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.)

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.

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!

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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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.

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.

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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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 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.

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.

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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don't want to writeSome of my best and most enjoyable writing has come when I didn’t even want to sit down at my desk, let alone turn on the computer. I was tired, or cross, or confused, or just oatmeal-brained—but something was due, so I sat down and did it anyway.

Those writing sessions often became incredibly pleasant and productive, much to my surprise. How could this be?

Bottom line, who knows? But since forces beyond my ken seemed to take over, slide me into the Zone, and deliver great copy—and because I am always on the hunt for ways to avoid discomfort—here are some guesses…

  • Maybe I didn’t expect much from myself, took the pressure off, and that relaxation (oh yeah, and stepping out of my ego for a few seconds) allowed the Zone to catch me. Sometimes I think the Zone is constantly looking for us, casting about with a huge etheric arm to snag us, and only our own resistance to ease and our insistence that we are the ones doing the writing keep it at bay.
  • Maybe writing is just an inherently creative, and therefore fun, activity–and the very act of doing it jollied me out of my bad mood or mental fatigue.
  • Maybe it was just dumb luck.

I don’t think that “Just do it” is a universal solution—but when it comes to writing, it may be a good guideline. Whenever I’ve sat down and just done it, I’ve been less likely to let my ego slime all over the process and more likely to hope (maybe even ask) that something bigger take over.

Once I actually start typing and the words begin to flow, I’m humbled and grateful for whoever or whatever is doing the work.

When I’m really smart and really lucky, I remember to apply this lesson to life as well.

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EnterOh boy. There are so many ways to write our way out of trouble! Writing should be recommended by all therapists and court-appointed for anyone who even gets a traffic ticket.

I’ll talk about writing our way out of writing trouble in a moment, but first let’s look at the many ways that writing can save our time, money, and sanity.

Journaling can lead me out of almost any confusion and solve almost any problem I encounter. “Why would he say such a thing?!” Three pages later, I often have a brutal, and then perhaps a more compassionate, understanding of why he might have said such an awful thing–as well as a fairly accurate (if much briefer) analysis of my own part in it.

Sometimes when I’m truly down under, and I don’t mean Australia, I’ll write down the meanest, most venal thoughts and temptations swirling around in my mind. Once they’re down on paper, or safely ensconced in a Word file, they are somehow out of me. When I’ve “said them out loud,” they seem to lose their power.

Writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption saved me tens of thousands of dollars in therapy. Leading my protagonist through thirty years of looking for grace, healing, love, and wholeness in all the wrong places was a tiny big exhausting, but it was also extraordinarily healing.

My solution for almost any life problem is to write about it, but can you “write out” a problem with writing itself? Yes!

I sit down to write and instead of feeling the “ping” or the “swing” of the Zone, I feel the “ding.” Uh oh.

What to do? Go for a walk, do the breakfast dishes, or sort some socks? Maybe. Sometimes just walking away from my desk and coming back even five minutes later gives me a whole new way of looking at what I’m writing. If I keep these little forays to under five minutes, they often work. If I let them extend much beyond fifteen minutes, I start double-dipping—adding guilt to the writing difficulty, so that I have two problems instead of one.

Another solution is just to keep writing, remembering Annie Lamott’s admonition to write “shitty first drafts.” If I do this, one of two things usually happens:

  1. I write some bad stuff, and then suddenly a solution appears. My inner Catholic schoolgirl argues that I’ve been rewarded for good behavior, for sticking with it. My Advaita Vendata Hindu self argues that I’ve earned good karma. Who knows? All I care about is that I’ve moved through the “ding” into the “ping” and “swing” of the Zone.
  2. I write some bad stuff, and have something to edit the next day instead of having to start from scratch—and on top of that, beating myself up for having abandoned the project the day before.

Life and writing will always offer challenges. That’s why we love them. We may moan and groan, scream and cry, but deep in our hearts we know that embracing what they serve up, and finding within us whatever we need to meet those challenges, is the making of us.


Did you know that I also blog on selling—how to enjoy it, get the results you want, and serve people in the process? To check it out and sign up if you like, go to www.soulofselling.com.



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Write Your Way Through Distractions, Temptations, and Blocks

obstaclesDistractions, temptations, and blocks! Oh my! We all have them. Let’s look at what they are and how to write our way through them.

We all have our own personal distractions. Here is my partial list: emails, neighbors, phone calls, “earning a living, for God’s sake,” cooking dinner, posting on blogs, Words with Friends, Bejeweled Deluxe on the iPod Touch, and watching the news. What are yours?

We always have a choice—the distraction or the Zone—but in the middle of the distraction, the Zone is the last thing on my mind.  My solution to this problem is the old “Stop, look, and listen” adage:

  • Stop. Don’t go immediately into the distraction—and don’t force myself immediately back to the computer.
  • Look. What’s going on? Is the distraction just a way to avoid the challenge of writing, or something I need to handle? Ultimately, do I need to attend to the distraction or would I rather get on with finishing up the writing?
  • Listen. Take the course of action that will make me feel better in the long run, rather than the sugar high that distractions sometimes provide.

Temptations aren’t quite as serious as distractions. Distractions are already underway when we notice them. Temptations are something to which we might yield. It’s harder to make the argument that we absolutely cannot write because we must play tennis, read a novel, play computer games, sink into a Facebook binge, go to a movie, or chat or text for hours with a friend.

My best antidote to temptations is to identify ahead of time what they might be so that when they show up, I don’t think they are some new and original idea that must be pursued immediately. Rather, they are one of the standard ways I tempt myself away from the computer.  Then, again, it’s a choice: the Zone or the temptation. The key thing to remember is that, in the moment, that will never seem like the choice. The choice will seem like: the fun temptation or the sloggy, hard, drudgery of work. I have to remind myself that sometimes I can only get to the Zone through writing; I can’t expect that it will always be there before I start to write.

Here, I’m not talking about regular old writer’s block. (For info on this, check out “The 4 Top Causes of Writer’s Block, and How to Fix Them.”) I’m talking about more general, society-approved obstacles to writing like:

  • Having a full-time job that we can’t quit
  • Having kids at home
  • Being in school

Some of these obstacles seem insurmountable. It’s easy to argue for the limitations they impose, but I know several people who have finished books with at least two of these blocks in place. When we really want to make something happen, it’s amazing how clever and creative we can be.

The solution here is to make a choice between the obstacle and the writing—and choosing the block is just as valid as choosing the writing. Either way is fine. What doesn’t work very well is to insist that you should be writing, but also to insist that you can’t possibly do so because of the block. If you need to choose the obstacle for now, give yourself permission to do that. When you make that choice, you are the source of what is happening in your life. Either way, you get an enormous amount of relief and a big shot of self esteem.

The Zone is our natural state. When we get rid of the distractions temptations and blocks, all that’s left is the Zone.

What do you do to work through distractions, temptations, and blocks?

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Writer’s block hurts!

It’s no fun to stare at a blank page, knowing you have something to say but unable to get to it. In the course of ghostwriting 30 books, editing some 100 manuscripts, and facing deadlines as an investigative reporter and marketing copywriter—I learned how to dissolve writer’s block and step back into the Zone.

I call it the COCO system and add an A (COCOA) whenever it seems like a little sugar will help as well. Writer’s block usually comes from lack of:

1. CLARITY. It’s hard to produce pages or enjoy writing when we don’t know exactly where we’re going, why we’re going there, and how we’ll know when we’re there. Before you start writing, ask yourself:

  • What do I want to say?
  • To whom?
  • Why? What is the specific result I want to produce?
  • How many words or pages do I have to say it?

2. ORGANIZATION. It can be fun just to follow our noses and go wherever our writing takes us—but not having a specific plan or structure for what we’re writing can also act as a “stop.” When I find myself staring at the computer screen, my mind slowly turning to oatmeal, gloom and doom beginning to set in, it’s often because I’m afraid to start out in any particular direction for fear it will be the “wrong”one. It is often useful to have an outline or at least a Table of Contents. Here is a fast, efficient, easy way to create one:

  • Make a list of all the subjects you want to cover.
  • Select the 10-15 most important ideas.
  • Group the rest of your ideas inside these major ideas as subheads.
  • As more ideas occur to you, keep grouping them under your major headings.
  • Reorganize your major and minor headings as needed.

Keep your outline/Table of Contents flexible. Let it shift as your thinking organizes itself—but meanwhile, just keep following the outline until you see that it needs to be revised. Then revise it.

3. COHERENT WORK HABITS. This may seem obvious, but remember to:

  • Take off that chenille bathrobe and put on some clothes.
  • Organize your work space so that it is clean, clear, and set up to work for you.
  • Write in the times of day that work for you, and stick to whatever schedule you set up.
  • Set deadlines for yourself so that you don’t get into “on and on and on and I’ll never finish” writing.

4. OPTIMISM OR CONFIDENCE It’s easy for one unsuccessful bout with writer’s block to turn into a mental miasma of:

  • “I can’t do it!”
  • “It’s too overwhelming and I’m not up to it.”
  • “This was a bad idea anyway. Who do I think I am to try this?”
  • “I have writer’s block, so I can’t write.”

The best “fix” for writer’s block is to write your way out of it. Just write something, anything. Follow Anne Lamott’s suggestion in Bird by Bird: “Write shitty first drafts.” Then you have something on paper to edit. You can do it.

Another way to boost your confidence and optimism is to review the answers you gave to 1 and 2 above. It will remind you that you know where you are going, why, and how to get there.

Now, what about that A that turns COCO into COCOA? A is for Applause! Give yourself a big hand and remember to pat yourself on the back regularly and frequently for embracing the high challenge and calling of writing!


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