Perfectionism and Pomodori

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If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re not alone. Most writers I know have faced that wall many times and surmounted it. Some people find themselves at that wall over and over again.

Sometimes this happens because you’re not sure how to move your story forward.

Sometimes this happens because you’re terrified of failing.

If it’s the latter, you may be a perfectionist. One understanding of perfectionism is that it’s a psychological mechanism by which you attempt to prevent failure by being “perfect.” And one of the symptoms of perfectionism is procrastination, a way to avoid engaging with perfectionism’s relentlessly harsh taskmaster by…not writing.

Writing and Life Coach Hillary Rettig discusses this tangled web of fear and diminished productivity in her fantastic book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. She presents lots of ways to tackle perfectionism and become more productive, the chief among them being a mental attitude of “compassionate objectivity.” You might think of this as the voice of the loving (grand)parent, the wise mentor, the friend. It might be the voice of your writing partners or critique group (that’s certainly true for me), who say, “Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this.”  It’s very different than the nasty voice of perfectionism, which hisses, “Why did you ever think you could do this? You’re a total failure. Quit now.” One of the ways Rettig proposes writers develop the compassionate objectivity and resilience they need to become prolific is through extremely short timed writing.

I taught creative and expository writing for many years, and I often asked my students to free-write for fifteen or twenty minutes. I was inspired to do this by Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones, in which she extols the virtues of free-writing and cautions: Don’t let the hand stop moving. Rettig’s important twist on this practice is that if you are suffering from writer’s block, you have to start small. Laughably small. If you’re blocked—either by perfectionism or because you don’t know where to go with your piece—start with five minutes of writing.

FIVE minutes?

Five minutes.

If you’re blocked, you’re probably thinking: How the @&?!*%#$! is five minutes going to help me? I have a 400-page novel to write! Tell yourself Rome was not built in a day. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott says, to just do it “bird by bird.” And then give this practical technique a try.

Get a timer. Rettig suggests using an old-fashioned kitchen timer. I tried this and it made me feel like a bomb was about to go off under my desk, but if it works for you, go for it. I like the free app called Pomodoro (more about the Pomodoro technique & other apps here). You can set up the timer for up to five intervals, each one lasting from five to twenty-five minutes. You can also create a break between your sessions, however long you wish, which are perfect for rewards (see below).

The idea is to write for a very short time. Set an interval that makes you say: I can definitely write for X minutes. Then choose any part of your story and write for X minutes. The idea is to not worry about quality at this point. And if you get stuck trying to write the story, Rettig recommends you write about the story, or about the problem you’re having with it.

Five minutes. Then stop and celebrate. Reward yourself well—you must treat yourself way better than you think you deserve for writing for five minutes—and then, when you want to write again, do so. But only for five minutes.

Short, timed writing—what I think of as micro writing—defeats the perfectionist nay-sayer and stops procrastination. It’s only five minutes, after all. And, as Rettig points out, as you use this technique you will find that your sense of accomplishment returns. And when that happens, you can lengthen your timed sessions: fifteen minutes, forty minutes, four hours.

It’s very simple and very powerful. And if the panic sets in after you get going with this, and it probably will—“Yes, yes, I was writing nothing but I’m still only writing 2,000 words a day and it’s not nearly enough to finish my 400-page book!—gently go back to timed sessions. Trust the process to get you back on track so that you are once again writing without fear.

Pomodoro by pomodoro: which is how I wrote this post.

Explore Hillary Rettig’s methods (time-management, helicopter writing, back-to-front writing and more) on her website and in her excellent book.

 

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still does. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy set during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Feeding Your Inner Artist

Some of my earliest memories are of going to the art museum with my father. music-1311106_640Later, when I started playing violin, my parents took us to the symphony. We read widely, went to plays and art festivals and were generally immersed in the arts.

Before I started my family, I spent years attending live music, traveling to some of the world’s best museums, and grabbing a seat at every literary lecture and reading I could.

Things changed. I spent several years not availing myself of art. I had some good excuses: young children, a fixer-upper house that needed lots of fixing up, lack of money. Eventually, I stopped using excuses altogether. Experiencing art just wasn’t something I did anymore.

But then I met my friend Nancy, a dancer. She invited me to one of her performances, which was to be held at the building where we both worked, in a small studio space crammed with a few chairs and lit sparingly.

idea-1301427_640During the performance – an unfinished avant garde piece she was testing out for a choreographer friend of hers – I found that lost piece of myself, the one that is fueled by art. And I had an epiphany.

Writers are artists. I am an artist.

That’s probably a big duh for most of you. I hope it is anyway. But I have found a surprising number of writers who don’t consider themselves artists, or at least don’t refer to themselves that way.

And I think it’s important that we do. Artists create. Writers create. Writers are artists.

Sure, you should read a lot in and out of your chosen genre. But my inner artist is hungry for more. Every art meal I feed my inner artist sparks a new idea in me or gives me an interesting new direction for my work.

Feed your inner artist:

  • Get a membership to the art museum in your town. When they have a show featuring a particular school or artist, go and see how the ideas and style evolved over time.
  • Attend plays and listen to the dialogue. See where the playwright, the director and the actors savor the words, and where they rush.
  • Check out some out-of-the-box performance art. How does the artist use surprise or shock to communicate?
  • See musicians who aren’t in your musical library. How does listening to new music spark your own creativity?
  • Spend time with other artists. Talk to them about their work, learn how to discuss your work. Encourage each other!

In short, expand your artistic horizons.

I am more grateful than I can express for my writer friends and their support, advice and camaraderie. But my inner artist craves the connection with other creative types, too.

Nancy and I often set aside times to discuss art – the creative process, the ups and downs of creating, revising and polishing, the public reception, the germ of a new idea. Our work in different mediums isn’t an impediment to discussion at all. In fact, it enhances it. We often try to bring in other artist friends who can express similar ideas through the lens of photography, sculpture, ballet, architecture, or music.

I attended a concert and discussion recently where the moderator asked a songwriter about intention. The songwriter said he often started out thinking that a song was about one thing, only to find that it ended up being about something else entirely. That happens to me almost every time I write, and hearing another artist talk about that made me feel less alone.

Since that first performance of Nancy’s, I have seen her dance several times. I’ve also started to seek out art again, including going to more live music, taking my kids to art festivals, museums and theater, and generously tipping the fantastic cellist at the farmer’s market.

Each time I experience a new piece of art it feeds that creative part of my soul and reminds me that far from being frivolous or a luxury, art is essential to my well being and the well being of the world.

Art matters.

Your art matters. Feed your art — and keep on creating!

What feeds your art? Do you connect with other artists, either in person or online? Let’s meet in the comments to discuss!

Why You Need to Try Writing Prompts

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I’ve never really been one for writing prompts. Like everyone else, I am busy, and so have always felt the writing time I had needed to be as productive as humanly possible. If I wasn’t adding to my word count, I was wasting time. It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been writing for a while that I got pretty burned out by that strategy. The joy of writing was gone, and without that, there was no point.

This summer, I’m giving myself the opportunity to play with my writing. My commitment is not to a number of words or chapters or books finished, but rather that every morning, first thing, I will write for fifteen uninterrupted minutes. It is Morning Pages, basically. I journal, write, brainstorm new works, or even draw.

Inspired by a class I took with Jo Knowles, I’ve also been trying writing prompts. I am amazed at the way they spark creativity and deepen my prose. They’re great practice, in the way that a sprints workout can goose your running program. Best of all for my purposes, they’re fun. I’ve been having a ball.

There are different kinds of prompts. Some are designed to inspire you into a new story, like this list or this one. Others can help you flesh out your work in progress, like this one on character development and this one on setting. For plot, I love the ideas in this article. Jen Malone also suggests writing a synopsis of your story and asking writing partners to come up with twenty “what if” questions based on it (e.g., “What if the best friend is a boy instead of girl?” or “What if she never finds the necklace?”).

Of course, because this is my summer of decadence, I prefer the prompts that are not designed to help me with a new or existing work. I like that ones that are just about fun and practice, like this calendar of 365 writing prompts, and this list from Writer Magazine. Prompts don’t have to be some formal thing, either; as suggested in this Lee & Low post, a good prompt might be a headline, a passage you highlighted in a book, or what you see outside. Another idea is to do flash fiction, where you give yourself five random words and have to write a 100-word story using those words. Janet Reid often has contests like this on her blog, but you don’t have to wait for her to post one, or to share your work if you do use her prompts. Finally, Kate Messner hosts a wonderful summer writing camp. It’s aimed at teachers and librarians, but anyone can play along. She has an impressive roster of writers lined up to provide lessons, and every Monday, Jo Knowles (the very same!) will give a writing prompt.

You can peruse these lists and choose a prompt that appeals to you. Consider, however, picking one at random, or purposely choosing one that feels difficult. In this TED Talk, Tim Harford discusses the power of discomfort to unlock creativity. Composer and music producer Brian Eno uses a deck of cards with different prompts, like “Everyone switch instruments,” or “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable noise. Incorporate it.” Musicians with whom he is working have to pick a card and must try the prompt it contains.

The musicians hate it. Phil Collins threw beer cans, apparently. The work that comes out of these experiments, though, is often creative and new. When Eno instead used a list of prompts posted on the wall and let the musicians choose, the work was not as exciting. He believes that the random selection of an uncomfortable prompt—the struggle with something difficult—is what leads to creative breakthroughs. His work, with musicians from U2 to Coldplay to David Bowie, appears to hold that up. If you want to try Brian Eno’s cards, you can pick one here. Some are specific to music, but some work for writers, too.

Ready to dive in? Here is a challenge for you, inspired by the contests of the sharkly Janet Reid. Write a 100-word story that contains the following words: girl, orange, piano, pitcher, mulberry. There are no winners or losers in this, it’s just for fun, but if you’d like to post your story in the comments, I’d love to read it!

Katharine Manning has written two middle grade novels–a contemporary fantasy about a girl who saves unicorns and a contemporary on what happens when a new girl upends a girls’ soccer team. You can see her recommendations for middle grade readers at www.kidbooklist.com, and you can find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter. She also recently discovered Instagram and would appreciate any tips you have on the care and feeding of it.

Up Your Game with the Write Fashions from THE WINGED PEN

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Essentials for the productive writer: laptop, warm hands, and bling. Sweatpants not shown.

Can the right clothes inspire writers?

In a word, yes. My Winged Pen fellow, Michelle Leonard, pointed me to this article about how clothes affect our performance. Get your red sneakers now before there’s a run on them!

So what do productive writers wear?

Lucky socks? Writer’s baseball cap? NaNoWrimo Winner t-shirt?

I once had a beloved writing sweater with a monk-like cowl with pom-pom and deep pockets to keep those typing hands warm.

I asked the other Pen fellows about their writing soft-wear. Here’s what they said:

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Kristi Wientge: “My clothes don’t matter (although I can’t be in PJ’s), but I do NOT write productively without eye makeup. It’s true.”

 

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Halli Gomez: “I do have a baseball cap that says Writer on it but I don’t wear it to write. I wear it run to keep the sun off my face. I can write in pajamas, jeans, shorts in the summer. Anything.”

 

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Jessica Vitalis: “Anything as long as I’m warm. That usually means I’m writing in a fleece hat. In the winter, I add a down robe to the mix. It’s quite a look.”

 

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Rebecca Smith-Allen: “Slouchy jeans that my husband is always telling me to replace (um…but the point is that they’re slouchy), a comfy, old t-shirt, and slippers that are on when I’m cold, then off when I’m hot. Then I’ve forgotten where I left them when I need them again because I’m cold.”

Photo credit: Gail WernerJulie Artz: “I almost always write in wild socks. I have knee high fuzzy IMG_2762purple/hot pink striped slipper socks for when it’s cold, a pair complaining about the rain that Matt got me when we decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, and a variety of rainbow colored stripes, polka dots, and argyle socks. I also usually wear a kitten for a lap-warmer.“

Photo credit: Gail Werne

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Michelle Leonard: “What I’m wearing isn’t nearly as important as holding a bag of warmed cherry pits, even in the summer. I get so cold when I write! I have to warm them in the microwave every 30 minutes or so. Getting up to do that is exercise, right?”

 

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Kate Manning: “I’m usually in a soft, warm sweater and, of course, my fox slippers.”IMG_2763

 

 

 

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Gabrielle K. Byrne: “Slouchy for the win. Sweats and a robe or long sweater. Oh – I have two rings I don sometimes as inspiration. One’s a giant fossil and the other is a dark blue droozy that sparkles like the night sky. There’s definitely a kind-of “I’m fancy” illusion that’s going on between the bathrobe and the jewelry.”

 

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Jennifer Brister Park: “I always wear workout clothes so I can remind myself at some point I have to get up and exercise.”

 

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Hilary Harwell: “I wear workout clothes too, and I’d like to think I do so for the same reasons as Jennifer Brister Park, but it’s mostly because they’re comfortable and stretchy. My hair is usually up in some wild knot and my clothes are rarely matching. I like to think of it as the crazed writer look.”

 

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Mark Holtzen: “Fleece early morning. When I venture to coffee shop I up my game. Trying to be more professional and treat it like the work that it is. I guess I’m maturing? (Nah.)”

 

 

So now you know how to up your writing game–with these fashion tips from THE WINGED PEN! Do you have an inspirational writing get-up? Share in the comments below.

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she’s not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

 

The Road to Writer

typing_brucealmightyWhat makes a writer a writer? I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have too, the mantra that if you write, you’re a writer. That’s true, so far as it goes. The work doesn’t do itself. You can have Pulitzer-prize-winning, banned bestsellers coming out your ears, but if they stay there (between your ears) then they’re not going to do anyone much good. The story must meet the page. Period. Full stop. So, there is that small hurdle. Step one towards becoming a writer is write. This task, and it can feel like a task sometimes, no matter how inspired you are on the journey, might take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Reports vary—a lot.

Office Worker with Mountain of PaperworkFor those of us who want our stories out in the world being read, there are more hurdles—many more. Once you’ve delved into the details, dust and drives of your book’s world, subjected your characters to the throes and follies of their fears, and made it through the weeks/months/years of late nights writing, complete with their varied wardrobe malfunctions, you must find someone (an agent) who can represent your work and sell it. This will require you to query—to pitch. To pitch, you will do the following: Take your masterpiece and roll it into a tight little two-paragraph ball that has voice, clarity and intrigue. Throw it with all your might (and thoughtful courtesy) towards agents you respect.  Depending on your talent, your story, and your luck, finding someone to represent your work could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Again, reports vary.

atYou’ve found a wonderful, experienced, and enthusiastic agent who thinks you have what it takes! Huzzah! Now exhale. Then go crazy! Flail! You’ve earned it. Next you’ll dive back in and repeat the writing/re-writing and editing process with your agent. When you’ve leaped all the editorial hurdles you can find together, your agent will pitch your manuscript to editors at publishing houses. They may share all of the feedback they get about your manuscript, or, they may buffer you completely. My agent was kind enough to ask me what I wanted and we agreed that I didn’t have to have every little detail, but that if there was consensus about anything, or something that she felt would be good for me to know, she would share it. Feel the peace. Having someone you trust standing with you, encouraging you, and believing in your work is the best feeling ever (Thank you, Catherine).  Enjoy it.

Your agent will pitch your book based on their strategy, and contacts, until he or she finds an editor who loves your work too. Finding your agent is only the beginning. All those quotes you see about author rejection–you know, the ones that tell you how many time JK Rowling and Tolkien and Hemingway were rejected? They aren’t talking about those authors trying to find agents—well sometimes they are, but more often, they are talking about that author finding a publisher. This debut process could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. This will also be true for your next book. Stop me when you see the theme here.

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A writer friend once told me, and it has become part of my gospel truth, that being a writer is not so much a career move as it is a lifestyle choice. You must love to write. You must commit to the story and to the people in your head. If you really mean it, you’ll get to do this most days that you remain on earth, and it will (mostly) thrill you to the dark little corners of your soul.

Once the words are in the bag, getting those stories into booky-things that regular, non-writer people will read and love comes down, I believe, to the three Ps – Practice, Persistence, and Patience. These will be your go-to tools. They will be your bread and butter as well as your sun, your moon, and all your stars. Accept and love them. Start now. Learn them well, and however long your own path to bookdom turns out to be, you’ll be better able to protect your heart and continue loving your work.

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Gabrielle Byrne lives in the rain-beaten wilds of Olympia, Washington, where she writes fantasy for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Follow her on Twitter: @GKByrne