Archives for April 2014


We all know the Zone when we feel it. We write with an exquisite sense of ease or “swing,” fully absorbed in the moment, unselfconscious, highly energized, clear, spontaneous, effortless, and creative. It can be a magical, even mystical experience—as if someone or something way beyond our ken were actually doing the work.

Sometimes we just seem to fall into the Zone, but what about those times when we don’t? How do we get there? Can we activate some kind of internal Zone GPS to track it down?

Tracking down the Zone can feel a little like stalking your kitty when it’s time to go to the vet and she’s figured out that you didn’t just take the cat carrier out of the closet because it looks so nice in the living room. It can be elusive at best, hiding-under-the-bed at worst. Here are some tricks I use:

  • Breathe. We rarely arrive at the Zone with a frown on our faces.
  • Jump in. Don’t wait for the Zone to descend. When we can’t write from it, we can at least write toward it.
  • Remember the Zone-ward virtues of persistence, mindfulness, openness, humility, gratitude, and surrender.
  • Use physical prompts like candles, incense, decals of shiny red apples, or whatever works for you.
  • Start small. The thought of finishing an entire essay, poem, chapter, or blog post can be overwhelming and create stress, which can act as a Zone-repellant.
  • Be imperfect. Follow Anne Lamott’s dictum to write “shitty first drafts.” Take the pressure off so you can lean back into the arms of the Zone.
  • Write down any negative mental chatter, or Monkey Mind, in your journal with the intention to release it and enjoy your writing session.
  • Get support. I have several friends whom I can call and say, “Help! The Monkeys have taken over! Talk me down, please.”

Finding the Zone is like learning to use a GPS; we all have to discover what works for us. If yours starts chanting, “Recalculating…” each time you swerve to avoid a bicyclist, you might want to upgrade. Try new tricks, focus on the joys of the Zone, tap your ruby slippers together and say, “There’s no place like Zone,” and you may find yourself there before you know it.


releaseSome people are shocked when I talk about using my journal to release negative thoughts and monkey mind mental chatter. “Aren’t you just reinforcing the negative when you write it down?” they ask.

I don’t think so. For me, writing down all that limiting, unproductive thinking can be an effective, efficient method of waste management. It’s certainly a better idea than carrying around with me all day thoughts like:

  • “In a world like the one I just heard about on the news, what’s the point of doing anything—especially writing?”
  • “I fooled everybody before, but I’ll never fool them again.”
  • “I’m too old (or young, or jaded, or inexperienced) to produce anything good.”
  • “I’m just sad (or mad, or tired, or numbed out) today, so I can’t write.”

When I wake up with a mind full of nattering, or find myself stewing over this or that rather than writing productively, I open my journal file and have at it. I may preface my remarks with something like: “You would not believe the things my mind has come up with today. It won’t let me alone, so I’m going to dump all those worries, criticisms, and negative thoughts here so I can let go of them.” Then I just run on at the mouth until I can’t think of anything else to say.

At that point, I’ve at least put all the negative thinking outside of myself. It’s out there on the page, not bottled up inside me. It’s not me; it’s something I’m observing. I’ve probably discharged some of the energy around those thoughts as well, and maybe even seen that they don’t make much sense, once they are written down in black and white. “I’ll probably never write anything good again, and definitely should have gone to plumbing school instead.” Really?! Sometimes I actually catch myself chuckling as I read over what I’ve written.

There are many principles in play here, and this process may work differently for each of us. Most likely, it’s some combination of:

  • Our intention to release the negativity.
  • Looking those thoughts in the eye, rather than running from them.
  • Naming the particular thoughts, rather than letting them congeal into an amorphous ball of negativity.
  • Objectifying the thoughts by putting them outside of ourselves.

Our minds will always generate negative thoughts, but we can learn to manage them so that they don’t make us unhappy or hold us back. Part of that management is to write them down in order to release them, restore our sanity, and redeem our ability to write in a way that is productive and joyful.


journalFor me, journaling is one of the most powerful ways to use writing as a spiritual practice. There are three gazillion ways to do this, but here’s how I use it.

I journal every morning to focus my day, and every evening to review and complete it. This practice grounds me, keeps me on track, and is a chance to look more closely at what I’m doing and why, how I’m thinking and behaving, and what I’d like to acknowledge or do better. I write about whatever pops into my head, with no restrictions. Usually, the morning session includes:

  • What I want to get done that day: finish a chapter, write a blog post, prep for a meeting
  • Dreams: I have a notebook by my bed, but also like to record dreams in the journal, along with a draft interpretation that may be clearer in the morning.
  • Insights: While playing Bejeweled Deluxe, my guilty pleasure, I notice that I’m more successful when I widen my vision to the entire board, and realize that this principle might apply to my writing and my life as well.
  • Thoughts: As a person completely ignorant of art, I go to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit and am transported. Is art just the artist experiencing the transcendent and bringing it as much as possible to her work, and then others seeing/reading/hearing the art and having their own experience of the transcendent?
  • Events: My dearest friend from 8th grade was clearing out her parents’ house and found a letter that my mother had written to hers in 1962, when they were both twenty years younger than we are now. She wrapped it in her own friendship letter to me and sent it via snail mail. A true circle of life event! Or even a simple event like “Had coffee with George and it was great!”
  • Outflow to release and heal: Clear the Monkey Mind! “I woke up thinking awful thoughts about life in America today, and about all the politicians, and corporations pillaging the land…and here’s what they are.” Better for these thoughts to sit in the computer file than in my mind all day!
  • Where am I with the Divine? If my life is about spirituality, and it’s not just a hobby that I do when I have extra time, then where am I with that and how do I want to demonstrate it today?
  • Who do I want to be today? What qualities do I want to bring to the surface and live today—for my own sake and others’?

In the evening, I cover anything that’s present from the above, and also review the day. What were the highlights? What could I do better? How much or little did I practice the presence of the divine?

When I get about 80 pages in a Word file, I go back and create a 3-4 page summary of themes over the time it took to amass those pages. I don’t usually see those themes as I write the daily entries, but they become clear when I step back and create the summary.

Journaling heals me, helps me see myself more clearly, calms me down, focuses me on what’s important, and is great fun!



WASPMany thanks to the wonderful people who made our March 30 program on Writing as a Spiritual Practice such a rich experience! We spent the day talking about how all kinds of writing can be spiritual practice: fiction, essays, poetry, journaling, letters, blogging, and even ad copy.

A spiritual practice is something we do with the intention of coming closer to the divine. Anything, even washing dishes, can be spiritual practice—but writing is a particularly good one. (See “Why Writing is the Perfect Spiritual Practice.”)

I treated the writing of Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption as a spiritual practice, and found that it worked a lot like meditation. The process boiled down to 5 steps:

  1. I wrote with the intention of practicing the presence of the divine, and writing in the Zone.
  2. Usually, mental chatter rose up to disturb that peace, and started barking orders at me: “Faster, faster! You should have gotten this done ten years ago!” “Nobody’s going to be interested in this. Who do you think you are?” When that happened, I just noted it with interest—realizing that it gave me a good window into how my mental chatter worked and what it was likely to scream at me all day, even when I wasn’t writing. I woke up to some of my “stuff” and learned more about where my potholes were, what attitudes I needed to adjust, and what old resentments or mental habits I needed to release.
  3. I gently let go of the chatter and re-focused, as in meditation—reminding myself that those thoughts were just the fearful ramblings of my mind, and not reality.
  4. If the Monkey Mind thoughts did not show up, I had a glorious experience of writing in the Zone! That reinforced the perks of practicing the presence, whether or not I was at the computer.
  5. Practicing the presence when I wrote helped me develop the habit of doing so more often over the course of the day.

Writing is like chocolate. Spiritual practice keeps us fit and feeling wonderful. Writing as a spiritual practice is like eating chocolate to stay slim and healthy. What’s not to like?