prime the pumpPlease join me for a Sunday afternoon workshop on Writing as a Spiritual Practice on March 30 at beautiful Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA.

The blank page…the empty Word document. What to do when the creative juices aren’t flowing, and none of the old tricks work? The two best answers  I’ve found are:

1. Start writing anyway.

2. Find some new tricks.

Why start writing before we are “in the Zone,” ready to be brilliant, and feel creativity coursing through our veins? Because sometimes, we just have to do it that way. Writing cold and dumb often primes the pump. That courageous, faith-filled act often lifts us into the Zone.

One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark in Write that Book Already (Adams Media, 2010):

“The Zone is a creative state of mind in which the writing flows…You feel connected to your own imagination, ideas flow, synapses connect, and before you know it you have filled the page. New writers make the mistake of thinking they have to feel the Zone before they begin work, when more often it is the other way around. Getting in the Zone comes from the act of writing…Just don’t wait for the imagined, perfect moment…Start writing and the muse will come. Not every time, but keep at it and the muse will come enough for you to get the initial writing done.”

Words to live by, along with Annie Lamott’s admonition to write “shitty first drafts.” We don’t always have to write from inspiration; we can write toward inspiration. Begin. Trust. The magic will come if we do our part and get those keys moving.

We all have our tricks for getting the juices going and for writing in the Zone, but not all tricks last forever. No problem. We just need to find new ones.

Lighting a votive candle used to work for me, but then I got cats—curious, fearless, very large orange tabby brothers who thought it was the world’s job to stay out of their way, not the other way around. I switched to incense, then to a host of other tricks. I used what worked, and discarded them when they stopped working.

Writing charms, tricks, and juju are everywhere. Some writers jump up and down. Others run around the block. Still others meditate or do yoga. The best tricks are those you make up yourself. Here are a few tricks that actually involve writing:

  • Free-writing, as offered by Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones (Shamballah, 2005) and Wild Mind (Bantam, 1990). She suggests letting yourself write off the top of your head without thinking or being specific. Just keep your hand moving. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar. Write bad stuff, but write the truth.
  • Morning pages, as offered by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way (Tarcher/Putnam 2002). Every morning, write three pages of whatever comes to mind without any judgment or self-criticism.
  • Mind mapping. Begin with one circle that contains your central idea, and free associate out to smaller circles that connect with that idea. Add more circles farther out on the map until a sense of meaning and flow emerges.

Prime the pump, or just jump in the pool. Do whatever works for you. It’s not just writing that’s an inside job; it’s also the process of starting to write, putting your hands on the keyboard and moving your fingers, even before you know what will come out. That’s the real magic.

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get out of the wayLast week I became an adolescent. Maybe even a two year old.

I attended one of those internet book marketing seminars where they tell you that you have to blog hourly, at least six days a week, and that every word you write must be keyed and tested for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so that Google algorithms snatch your post and put it at the top of the page and everybody who reads it signs up for your email list.

When I hear things like this (translate: each time I hear anything about internet marketing), my stomach seizes up into a dark little raisin. My eyes glaze over and I get a headache. I say to myself, “If that’s what it takes, I’m going to plumbing school.”

This seminar leader actually pointed his finger at me and said, “What’s the point, if you’re not building your email list by 10-20% every week?”

My teenage self rose up from God knows where, scowled at the world, and said with the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face logic of adolescents and two years olds, “Okay, then I won’t do it at all!

Normally, I post on WRITE IN THE ZONE on Thursdays and on THE SOUL OF SELLING on Tuesdays, and write both posts the week before. By last Sunday night, I had written nothing. All I had was a teenager inside me with folded arms and steam coming out of her ears.

When Monday morning dawned, I realized that I’d missed writing my posts. I wrote one for THE SOUL OF SELLING in 45 minutes, and immediately got the idea for this one, which I’m enjoying tremendously.

I got out of my own way, did and wrote what gave me joy, and realized that I was having a great day even without a 20% increase in email subscribers.

The point is that very often, we get in our own way. We make excuses for not writing. We don’t write because we’re mad at people, or mad at ourselves. We say we don’t have enough time or energy. We make up stories about not being good enough.

We get in our own way whenever we believe something—from our own minds or from other people—that keeps us from the pleasure of writing. The trick is to remember that we are what’s in the way, not other people or outside circumstances.

THE GOOD NEWS IS THIS: No matter how much we get in our own way, we can get out of the way thoroughly and immediately just by putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper.

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SkierHow often have we heard that happiness is an inside job? I believe that writing is an inside job as well. It’s whatever we make it. It can be hard, enervating, and frustrating—or inspired, uplifting, and fulfilling. Like many aspects of life, it’s all about our attitude.

ON THE SKIDS: PRO AND CON “I feel like I’m on the skids whenever I sit down to write,” a client told me the other day. Here are a few of Dictionary.com’s rather alarming definitions of “on the skids”:

  •         In the process of decline or deterioration
  •         On the downward path to ruin, poverty, and depravity

Yikes! Writing always asks us to go more deeply within ourselves, to find new insights, feelings, and ways to express ourselves. That’s often uncomfortable—but each time we reach that point of discomfort, we have a choice. We can let ourselves sink into being, if not on the road to “ruin, poverty, and depravity,” at least heading toward a bad mood or a defeated attitude.

Or we can think of “the skids” as skis, or as runners on a sled. These kinds of “skids” propel us forward automatically; all we have to do is maintain our balance. That mental balance means choosing to see the writing discomfort as an opportunity, something that takes us deeper and makes us better writers. Maybe even better people!

I’m not saying I can do this every time I hit a tough spot, but writing and life are certainly more fun, easier, and richer when I make the effort.

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Dissipating Dark Fears: Busting Zone-Blocker #3

dark fearsZone-Blockers keep us from experience the joy and freedom of writing in the Zone, that wonderful place within us filled with clarity, creativity, and unselfconscious ease. The last two posts were about busting Zone-Blockers: #1, The Big Miasma, and #2, Grey Fuzz. Today we tackle Zone-Blocker #3, Dark Fears. You can read more about these and other Zone-Blockers in my e-book, Creativity on Demand: Write in the Zone.

Dark Fears can actually be part of the Grey Fuzz. Better to Fuzz Out than to look these gnarly fears in the eye! Some of these concerns are plausible, if I take a dark view–but most of them are nothing more than negative mental chatter. Some of these Dark Fears apply to many areas of life; others are specific to writers. Here are a few:

  • I can’t do it.
  • I won’t do it right.
  • People won’t like it.
  • I’ll be embarrassed.
  • I fooled people before, but I’ll fail this time.
  • They’ll reject me.
  • It won’t be perfect.
  • I’m not in the right mood to write.
  • I’m not organized enough yet.
  • What if I fail?
  • What if I succeed? What then?

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. You may have your own versions of this negative mental chatter. It can get very loud, and sometimes it surfaces only after I have de-Fuzzed and brought my cerebral cortex back to life.

The first step is always awareness. I need to recognize that I’m in the grip of the Dark Fears. Busting this Zone-Blocker is similar to blowing away the Grey Fuzz. We’re just dealing with another layer of mental machination. Here are the steps I take:

1. Recognize that the Dark Fears are Dark Fears, not reality. They may seem very real, but most of them are just wild worries that my mind has whipped up.
2. Make a list. Just as with Grey Fuzz, it helps to write down and objectify the fears. Then they are outside me, in the list, not racing around inside my head. If I can see them, I don’t have to be them.
3. Check out those Dark Fears. Are any of them valid? Maybe I do need to get a bit more organized. Once I’ve examined the Dark Fears to see if any are valid, I do whatever I can to set the situation right. I might clean up my desk, for instance. Then, no more excuses.

What do you do to bust Dark Fears when they block your access to the Zone ?

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The Grey Fuzz: Zone-Blocker #2

grey fuzzThis series of posts addresses those nasty phenomena that block us from experiencing the Zone—and the wonderful space of clarity, freedom, creativity, and unselfconscious ease that we feel when we write from the Zone.

The Grey Fuzz is my Zone-Blocker #2. It is a cousin of The Big Miasma, Zone-Blocker #1, a looming sense of dread that I’m not writing what is mine to write. The Grey Fuzz is a floating, unconscious, sleepwalk-y state of mind that settles in after The Big Miasma has done its work and my brain has gone on overload with information and worry. It is diffuse, grey, and yes…

It’s as if my cerebral cortex goes numb, and my thinking sinks to the level of a gerbil—except that just beneath the surface, I feel a terrible anxiety. Somewhere deep in my lizard brain, I fear that if I un-fuzz, that terrible anxiety will come crashing to the surface. So I dig a little deeper into the greyness. The result, of course, is procrastination. Sometimes even paralysis. That produces more anxiety, then more Grey Fuzz, then more procrastination and paralysis, and so on.

Oddly, the Grey Fuzz only extends to my writing project. I am crystal clear about all the tasks I might do instead of writing: alphabetizing the spice rack, defragging my computer, calling my niece, grooming the kitties, even housework! In fact, I feel a desperate need to do these things and a crisp clarity about how to get them done.

When the Grey Fuzz strikes, my first line of defense is recognizing that I’ve been Fuzzed! If I don’t recognize that I’m in the fog, I will wander in it endlessly. Here are the steps I take to bust this Zone-Blocker:
1. Send out the Grey Fuzz Alert. I gently say to myself, “You’ve been Fuzzed, you poor thing! Have a seat. Take a piece of paper or open a file. That’s it. You’re doing great.”

2. Write down everything that’s going on. It might sound something like, “Yikes! I’ve been Fuzzed. I’m walking around without a cerebral cortex, with an obsession to change the dust bag on my vacuum cleaner. I feel slow, dim-witted, lazy, and I will do anything—anything!—to avoid the writing task before me. I’m afraid of the blank file, and not being able to write well. And procrastinating has made it worse!” Just writing about where I am does two things:
*  It gets me writing.
*  It puts the Grey Fuzz outside of me. I see it, so I don’t have to be it. It is an object of my observation, not me.

3. Do some very small part of the writing project. If I’m writing about my main character visiting her mother in the hospital, I only have to write about her getting out of the car. Doing even the smallest task usually blows away some of the Fuzz and I’m back on track, synapses beginning to spark and my brain waking up from its grey sleep.

Do you get The Grey Fuzz, and what do you do about it?

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Busting the Zone-Blockers

sunriseI love the exquisite peace and focus that come of writing in the Zone. The words well up quickly, effortlessly, from a place deep within. Time and space disappear. I feel energized, clear, creative, and completely unselfconscious.

But then, suddenly, the Zone disappears!

I’ve come to believe that the Zone, like the sun, is always there—but that sometimes my brain gets cloudy. Clouds in the brain don’t always pass as quickly as deadlines approach. I can’t always count on the Zone to break through those clouds without my help.

Writing is magic, but it can take some work. That has been my motto over forty years of making a living as a freelance writer. More often than not, the work consists of cloud-busting. Or as I call it, busting the Zone-blockers.

We all have our own shapes and colors of clouds, our own unique set of Zone-blocking dynamics. In Creativity on Demand, I talk about my most virulent Zone-blockers and how to bust them. First among them is The Big Miasma. (Coming soon, Zone-blockers #2 and #3, The Grey Fuzz and Dark Fears.)

The Big Miasma starts when we realize that we have a book, or any piece of writing, inside us—but that we don’t quite have time to start it today. Or tomorrow. But if and when we do start it, it will be the making of us. We may get fame and fortune. We will certainly get a huge infusion of self-esteem, and we’ll know that we are doing what we’re here on Earth to do.

But week after week, we don’t start it–and we begin to feel guilty. Before long, we start to arrange everything in life around that book. Friends, other projects, vacations, even children sometimes take a back seat. We don’t go places or do things because we’re going to work on the book, but then we don’t actually work on it. All our thoughts and feelings about not doing the project–none of them too pretty–swirl around and around, and eventually devolve into a mystifying, impenetrable Big Miasma.

This is no way to live, and no way to work—especially when the Zone that makes everything easier, faster, and more fun is right at our fingertips.

There is a terrible simplicity to busting this particular Zone-blocker. Nike said it first: Just do it.

I know! That’s awful! Especially for my transformational friends who want to investigate the underbelly of it. But it’s the only way I know to beat The Big Miasma.

Schedule writing time every day that is inviolable, even if it’s only ten minutes. Write something, even if it’s terrible. Keep writing, even if it gets worse.  This is the time to remember Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: Write “shitty first drafts.” It doesn’t matter where you start. Write something. You’ll have something to edit, and what you write will get better.

I feel so much better about myself when I actually start working on the project that I almost don’t care how it turns out! I had been thinking about Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption for twenty years before I actually started it. Just creating a file for my “shitty first draft” was worth tens of thousands of dollars in therapy.

What is your #1 Zone-blocker and what do you do about it?

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