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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JOURNALING as a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

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.

COVER THE WATERFRONT
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?

NOW WHAT?
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!

 

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HOW TO USE WRITING as a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

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.”)

HOW IT WORKS
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.

CHOCOLATE!
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?

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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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3 WAYS TO USE WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

You are invited to my workshop on Writing as a Spiritual Practice on March 30 at beautiful Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA.

It’s possible that writing is always a spiritual practice, whether or not we intend for it to be so. It almost always connects us with a deeper, clearer and yet mysterious part of ourselves. It is often transporting and transforming—and when we hit the Zone, we feel like a million bucks.

By spirituality, I mean connection with the divine, however you define that. By spiritual practice, I mean anything we do regularly to wake ourselves up to that connection .

Three of the million or more ways to use writing as a spiritual practice are:

  1. Write about spiritual things (the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Richard Rohr and company)
  2. Write our way out of trouble
  3. Write from a spiritual place, or practice the presence of the divine as we write

1. WRITE ABOUT SPIRITUAL THINGS
This is fun, and often a great exercise, even if we’re not the Dalai Lama. What would you write if someone asked you to put your spiritual experience and beliefs into three paragraphs?

2. WRITE OUR WAY OUT OF TROUBLE
We all know that journaling can work miracles, bring clarity we never imagined, and heal even the deepest wounds. So can writing fiction, and even essays. Writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption saved me tens of thousands of dollars of therapy.

When I’m confused about something internal, something that can’t be explained in a YouTube video, I just open my journal and start writing about it. Within minutes, or pages, it usually comes clear. Much to my amazement, I see the situation in a whole new way.

When I’m upset with someone or about something, I do the same thing. Just start writing about it. More quickly than I can imagine, the energy discharges, and I can look at the relationship more clearly—and maybe even see my part in the problem.

3. PRACTICE THE PRESENCE WHEN WE WRITE
By “practice the presence” I just mean sitting in the presence of whatever you consider divine as you lift your hands to the keyboard or the pen. It might be the Zone, God, Brahman, the ocean, nature, or anything that you feel breathes life and love into physical reality.

Sit in that presence, and let it do at least part of the work. When I’m able to do this, I am always astonished at what comes out. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and hardly recognize it. Whenever I write this way, it is so exalting, so blissful, that I almost don’t care what comes out.

THE TRICK
If it’s that simply, why doesn’t everybody do it, all the time? Mostly, because if it were that easy to access the divine presence whenever we wanted, life on earth would be a whole different ball game—and writing would be a whole lot easier and better.

Here’s the trick. Keep holding the door open for that divine presence even when you aren’t feeling it at the moment, and start writing even before you feel it. Sometimes you won’t feel it. My first meditation teacher, a deep and profound woman with 40 years of meditation experience, used to say, “Sometimes I’m just staring at the back of my eyelids, but I do it anyway because that’s what a practice is. We do it in faith, even when we aren’t getting exactly what we want from it.”

I think that’s good advice for writing as well. Just do it. Write even before the presence is present. Keep writing with the door held open for it. Keep ourselves in the path of Grace. And do it tomorrow even if we don’t connect today.

And as always, the lesson learned in writing grows even larger when we use it in life.

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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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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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DANCING WITH THE MUSE

dance with muse mailchimpWhen I was in undergrad, most weekend nights were spent at campus watering holes (translate: dive bars) drinking and dancing. I did fine with the drinking, but was very shy about getting out on the dance floor.

I would hover in corners, escape to the Ladies Room, start can’t-leave conversations—anything to avoid dancing. Eventually, I would become one of the very few people who was not out there having a great time, burning calories, getting high on the music and the crowd’s energy.

AGONY TURNED ECSTACY
Slowly, it would dawn on me that I could stay where I was and have a terrible time for the rest of the evening—or I could take myself in hand and get out there with everybody else. I scanned the crowd, looking for people who were particularly good dancers. I watched them intently, put myself in their heads and bodies, got into their groove. Cautiously, I stood and edged toward the floor, or accepted the next invitation I got to get out there.

The first fifteen seconds were horribly embarrassing—even though it’s unlikely that anybody else noticed—but after that, I felt at one with the music and the people, totally involved and expressive, and had an absolutely great time.

Here’s the thing. I don’t even have two left feet. I’m a terrific athlete, comfortable in my body, and actually a pretty good dancer.

So why was I so shy? I think it was just a change. A change from the mental and physical rhythm of sitting in class, studying, meeting people for coffee, and not dancing all week. A change from serious person to wild woman, flailing away with all the other beer drinkers. A change from familiar to less familiar. A change from the comfortable status quo, to something imaginative and potentially revealing.

MUSIC TURNED MUSE
Sometimes I encounter this same dynamic in writing. I don’t want to start a new piece. I don’t want to go back and restructure that book, or even edit it. I’m afraid I’ll be awkward and sticky-outy, less than fast and cool. As with dancing, I’m afraid I won’t look good—even if just to myself.

I start to develop a block. Nobody has a gun to my head, after all, just as nobody had a gun to my head to get out onto the dance floor. I don’t have to do it. But, as with dancing, I know I’m in for some serious misery if I don’t get out there.

So I turn on the computer, open the file, and start typing. Strangely, the same thing happens as happened back in school. Just getting out on the dance floor seems to call the Muse. There may be a few seconds of awkwardness at first—but very quickly, I know just what to say, or just how to fix what I said before. I get into what I’m doing and have a wonderful time.

I’m dancing! And all it took was standing up and walking out onto the floor. Or sitting down and starting to write.

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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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