TRACKING the ZONE

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?

THE ZONE’S GPS
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.

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WRITING to RELEASE, RESTORE, AND REDEEM

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.”

HOW IT WORKS
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.

WHY IT WORKS
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.

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2 BEST WAYS TO PRIME THE WRITING PUMP

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.

START WRITING COLD AND DUMB
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.

FIND SOME NEW TRICKS
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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WRITING AS HOLIDAY COOKIE

cookiesWhen is writing a Christmas cookie? Whenever you need it to be!

Last week I was overcome by the holidays: too much shopping, too much traffic, too much angst, and way, way too much sugar. I found myself sitting at my desk, mildly traumatized, having just returned from one holiday gathering and on my way to three more that afternoon and evening. (All of these events involved wearing heels which, come to think of it, may have been what put me over the edge.)

GRABBING ANOTHER REALITY
As I sat there, I realized I’d hit a wall. I couldn’t take any more holiday stress. I opened the file for a book that’s been giving me no end of trouble with the express purpose of escaping my own personal reality and entering the world of that novel. Problematic as the book’s world had been for me, at least I wouldn’t have to wear heels or face traffic there.

I wrote for two solid hour, effortlessly solving problems that had baffled me for weeks. I had a wonderful time, and emerged on what amounted to a literary sugar high.

WHAT HAPPENED?
It struck me that all I’d done is change my attitude about working on that book. It ceased to be the scourge of my existence, the place where I was “blocked” and stumped—and became instead my escape, my refuge, my relief from the nylons, the traffic, the small talk with strangers over eggnog. It became my salvation. It became my Christmas cookie!

One of the ways my family deals with holiday stress is to mainline sugar, often in the form of Christmas cookies. I had discovered a Christmas cookie that contained no calories or inflammatory qualities—only peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment!

SO WHAT?
My next thought: I can do this whenever I want. I can switch gears and make writing something I do for pleasure, something that nurtures me and even makes me high without any down side!

And beyond that, I can do the same with people and things other than writing! Pass the cookies, and Happy Holidays to everyone!

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THE WRITING DISCOMFORT DILEMMA

dilemmasIn my other blog, THE SOUL OF SELLING, I often write about the Selling Discomfort Dilemma—but it occurs to me that the Discomfort Dilemma shows up in almost every aspect of life, and especially for writers. I have suffered its effects, and here offer some solutions that have worked for me.

WHAT IS THE DISCOMFORT DILEMMA?
The Discomfort Dilemma is that perilous moment when you stand poised between moving forward and doing whatever is the next step—or doing something to avoid it. That next step might be:

  • Starting a new piece of writing
  • Beginning the next draft or edit
  • Finishing what you are working on
  • Sending it out to an editor, agent, or publisher
  • Just sitting down at your desk
  • Anything that involves discomfort, the possibility of failure, or any potential for rejection—or that you just plain don’t wanna do!

When we’re on the horns of the Discomfort Dilemma, the next step always seems agonizing or impossible. We want to dive under the bed and mainline chocolate. We will do almost anything to avoid the imagined discomfort of that next step—even when we know from bitter experience that trying to avoid it only makes us more uncomfortable.

The problem is, that next step is still before us when we finish mainlining the chocolate. Only now it seems even bigger. It’s later in the game. We feel even more behind the Eight Ball, and we’re not sure we can trust ourselves now. It’s easy to feel as if, in order to make up for having gotten off track, we have to produce more results, better results, and we have to produce them more quickly. Misery!

GIMME A BREAK!
In the midst of the Discomfort Dilemma, almost anywhere seems better than where we are. And there are so many more comfortable things to do! We could call a friend. We need to keep up these relationships, after all. We could play with the kitty. The poor thing needs exercise. We could even pay bills. Righteous activities!

Hey, we could shampoo the rug! Sure, it’s “writing time,” but just last week we read an article on how crucial it is to shampoo rugs on a regular basis to keep them mold-free and extend their life! Come to think of it, we might have read that article during “writing time!” Which only shows how important it is to be flexible about what we do during “writing time!”

Bills need to be paid. Rugs need to be shampooed. But not during the time when we said that we would write. During that time, cleaning the bird cage or fish tank are going to seem like good ideas—to say nothing of kicking back with a cup of coffee to chat with a friend. Knowing that the Discomfort Dilemma will never go away, and understanding how it works, gives us a leg up.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
The Discomfort Dilemma pops up whenever we start moving forward, or doing anything new. These things represent change—however small, and however good. When change of any kind is in the air, mental chatter gets startled and wakes up—on the wrong side of the bed. It scowls and stamps. It pouts, and begins its siren songs:

  • I’m only thinking of you. You need a rest. Take a load off. Relax! You’ll do better in the long run.
  • It’ll sharpen your wits to play computer games. You need that.
  • C’mon, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud! You’re human. Life’s too short to work that hard. Give yourself a break. Here, try this tiny piece of chocolate…

And before we know it, we’re mainlining.

When mental chatter starts cajoling and nattering, we need to remember that it does not always have our best interests at heart. We can postpone or delay whatever is next, but ultimately we have to do it. The longer we put it off, the longer we prolong the agony and the more uncomfortable it becomes.

NIKE!
I struggled with the Discomfort Dilemma for years, and became a champion computer game player in the process. I also became quite anxious. The stress of backing away from uncomfortable “next steps,” and then running back to fix everything at the last minute, double speed, started to take its toll. Cortisol and other stress hormones surged into my system until, finally, I reached my pain threshold.

I experimented with the Nike Solution: Just do it! In fact, I did the most difficult things on my to do list first! It sounds hard core, but in fact, it made life easier. A lot easier. By noon, I had often written the “hard” material I was going to tackle that day—and had the whole afternoon to knock off “easier” to do list items like research, returning emails, and handling “businessy” things.

About that same time, I came across Annie Lamott’s dictum to “write shitty first drafts.” I embraced this advice, held it to me as I wrote and wrote through my “writing time.” Some of what I wrote was good, some bad, and some mediocre—but I always had something to work on the next day.

The three main benefits were huge:

  • I was a lot more relaxed and enjoyed life more.
  • My self esteem skyrocketed.
  • I became a far more productive writer.

“Just do it” isn’t the best advice in every area of life, but I believe it almost always works to our advantage as writers. It makes me feel good about myself and about my life as a writer. That can’t hurt my work, and it just might help it.

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WRITING IN 4-PART HARMONY: Thoughts on Writing, Love, and Barbershop

barbershopLast night I went to my first rehearsal with SF Soundwave, the local San Francisco affiliate of Sweet Adelines International for women’s barbershop.

Two facts:

* I adore the sound of close harmony, and have longed to sing barbershop since I was a child.
* I am not a particularly good singer.

I have not yet actually tried out for the chorus, but last night’s experience of being involved for 2.5 hours in something I loved, but do not do well, got me thinking.

WORLD OF “SHOULDS”
Most of my editorial clients beat themselves up for not having written the Great American Novel, really fast, their first time out. Or for not having more nonfiction publication under their belt. As we all know, the “shoulds” for writers are unending and unbounded.

Here’s the truth: Most of us will never write the Great American Novel, and most of us never achieve the acclaim we imagined we might when we left school clutching our English degrees. Most of us don’t make as much money writing novels or articles as we would writing code in Silicon Valley. And many of us aren’t even as good writers as we’d like to be.

Does this mean we should stop writing, or stop writing what we love? Obviously, no. That’s what day jobs are for—to keep us up and running even if we don’t get rich and famous writing what we love.

HARMONIC EPIPHANY
For forty years, I’ve made my living as a freelance writer. I’ve been blessed with projects I’ve enjoyed, and with an amazing group of clients. But in the past few years, I’ve also started writing fiction—a huge adventure, and again, something I have longed to do since I was a child.

I am so not as good at fiction as I am at nonfiction! When I edit or write nonfiction, I am usually spot on, very fast, and very facile. When I write fiction, I am very slow and still practicing. Plus, it turns out that Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption is not the Great American Novel!

Does this mean I’m not supposed to write fiction? No. I’ve come to see how important it is to write what gives me joy, whether or not it brings me a lot of money or acclaim. I keep my day job—editing, book doctoring, and ghostwriting—so that I can write fiction without needing to turn myself into a pretzel in order to promote it. I promote at my own pace, and only when it’s fun.

The point is, I wish I’d started engaging in my heart’s delight a lot earlier, and a lot more frequently.

WHAT I LEARNED
I’m beginning to see that the things I’m really good at are not necessarily the things my heart craves. I didn’t spend yesterday evening showing off my terrific backhand on a tennis court. I spent it standing on risers in a grammar school gym with 30 women I’d never met, singing poorly music that I’d never seen—and I had the time of my life!

For me, writing fiction is like singing barbershop. I’m still learning, but my heart sings when I do it. So I say, let’s do what makes our hearts full-throated, regardless of whether or not the world is beating a path to our door. Happy is the most important thing.

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GETTING OUT OF MY OWN WAY

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!

THE FALLOUT FROM “NO!”
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.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON
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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STEP AWAY to STEP FORWARD

step forwardIn forty years of making my living as a freelance writer, one of the best tricks I’ve learned is to step away from what I’m writing.

It might be for a moment, and hour, or a day, but coming back to the project—or even the paragraph—with fresh eyes helps me write more productively and efficiently. It also makes the writing more fun and, I think, better.

WHEN TO STEP
When I catch myself going over and over a sentence, paragraph, or chapter, and start to feel like a hamster on a wheel, it’s time to step away. At some point, the confusion starts to build and feed on itself. I get more and more muddled, try harder, and get more irritated with myself. No good can come of continuing that process, so I step away.

Another good time to step away is when the “Download Complete” sign starts flashing in my mind. Often when I write, it’s as if information is downloading from Wherever onto the page. Each packet of information requires a certain amount of energy to download. It doesn’t have to do with the number of words or the amount of time I spend with them. It could be fifteen minutes, an hour, or several hours of writing, but when that packet has downloaded, my mind goes blank. I just don’t have any more to put into that particular project at that moment. Any more time that I spend sitting at the computer only produces back pain. No more information will come until I’ve stepped away.

I also step away whenever I’ve finished a project, whether it’s a blog post, a chapter, or a book. When I come back, I always see something that I didn’t see before I stepped away—something that very much needs to be fixed.

WHERE TO STEP
Stepping away doesn’t necessarily mean going to bed and pulling the covers over my head. And it doesn’t necessarily mean staying away for more than five minutes.

For me, stepping away just means shifting gears. I might stay at my desk and work on another writing project. I might wash the breakfast dishes, or walk around the block, or clean the bathroom, or call a friend, or make a business call, or do some research.

I rarely step away for more than ten minutes—just enough to shift my attention, change gears, use a different part of my brain, and clear my head so that I see the writing from a new perspective when I come back to it.

WHEN TO COME BACK
The point of stepping away is not to avoid the writing, but to reenergize myself to do it. I know it’s time to come back when I start wondering how that particular piece of writing is doing, out there by itself without me. Very often, a solution or “fix” will come to me when I’ve stepped away to vacuum, or to take a shower or to walk. Whenever my attention meanders naturally back to the writing project, I see a solution, or I come up against the deadline for returning that I’ve set so that I’ll finish the project, it’s time to open that file again and look at it with fresh eyes.

The solution is usually more simple than I could have imagined. I’d just gotten bolloxed up in my own thoughts before I stepped away. When I look at the paragraph newly, the “fix” is obvious.

Don’t be afraid to step away, but be sure to come back. Stepping away isn’t a way to avoid the challenge; it’s a way to meet it and move forward.

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Writing as Spiritual Practice

spiritual practiceWhen we speak of the Zone, we use words like magical, mystical, out of time and space, completely focused in the present, clear, creative, energized, spontaneous, and joyful.

These words also show up when we talk about spirituality. Being in the Zone puts us in a great position to encounter the divine, and many spiritual practices train people to be in exactly the place that we call the Zone. Spiritual teachers often say that our job is simply to make ourselves available, and that the divine reaches in with grace and does the rest when we’ve put ourselves in that place. So for me, using writing as a spiritual practice means being in the Zone as much as I can, and trusting that good things will happen.

THE ZONE IS EVERYWHERE
Writing as a spiritual practice doesn’t necessarily mean writing about spiritual subjects. We can use this practice whether we’re writing poetry, fiction, technical material, blogs, journal entries, letters, or even ad copy.

As a reporter in Chicago, I once had a numinous experience while writing a news story about evils in the vacuum packed meat industry. It’s not about the words themselves, or even the effect they have on readers; it’s about the place we come from, the state in which we intentionally place ourselves when we sit down to write. That is the practice.

USING THIS PRACTICE
All we really need in order to make writing a spiritual practice is the intention to do so—and perhaps a few reminders. As with any spiritual practice, it’s easy to get distracted. A few of the things that distract me from using writing as a spiritual practice are: a floating miasma of worries, guilt, the resulting fuzz-brain, dark fears that I can’t or won’t succeed, being in a hurry to finish what I’m writing, and a wide variety of temptations like computer games.

Some pre-practices I use to counter these proclivities are: a candle on my desk, a post-it with an “om” symbol over the “on” button on my computer, and setting my alarm to chime every half hour as a signal to stop and remember.

For information, practices, and tips on writing in the Zone, please see my ebook, Creativity on Demand: Write in the Zone, available on Amazon or free on my site, www.carolcostello.net.

RICH REWARDS
Like spiritual practice in general, using writing as a spiritual practice is humbling, revealing, and an inside job. And like any spiritual practice, it yields rich rewards. There are challenges along the way, and it’s a bit stressful not to be 100% in charge, but it makes me feel good to trust and persevere, to make friends with the discomfort, to breathe, and to let go into the divine.

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WHAT MY CATS TEACH ME ABOUT WRITING

005My cats, Frankie and Flynnie, are eight year old orange tabby brothers and certified editorial assistants. They love to hang out on my desk, reorganize papers, and suggest that I need a clearer work space by stretching out and “inadvertently” knocking items like pens, books, files, and my phone to the floor.

Still, I would find it difficult to write without them. It’s interesting to note that although I ghostwrote thirty nonfiction books before I met them, I only wrote Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption and The Soul of Selling after Frankie and Flynnie adopted me.

It’s no accident that so many writers choose cats as companions. Cats are quiet, self-contained, undemanding (unless they want something), and affectionate. They have deep wisdom and the capacity to teach without words.

Just by sitting in the same room, paws tucked under, eyes at half mast, purring gently, they can transmit such messages as:

  • Be patient. All treats come to cats who wait. We writers are inclined to be hard on ourselves, impatient about success, and worried if fame and fortune didn’t find us yesterday. Cats help.
  • Look inward for validation and esteem. Cats rank #1 among mammals, and perhaps in all of creation, on this score. This lesson can make the difference between being a frustrated writer and a happy one.
  • Be persistent. Or, as Frankie and Flynnie say, purrsistent. Frankie has learned that if he steps onto my lap when I’m working, flops on his back, stares at me, purrs loudly, and kicks my hands away from the keyboard with his hind legs, I will eventually stop that silly typing, gaze into his eyes, and stroke his furry cheeks and tummy. I have learned that I can pill cats—and that if I persist until the job is done, they will realize that resistance is futile. Persistence is a sine qua non for writers.
  • Seek the Zone. This is what cats are really saying when they blink slowly from across the room. Next time your cat does this, notice that he or she was actually in the Zone when interrupted by you and is calling you to join!

Thanks, guys!

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