Look to proven psychology to help you stick to your writing/ illustration goals in 2013.
Breaking old habits and building new ones is difficult because we pit our will power against our subconscious mind. That’s like trying to hit a bulls eye by throwing darts faster and harder while the target is in another room.
Habits live in the subconscious, which helps us brew coffee in the morning while still half asleep. When we’re walking along dreaming of making the New York Times Bestseller List, it’s the subconscious that turns our eyes both directions before we step off the curb. This mechanism makes habits hard to break.
One simple technique can help. When trying to break old habits and make better ones, the key is identifying the triggers that prompt the subconscious into action. For instance, what is getting in the way of your writing time? The dirty dishes in the sink? Fear of failure? A need for excitement? Discover what triggers your bad habit and you’re on the way to changing it.
Form an if-then statement linking the trigger to your old habit with your new goal. Something like, when I see the dirty dishes, I will go straight to the computer and write. Or, when I feel the need for excitement, I will turn that energy into drafting juicy conflicts for my characters. Each time you follow the trigger to your new goal, it strengthens a new neuro-pathway in your subconscious mind.
It take time for the old path to give way to the new, so don’t be hard on yourself when you fall into your old unconscious habits. Accept that the old habit is strong and do not resist it. Research shows, what you resist, persists. Fighting the old habit with will power, actually strengthens it.
Don’t fight nature. Work with your subconscious mind. In 2013, I am working on identifying what triggers my self-critic into revving up. What about you? Do you dare take a peek under the waters of your subconscious?
The falling leaves outside my window are ripe with metaphor for the creative life. As the tree lets go its leaves to go dormant and prepare for spring growth, a writer must let go of many things for her work to leave the dormant stage and flower in the light of day.
Fear is one thing I must let go over and over again.
“Face your fear!” I heard this advice a lot, but I had absolutely no idea how to do that. My fear paralyzed me every time I sat down at the keyboard. I couldn’t sit and face it– I had to produce. I had to get words on the page. So for many years I ignored fear. I resisted fear. I buried fear under a huge pile of leaves in the backyard of my brain. I wanted to get rid of it for once and for all.
One writing book suggested I whisper “shhh” whenever I felt fear. My fear was not like a crying baby. My fear was like a hurricane. I needed a stronger weapon than shhh.
Another writing book suggested taking off all my clothes and writing naked. I did it. That’s how desperate I was to be free of my fear.
Finally, I realized my fear is not some alien force out there waiting to pounce. Fear is embedded deep in the cells of my blood and my bones. Fear kept my ancestors alive. Denying, hiding, ignoring fear is akin to denying, hiding, ignoring my hazel eyes or my love or words.
It’s impossible to lop off a basic part of oneself and try to move on in a creative endeavor. Often we think we can create just by using our brains. Writing, illustration, cooking, juggling or whatever your creative work happens to be–requires whole-hearted attention.
Being whole-hearted means laying down our weapons. Instead of fighting parts of ourselves, it’s more helpful to accept what is.
Invite fear in. See it. Feel it. Know it for what it is. A single leaf, one of many we can let go. All the better to reveal the strength of the trunk and branches.
Yesterday, I read a blog about boredom being part of the creative process. This so describes me. When I am trying to grind out the first draft of something, I sit in front of the screen and feel BORED. I hadn’t seen this before. I had sometimes labeled it fear. At times it definitely was fear. A lot of the time it was fear.
Over the years I have come to peace with the fear. I had not previous recognized the boredom except to the extent that what I was trying to write seemed terribly boring. How could I write something that others would want to read, if it was boring me? I saw this as a weakness on my part. It’s is hard to accept weakness and not feel badly about it. It’s hard to write anything of value when I am feeling badly about myself. You can see were this spiral is leading.
Today when I sat down to write, my first reaction was boredom. Seeing it as part of the creative process tells me it’s not a problem, tells me I will move through it just as I move through all stages of the creative process. Makes a huge difference.
Does boredom figure in your creative process? How have you dealt with it?
Ate my first tomato from the garden! I know, can you believe how tiny it is?
I love digging in the dirt and planting seeds. I go crazy at the nursery over the colorful pansies and begonias. And I feel great satisfaction transplanting tomatoes from the local greenhouse and seeing fresh, green shoots come up.
But we usually have a long, cool June here, and waiting for everything to grow, I grow impatient. Definite parallels exist between gardening and the writing life.
Same time I planted my garden, I polished a draft of my next book. When the pub date shifted from fall of 2013 to spring of 2014, my impatience...well, it had a growth spurt.
“I’ll probably be dead by then!” I wanted to scream at my editor.
But my tiny and fragile basil seedlings sat under a grow light next to my desk. I couldn’t raise my voice in their presence.
Gardening requires diligent work: preparing the earth, planting seeds, watering and fertilizing. But there’s a point where the gardener must let go and wait. No amount of effort will make the plants grow, bloom and produce. Same with a book. Once it’s been written and sent off to the publisher, it’s out of my hands.
In the next month I’ll go out to my garden, pull a few weeds, stake a few vines, pinch off extraneous shoots. But I recognize a lot depends on the weather, whether the bees come round and pollinate, and the pests and diseases that threaten my crops.
With a book, there’s always more a writer can do in terms of promotion, but you can’t force a publisher to publish it, and you can’t force people to buy it, anymore than a gardener can force a tomato to ripen.
This season I’m bringing my green thumb inside to my writing desk. I’m letting go of the anxiety, and the mistaken notion of control. I’m choosing to trust that my hard work and attention to the details of the craft will flower and fruit.
Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the lettuce.
What do you do to carry your excitement through while waiting...and waiting...and waiting?
I needed a relaxing break from my WIP yesterday, so I went to the dentist for a filling and a crown. After all, which is worse? A shot of Novocain, or realizing you were way too desperate when you signed that contract promising to write a novel in six months?
Seriously though, these days, a visit to the dentist is relaxing. They put you back in a soft reclining chair with a comfy pillow. You don’t even have to hold you own mouth open. They have this new apparatus, nice soft plastic, no sharp edges, that props your jaw wide, retracts your tongue and vacuums spit. Not an ounce of effort.
The work will be trying to find a second job when the bills comes.
You know, I used to feel badly when I needed a tooth repaired, like it was a moral failure. But now I’m thinking about how many years my teeth have been chomping away....Just think if I had a car that lasted that long. Almost makes you want to brush and floss.
No, the real reason I like going to the dentist is the nitrous-oxide. For a girl who always “said no to drugs” it’s quite a trip. This time I came back to reality with the entire plot for a paranormal trilogy. It’s about a demon dental hygienist who tortures her victims by forcing them to choose a fluoride rinse—wintergreen, cantaloupe or bubblegum?
When I was kid I always picked the flavor I liked best. I went though several flavors before I figured out you pick the one you like least because whichever it is, you’ll never enjoy it again.
Actually, my favorite thing about getting a tooth filled—eavesdropping on the person in the next chair. I swear some people must think the dentist is their hairdresser. Talk about plot material!
So next time you need inspiration, take a break and go to the dentist. But don’t imagine you’ll come out with the perfect smile advertised in the office photos. If you’re a writer, you’re in the wrong income bracket for that.
Today I am guest posting over at Tracy Barrett's blog Goodbye Day Job! Tracy is the author of nineteen books for young readers and her blog chronicles her last year in her day job teaching Italian at Vanderbilt University. My experience is not about quitting my day job, but about withstanding the pressure to get one. It’s about going for years between book contracts, making no money and still believing in myself. Hop on over to Goodbye Day Job! to read more, and leave a comment to let Tracy know you visited.
#1—Don’t panic. Seriously, even if you’ve lost your entire manuscript, panicking will not bring it back, it will only cloud your thinking and confirm everything your mother-in-law says about you.
#2—Put your head between your knees and try to take slow deep breaths. Indeed, this will help you stop panicking. If you do it for several hours and your mother-in-law does not witness it.
#3—Recall what back-up provisions you’ve made. If you have no back-up system, go back to #1 and repeat steps one and two until able to call a friend to come and remove all sharp objects from your writing area. Then go directly to step #8.
#4—OK, you have backed up your manuscript. Do NOT let yourself feel cocky at this point. It's still possible you will have lost your most recent work. You have a dead computer in front of you and you really need to get it working again. Do not call tech support. An hour on hold in this situation could result in severe property damage.
#5—Do not use your smart phone to google your error message and try to understand the sixteen different posts telling you how to fix the problem. If you could fix this problem, you would not be a writer, you would be a computer engineer earning a steady living at a much higher standard.
#6—Do not use your teenager's computer to “chat” with tech support. You will spend 47-minutes and 23-seconds speaking with a robot who will eventually tell you to take your computer to a store in your area and get it fixed. Plus, you will see things on your teenager’s computer that you will wish you had never seen and that you will never be able to forget.
#7—Do not click on System Restore. You might think you know what the word “restore” means, but trust me, if you knew anything about system restore…well, go back and re-read #5.
#8—Do not make any important decisions in the next 24-hours. Do not hit anything with a sledge hammer. Do not throw anything out the window. Do not harm yourself or someone you love. Do not take up a new career. Do not consider taking the social security number of someone in the cemetery, committing identity theft and moving to Tahiti. Your mother-in-law will still find you, plus want to move in permanently. #9—What? You forgot this is a post about what NOT to do? You thought this post would retrieve your manuscript? You thought I would tell you about some magical back-up you didn’t know you had? No.
But if you can do any of these, please get in touch immediately at 555-1212. Or leave a comment below. I'm standing by at my teenager's computer.
No good comes from comparing yourself to other writers. We all know it, but we still do it. Even Shakespeare did it.
Witness Sonnet 29. …I all alone beweep my outcast state… And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd, Desiring this man's art and that man's scope…
Though he comes around in a mere fourteen lines to recognize the wealth of being himself, we have no idea how long in actuality he might have stewed in this bitter brine of discontent. Or how often.
But the man shows us how to diminish this demon when it appears, as it is bound to do time and again. In simply recognizing he’s comparing, Shakespeare remembers his true self.
I imagine him laughing for a moment about the absurdities of human nature, picking up his quill and getting back to work.
Life can overwhelm you if you let it. Tiny moments of decision throughout the day determine the weight of the burdens we carry.
Like this morning, when I noticed the smudge of whipped cream vanilla frosting on the inside wall of my refrigerator. That frosting came from one of six dozen cupcakes, chocolate or lemon, I baked for my daughter’s high school graduation party.
In two weeks, my daughter will start her third year of college.
You can stop reading now, if you’re too grossed out imagining the state of my kitchen appliances. But one day, I’m going to die.
When that day comes, I will not have spent a precious moment feeling badly about myself for not being a better housekeeper.
I am an author of books for young people, and an occasional journalist. I blog about dealing with demons and other dark holes of the writing life, also about literature, history, food, gardening, nature, stuff I like.