keep writing anyway.

I've interviewed hundreds of writers at every skill level about the Inner Critic.  Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, are well acquainted with this inner voice.  Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's menacing.  But rarely is it truthful--and too often it sabotages our efforts to make art, to do our writing.  Professional writers have learned to calm the voice, to write anyway.  Some relied on alcohol or drugs or distractions to get a word in edgewise.  I've found a better plan.

First, it's important to face the facts:  The Inner Critic is part of any book journey—no matter how many books you’ve published.

Facing Down the Critic Inside You
Your first step is to disable the Inner Critic's overwhelming influence. I call this renegotiating the contract.  You might think you don't have a contract.  Read on.

Common wisdom suggests you fight the IC--use any means you can. Engage it in its own Hunger Games.  But that often turns into a never-ending battle.

The way that's worked for me is this:   Get to know your Critic and make it an ally, not an enemy.

First, recognize when it's affecting you.  It can be both strong and sneaky. As you explore and plan your book, it might worry that you don’t have a good enough idea. It will rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough.

Then, as you write your book and form the chapters, it will convince you the draft is definitely in OK shape to show your best friend—right now, today! This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend asks about missing parts and you crumble with the realization that you have omitted half your story.

Or as you revise, the Critic will get bored with inner story, theme, or pacing, those essential fine-tuning steps each book writer must implement. It will even tell you to edit out the juicy parts because all your relatives will shun you when they read them. And as you try to sell your book, the Critic will come into full battle mode. It may suggest you stop now before any rejection letters arrive.

It's actually trying to protect you.  Sound impossible?  Here's how I experienced it, with one of my books that was published years ago.  The lesson taught me a lot about how to keep writing, and how to work with the Inner Critic.

The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper

One morning, I was finishing up a chapter in my self-help/memoir that centered on my business bankruptcy back in the 1980s. As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about my failure. I began writing more slowly, reluctantly. The voice inside my head got louder, warning me to stop my exploration. “Why bring up this all over again?” it argued. “Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be.”

I persisted, angry at its interference. Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic. Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?

After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others’ experience. How could I do this if I couldn’t get past my own Inner Critic?

So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite—write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a “treaty” letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.

Then I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn’t have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could’ve imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.

My book, How to Master Change in Your Life, was finally published, and I got more letters and comments about that bankruptcy chapter than any other.

My intuition was right—people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.

 Your Weekly Writing Exercise: A Letter to the Inner Critic 

This is an exercise we use in my Part 1 online class, Your Book Starts Here.  Try it yourself.  You'll need about thirty minutes.

1.  You're going to be writing a letter to the Inner Critic.  Do this on paper or on the computer--whichever is easier.  To start, describe your Inner Critic.  What does it sound like?  Can you picture it?  Does it remind you of someone in your past?

2. Ask the Inner Critic what it’s contributing to your life. Listen inside for anything that might come, even small things it does for you.  How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you connected to others? How does it keep you responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?

3. Thank it for its help in these areas. If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.

4. Now write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for a week. Tell it you’ll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom. Ask for its help in letting you try it.

5. Mark on your calendar to follow up in a week. 6. After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you’ve noticed. Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Summer and Fall Workshop Retreats: "Creative Process: How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book and Take It to Publication!"

Join me on
Madeline Island
in beautiful Lake Superior
at Madeline Island School of the Arts
for five days of creative exploration, fun, writing community, and learning.   
Workshop Retreat:
"Creative Process:   
How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book and Take It to Publication!"
July 16-21 (sold out)
July 23-27 (8 spots open)
September 24-28 (12 spots open)
You get:

● three-four hours of  classroom time with me each day, exploring new writing techniques and exercises
● one-to-one consultation with me about your project
● your own writing space 24/7 and unstructured time each day to focus on your book
● open time and structured gatherings in the evening, with writing/art activities and sharing of work-in- progress
● time to practice writing "islands" on the island--and take your writing to the next level--wherever you  start from
● immediate feedback as you test my simple three-act plan for your book
● the support of a small group of memoir, fiction, and nonfiction book writers
● free time to explore the beauty of Lake Superior and this charming island off  the coast of Wisconsin

Here's what to do:

Call 715-747-2054 or email Madeline School of the Arts at to ask questions or reserve your place.  Cost is $575.  Lodging (not included) is available on the island--wonderful B&B's, campgrounds by the lake shore, plus cottage accommodations at the school itself, if you prefer to be on site.   Click here to read more.

Benefits of a Regular Writing Practice for Book Writers--How to Fit Writing a Book into Your Over-the-Top-Busy Life

How do you find time to write?  That's a question I'm asked alot--by other writers, by students in my classes, by attendees at conferences where I give my book-structuring workshops.

 I've had a prolific writing career, with thirteen books published.  Yet I also have a family that needs attention and a teenager to raise, an elderly parent to care for, a huge garden that both gives me joy and takes a lot of energy, and a passion for painting.

How is it possible to do it all, and do everything as well as I'd like?

Answer:  I can't.  Nobody can.

But I've learned about what I can do.  And it's usually a lot more than I think.  If I can take an honest look at what is outwardly derailing my attempts to be a creative, fulfilled person--and what derailment is coming from inside--I can make time for the writing.

First, you need the five fundamentals in place.  Last week, I talked about these five fundamentals for writers.  See that post here.  Once these five are working in your life, even a little, you have a better chance of actually fitting your book into your life.  You must allow yourself to make room for writing, just like you'd make room for your grocery shopping or your kid's homework or your sleep.  If your writing is left to last, it will never fit in.

This morning is a great example, for me.  My wonderful spouse and I tag team childcare, and we talk about it ahead of time.  Mornings and evenings are the peak chaos moments, but usually if things are OK, only one of us needs to be "on duty."  While one person keeps the morning moving (waking the sleepy teenager, monitoring the clock, gathering stuff to take, heating up some breakfast), the other is allowed to retreat into creative work.  This morning was my time, and I woke earlier than usual, sat with my writer's notebook and thought about my chapter-in-progress, all before anyone else stirred.  By the time the family was up, I was already at work on the chapter--which is due this week to my writers group.  Around me was the normal morning chaos, but because of my agreement with my family, I was able to keep going, without guilt.

This sounds amazing, yes.  But when the writing begins to feed us, when we give it time to do so, it helps everyone around us. Writing posted, I had time to help clean up the kitchen, say goodbye to my teenager, kiss my spouse, and make myself something to eat before my own workday began.

I came away really energized.  Yes, it took negotiation--but as a family we are pretty good at it now.  It also took honoring my own time and space to write--despite the frantic nature of school mornings.  But most important, it took me believing in myself--that my writing was as important as everything else that was going on.

Radical Thought:  Doing My Writing Practice Heals Me, and Also Everyone around Me
I believe that my writing practice heals me, makes me a better person.  I am convinced that when I am creating regularly, my family, my work, and my relationships benefit as well.

You probably know by now that regular writing has been documented for its healing benefits. James Pennebaker, professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Writing to Heal, studied the effects of writing on groups of medical patients. His landmark study showed marked improvements in immune function and general well-being from patients who wrote regularly.

Dr. Louise DeSalvo, in Writing as a Way of Healing, narrowed it down. She listed three areas writers must tap into, to benefit the most from writing practice.

Three Areas
1. How did the person feel then (during the event)?
2. How does person feel now, in comparison?
3. Which specific, concrete details, especially sensory detail, describe the past event?

This morning I was writing about a difficult crisis one of my characters is going through. For the writing to be transformative, it must reveal how the character felt when it happened, as well as afterward, and the comparison of feelings between the two. It must also use sensory detail to describe the past event. To test this theory, I applied it to my character, Molly, after the fight with her father.

If you're working on memoir, the "character" would be you--and incorporating the three areas would make the writing come together in an amazing way.  For nonfiction writers, the goal is to use these three areas to provide transformation for your reader.  How did the reader feel then, now, and what are the details around the change?  You use these three areas in your anecdotes.

In my classes, I ask students to prove this to themselves:  to scan favorite nonfiction books, memoirs, and novels from their bookshelves, ones they reread often and feel transformed by.

Here's what they usually tell me:  In every one, the authors showed people who (1) felt things in the present moment, and (2) remembered past feelings via backstory and compared the feelings of present and past, demonstrating change. Well-crafted scenes also used (3) specific sensory details to illustrate those feelings.

When I look at my own published books, my best-loved moments also showed these three healing aspects. So I try to include these three transformative areas in my writing practice, as questions to ask about my story. When I can, I find using these healing guidelines increases my joy in my practice of my craft.

Writing practice becomes easier as you do more of it. You see how it changes you for the better, how it helps you be happier, how it even keeps you out of trouble. “I create every day,” a painter told me, “because it keeps me happy. I’m less likely to cause problems for myself.” So it is with writing practice.

In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs wrote, “It is the love of something, having so much love for something—whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity—that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.”

A radical thought: The act of writing can keep you so at peace that you don’t search for problems where there aren’t any.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Negotiating a Regular Writing Practice 
(Time needed: ten minutes a day for three weeks)

1. Find ten minutes a day that you can devote to your book.

2. Put your writing time on your calendar. Make it the same time every day.

3. Talk with your family, roommates, spouse, or kids. Explain that you’ll be spending fifteen, thirty, ninety, or more minutes a day on your writing. Ask their cooperation: when you are in your writing space, you are off duty. You can’t be asked questions or talked with.

4. Make a sign that says “Writer at Work” and put it near your writing space or on your door.

5. For the first week, do freewrites for ten minutes each day. Write about something that stuck with you, something that happened recently. One student wrote about going to a movie that week where the audience was primarily elderly people and how the way they laughed, moved her. Another wrote about taking her son to dinner at a Chinese restaurant where large cylindrical red-and-orange paper lanterns hung along the walls and how the conversation blossomed in this colorful atmosphere.

6. Keep these writings in a file on your computer called “Week One.”

7. Start a new file called “Week Two.” Day one of the second week, make a list or freewrite for ten minutes on possible topics for your book—anything you can imagine including. The rest of week two, choose one of these topics each day and write for ten minutes on it.

8. The third week, write about a new topic from your list each day but add one observation of something you experienced, saw, felt, or learned that week. See if you can blend the exercises from weeks one and two.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Five Fundamental Practices That Professional Writers Lean On

Navigating a book is sometimes like traveling an unfamiliar pathway through murky waters.  Even though the scenery can be gorgeous--and inspiring--there are many times when the book writer is lost, confused, overwhelmed by all the options.

There are certain practices that help smooth the way.  They act like an internal compass for professional writers, who honor them without question.

They begin with willingness to ask for space, time, the privacy and solitude needed to do our writing.  How is this working in your life?

Creative People Require Creative Withdrawal 
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, talks about predictable reactions artists get as they begin to request time for their art. “Such time, space, and quiet will strike our family as a withdrawal from them. It is.” She explains that if we don’t honor our need for the private time and space to create freely, we begin to die a slow death. Often we don’t recognize this is happening. Or we may shrug it off—What can a busy person do? Of course, family, job, life responsibilities cannot be ignored. But there’s a place for creativity too.

Virginia Woolf wrote an entire book about the basic human need to be creative and have your own space to do so. Reading A Room of One’s Own spurred me on during my first few books. I learned that not having time and space to write is an excruciating experience, as not only did my book abandon me, but I abandoned myself. Whenever I compromised my need to have privacy and writing time in a busy life, I soon lost the threads of my creative ideas. But worse, I began to feel discouraged, so much so that I doubted I was ever creative at all. Re-establishing a writing practice again slowly helped me regain confidence in myself and joy in my creative life.

Writer David Ogilvy, author of Confessions of an Advertising Man, joked that he’s developed certain ways of keep¬ing open “the telephone line” to his unconscious, in case that “disorderly repository” has anything to say. Poet and essayist Lewis Hyde speaks of the invocation that’s an essential part of any artist’s life. “Part of the work cannot be made,” he says, “it must be received.”

But receiving requires taking a stand against the demands of our lives. And this conflicts with our desire to be good people, contributors to society, supportive of our family, to say nothing of showing up for our job. “We want to be generous, of service to the world,” Julia Cameron says. “But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.”

Practicing art is a constant balancing act. How much time and energy you can devote to your book depends on your life responsibilities. Be realistic, but also realize that saboteurs come not only from without. They also come from within ourselves.

One way to keep a balance is to start small and negoti¬ate each stage. If you tell yourself you’ll write three hours each morning and know full well that life usually prevents that, it sets you up for failure. There is no benefit with man¬aging two days then giving up.

Build your writing practice gradually. Start with ten minutes a day for two weeks, the same time each day if possi¬ble. See if you can maintain this, get used to the new rhythm, grow confidence in your own trustworthiness and your own commitment.

What Are the Five Fundamental Practices?
So it isn’t talent that makes an artist succeed. Talented people fail all the time.

Success comes from practicing these fundamentals.  It also demands belief in yourself, persistence with your craft, within this good routine—setting aside regular, sacred time to make art.

To dedicate time, you must believe in your worth.  As the painter and author Frederick Franck wrote in The Awakened Eye, “You shall not wait for inspiration, for it comes not while you wait, but while you work.” You must believe your art is important and deserves your attention. So must your family and friends. I’ve found five ingredients that make a book writer’s practice successful.

If all five are in place, they will support and sustain the long journey.

1. Find and honor your best time to write.
2. Keep writing equipment private, secure, and in good working order.
3. Have a dedicated writing space.
4. Have a set time to write.
5. Close the door to the world when you are writing.

Use this week to upgrade your practices.  Be honest--assess how you're doing in each area.  If you are stuck, it might not be your determination or your material.  It might be your practices.
 Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Practicing the Five Fundamentals
1.  Study each of these five practices.

2.  Honestly assess:  Which are in place in your life?  Which could be strengthened?

3.  Take one small step this week to create more support for your writing within one of these fundamental practices.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Imagination and Being Stuck--New Brain Facts for Writers

The topic of creativity and brain science has exploded in the past few years.  There was Daniel Pink's amazing book, A Whole New Mind, which explored how we're becoming more right-brain able and how it's causing creativity to blossom in our culture.  This week I've been reading another wonderful new book--Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.  Lehrer brought us Proust Was a Neuroscientist, an easy-to-understand exploration of senses and how we access them as creative artists.

The opening section of Imagine talks about Bob Dylan.  How Dylan was on tour in the early stages of his career and hated it so much, he told his fans he was giving up music.  He felt his songs were meaningless, that they no longer thrilled him in any way.  He didn't like who he had become.

He ended the tour and got on his motorcycle, and he rode to his cabin in Woodstock, New York, intending to hole up and do something completely unrelated to writing songs.

One day, Lehrer recounts, Dylan felt a sort of buzz inside, the first tingles of imagination stirring again, new ideas coming through.  Because he wasn't trying, because he'd given up the "right way" to write songs, the lyrics and melody of "Like a Rolling Stone" began pouring through.  You may know that this particular song changed the face of rock 'n' roll;even Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon were influenced by it.  It broke all the rules back then, and introduced us to a new era.

Why did it happen?  Because Dylan got stuck. Because he got sick and tired of how he was doing things and decided to stop.  Lehrer says Dylan's imagination was then free to engage in a completely new way.  This seems to be a key component of breakthroughs, creatively.

We need to get stuck, first, Lehrer proposes.  Before the imagination can take new pathways, we may need to really feel we're going nowhere. 

Julia Cameron also talks a lot about this, in her well-loved guide to creativity, The Artist's Way.  As I understand it, Cameron originally wrote it for creative artists who were stuck, who were not doing their art anymore.  The idea was to actually acknowledge the stuckness, to almost embrace it (morning pages), then begin to give yourself creative alternatives.  Try new things, let go of how we "should" be doing it.  Only then can the imagination stir, buzz inside us, give us those ideas that might lead to a breakthrough.  Cameron very gently assigned readers a weekly artist date:  to spend an hour exploring something completely unknown.

I teach online book-writing classes and week-long book-writing retreats.  In both of these courses, there's the keen possibility of getting stuck.  I watch many writers reach this place, and although they despair, I am quietly celebrating.  It doesn't mean I am a nasty person who likes to watch people suffer.  I just delight in the knowledge that this "stuck" writer is about to breakthrough to a new level, because I deeply believe that getting stuck--even for an hour--is a prerequisite to that letting go that allows the breakthrough to happen.

It's obvious that many writers give up when they are stuck, rather than exploring how to fill up the creative well, as Cameron recommends.  The Inner Critic gets excited, shuts the creative gate, and that's that for the book project sometimes.  I hope more writers allow their support networks to coach them through this stage, past the discomfort, and encourage them to explore something new.

Remember this formula is exactly how the imagination gets sparked.  Odd, isn't it?  Creativity is only partly the ability to be disciplined and responsible to the Muse, to sit ourselves in the chair and write.  It's also about keeping the imagination ever seeking the new and different to spark from.

Interesting that brain studies are finding out the same thing:  the brain doesn't court imaginative breakthroughs as often if it's plodding down the same road, taking things in sequence.  Discipline is great, but it alone won't make you a great writer. 

So the point is to let yourself daydream, go out of focus.  How do you incorporate this kind of activity into your writing life, especially when you are working hard on a book project?

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  This week, put aside your project and go exploring.  Do something completely unrelated and allow yourself to become saturated by color, image, sounds, smells.  Spring is a great time for this--in our neck of the woods, the lilacs are in full bloom and the air is scented with heaven.  Go outside, barefoot if possible, and repair your nature deficient. 

2.  Get a copy of Lehrer's book, Imagine, and enjoy learning more about the brain and creativity.