Why I write (the My Writing Process blog tour!)

diary2

My friend Mary Montanye, author of the recently-published memoir Above Tree Line, tagged me in the My Writing Process blog tour and I’m so grateful. I absolutely adore talking to other writers about why, and how, they write. It’s never exactly the same for any two people, and I love that.

So thanks, Mary, for the tag (and I hope you’ll visit her beautiful site and read her post). At the end of this post, I’ll be tagging another writer and the tour will continue! (Do click through and check out the previous writers on this tour — I’ve been having such a great time reading about everyone’s process!)

Just for fun, here’s my first memory of myself writing: I wrote a tiny book (on index cards, with purple Magic Marker) about our dog, Rosie. I drew pictures, too. My dad bound it in a little leather cover. I imagine he still has it somewhere. I was about five, I think. I wrote the book because I could hardly contain the joy our dog created in me. It simply had to be expressed.

So let me launch into the questions for this blog tour and let’s see if I still write for the reasons I did at five!

Why do you write what you do? 

For me, journaling is the hub of all my writing. I am a compulsive journaler and have been since I was about thirteen (one of my earliest journals is pictured above, modeled by kitty. Yes, I still have it!).

I journal to understand, process, and integrate what I’m going through. And my journaling leaps off my notebook into other forms of writing — fiction, essays, blog posts, short stories. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always doing it for the same reason: I want to know and understand myself better.

Even when I write a fictional character, that character is often an aspect of me, perhaps a shadowy part of me that I don’t know very well, and maybe am afraid to know. In that sense, all of my writing is about moving myself toward wholeness.

And, there is always the hope that what I write will reach that person who truly needs to read it.

What are you working on?

In a nutshell, I’m revising a novel draft about a forty-year-old woman who realizes she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up (and her life is not exactly set up to allow her to find out). I’m also working on a short story about a sixteen-year-old girl who’s in that tender and sometimes treacherous transition place between child and adult (ouch!).

My characters are often “seekers” who are idealistic and struggle with the question of what it means to be a “happy adult” in this world. I feel I have a nonfiction book in me, too, but it’s not letting me know exactly what it is yet.

What is your writing process?

I am a “pantser” and an intuitive writer — I don’t do a lot of planning or outlining, I like to jump in and write. I’m a big believer in “spaghetti on the wall” first drafts. I want to get it all out there and see what sticks (which isn’t always easy for me as I have a pretty powerful inner perfectionist).

I almost always start the day with morning pages; I find I’m more grounded and centered throughout the day when I do, and very often an almost-complete blog post or idea for a short story or solution to the issue I’m having with my novel comes out of my morning pages. From morning pages, I jump off into my other writing.

I don’t write for hours at a time — at about 90 minutes max, I usually reach a point where I’ve had enough and it’s time to put away the writing and let my subconscious chew on it for a while before I return to it. Lately, I’m rediscovering how important it is to step away from the writing and come back to it with fresh eyes.

And it’s hard for me to talk about my writing process without mentioning the wonderful creative writing program at Columbia College Chicago. It was there that I learned to trust my writer’s voice and my innate sense of story, and I still picture the semi-circle of open, curious faces in those classes when I write. More recently, I’ve received tremendous daily support for my writing from The Writer’s Circle.

Oh, and coffee! I absolutely must have my coffee before I start writing. And — if there’s time — a good, long walk. And, if I’m writing at home, my cat on my lap.

And now I’d like to tag Michele Alishahi — a memoirist who writes beautiful blog posts. Her story is so compelling — I hope you’ll bookmark her site and visit it on June 23, as the My Writing Process blog tour continues!

I really want to hear about YOUR writing process, if you’re a writer. I’d love it if you’d share in the comments.

Where self-acceptance and creativity meet

sand heart

For me, self-acceptance — the deep kind that warms the very center of my chest — and creativity are kind of like buddies.

On Pinterest yesterday I came across this pin of a dog that trots down the road to meet up with its buddy, a cat, who jumps down from a roof so they can pal around and go on adventures together.

That’s self-acceptance and creativity, in my world. It’s hard for me to have one without the other.

I notice that when I am feeling “uncreative,” it’s very often because I am not feeling very self-accepting.

How does this play out?

Noticing “shoulds” is a good place to start.

And we often don’t notice them. But the presence of “I should” is (most of the time) a good indicator that I am out of self-acceptance.

I used to frequent a message board where somebody had this signature: “As soon as I say ‘I should,’ I am somebody else.” (I wish I knew who to attribute that to — I think it’s brilliant.)

So if I’m feeling uncreative, my first step is to do what I call a “scan for shoulds.”

One of my clients is a poet.* She writes these awesome short poems that vibrate right off the page.  I love them because they’re so fun and real and colorful.

But she wasn’t feeling very good about them, and when we did a scan for shoulds, this popped up: My poems aren’t “real writing.” I should be writing a novel.

I asked her why.

She said, “Because then I’ll be taken more seriously.”

I asked her, by whom?

She said, “By serious writers.”

We broke down “serious writers.” Her definition of “serious writers” consisted of exactly two people: a snooty professor she’d had twenty years ago, and a perfectionistic friend she’d also been out of touch with for years. Interestingly, she’d always felt really uncomfortable around both of them.

I asked her what she believed she would have if she could get this professor and this “friend” to take her seriously.

The answer was, “I could take myself seriously.”

At some point, we both started laughing because we’d had many conversations about how she actually wanted less “seriousness” in her life and more play, more joy. (And I so get this, by the way. Nothing thwarts creativity like the idea that we should be doing, as Julia Cameron puts it, “Art with a capital A.”)

Being in self-acceptance, for my client, meant she didn’t really want to write a novel, and that she wanted to write even more of her awesome poetry.

It also meant letting go of the idea that “serious writers” (a.k.a. these two people who actually had never supported her true self) could somehow accept her if she wrote what she didn’t want to write.

And embracing the fact that it wasn’t their acceptance she needed. It was her own.

Maybe this is why we often skip over the very idea of self-acceptance. Because if we make it important, it means that we’ll likely have some letting go to do.

The other place where self-acceptance comes in is in noticing our needs and allowing ourselves to have them — even if a part of us is convinced they can’t be met.

Years ago there was a writing workshop I wanted to go to, except that I was told there were no single rooms available and I’d need to share a cabin with two other people for the duration of the workshop. I had a strong hunch that wasn’t going to work for me, because after so much socializing during the day at the workshop, I’d definitely want to recharge in the evening by myself.

I almost decided against going, until it occurred to me that maybe there was some currently unseen way I could have a room to myself. Just maybe, somehow.

I talked to the coordinator and she said, “Well, it so happens that someone who had reserved a single room just dropped out of the workshop. Would you like that room?”

I grabbed it immediately. I felt really happy with myself because in the past, I would have either gone ahead and stayed in the cabin with other people, spread way too thin because of no way to recharge alone, OR I would have assumed I just couldn’t do the workshop at all.

But I’d been able to be self-accepting enough to realize that my need was important enough to voice — even if it was a need some people wouldn’t have at all — and doing so opened the way for, guess what? Creativity!

What do you notice about the relationship between self-acceptance and creativity, for you? I’d love to hear from you!

* Please note that when I share stories about my coaching clients, it is always with their full permission to do so.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” ~ The amazing Maya Angelou. RIP.

Image © Mamz | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Curiosity … and decluttering!

cat in grass

I’ve been focused on two concepts for the past several weeks and today as I did my morning pages, I found myself writing about what a difference this focus has made.

The first:

Curiosity, not judgment.

I’ve had a longstanding, automatic habit of feeling discomfort or dissatisfaction about some area of my life and immediately jumping to judging myself for feeling that way. Then my mind dives into the past and starts finding evidence for all the ways I’ve made poor choices to get me to where I am today. So not helpful.

Over the past several years (particularly since going through coach training with Martha Beck), I’ve learned more and more how just getting really curious about what’s going on for me is WAY more effective than judging it.

When I judge myself (or some part of my life), I create a war. The judging voice says, “How could you have created this situation? What were you thinking?” And another part of me shouts back, “Hey! Stop judging me! I hate you!

Curiosity shifts that. Curiosity is neutral. Actually — curiosity is playful.

I love the curiosity my cat exhibits on a daily basis. It’s so much a part of him. He’s curious about his surroundings, checking them out literally every day as though they are completely new to him, even though he never leaves the same 900 or so square feet. Hey, what’s in this corner over here? Holy field mouse, it’s a dust bunny! How did this get here? How fun is this? I’m playing with it, now!

I like to take that kind of playful curiosity and apply it to the places I’m feeling stuck. Hmm … what’s going on here? What’s really going on here? Is this situation really like that one ten years ago? Or am I actually a different person than I was then, who has a larger range of choices? Hmm …

And so on. Curiosity takes the charge out of judgment and allows me to breathe, reframe, and see all my options.

The second thing I’m focused on lately is decluttering.

I have a deep, deep fear of loss of any kind. And I tend to get attached to objects, very attached. So for the past few weeks, I’ve committed to putting a bag of stuff together to donate every Sunday. I drop it into a donation box on my way to the grocery on Sunday mornings.

This has felt so good. I started small with this — one or two items — and it felt so amazing to let go of things that I’ve worked my way up to lots and lots of stuff.

My only rule has been that if I’m really hesitant to let go of something, I’m not yet ready to let go of it.

Frequently, what I’m not ready to let go of one week, I’m ready to let go of the next week. Fascinating, right? I can let go more quickly by not forcing myself to let go. Good to know!

And that’s it for today. Hope you’re having a beautiful weekend full of curiosity and play.

Speaking of which, I have a guest blog post on Jenna Avery’s wonderful site this week, about how I’m learning to finish my novel drafts, after years of getting stuck, and how awareness and curiosity figured into that process.  If you struggle to finish any project, I hope you’ll head over and take a look!

Image is “Cat in Grass” © Genarosilva | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Saturday Gratitude #9

kittyfeet

For today’s Saturday Gratitude post, I want to focus on small things, even tiny things, that made a big difference this week.

I notice how, often, when I’m convinced something is lacking in my life, I get fixated on the idea that I need a big change in order to feel better. But most of the time, it’s not a big change I need but a small shift in perspective, energy, or mood. Or maybe just a tiny reminder that I’m doing okay, I’m on a good path.

So here are three tiny things that helped in a big way this week:

1) The hand-written, snail-mailed thank you card from a friend that arrived at the perfect moment.

2) My cat jumping up on the couch and touching my forearm with his paw while I was having a moment of solitude. The coolness of his paw pads as he purred next to me. Somehow, cats never take away from solitude, only add to it.

3) That one line in my novel draft that I know I got right, and the laugh of recognition in my friend’s voice as I read it to her over the phone.

What tiny things helped you in a big way this week? What do you notice when you look back over your week that you really appreciated? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

What would make it easier?

Drop of water

Several months ago, I led a small group of my clients through a support session to help them with fears that were coming up around their creative projects. They were all nearing the finish line and feeling a lot of resistance to completing, so I thought, maybe we could all support each other in this.

Something we noticed during our session was that we all had a tendency to complicate things to the point that we felt utterly paralyzed about how to move forward. The closer we got to finishing, the more questions about what might happen when we brought our projects into the “real world” came up.

A lot of the stuckness, we found, was based on fears of what might — or might not — happen in the future, if we actually did finish the projects. What if we put them out into the world and no one noticed? What if we put them out there and offended someone close to us with our content? What if we put them out there and got criticized or booed?

All of these things, of course, are distinct possibilities when we put our work out into the world. Focusing on these possibilities can also be effective ways to distract ourselves from actually finishing our work so it can BE out there.

So we came up with this question to ask ourselves when analysis paralysis set in: What would make it easier? What would make it easier, right now?

Just asking this question, we noticed, created a feeling of relief (which good questions usually do — and most of us are not in the habit of asking ourselves good questions!).

We brainstormed a list of possibilities this question generated, and here are some of the things we came up with:

* I could, just for today, commit to staying in the present moment with my work.

* I could stay in my own business. (This comes from Byron Katie’s “three kinds of business” — my business, your business, and God’s business [you might also call this the universe's business or simply "reality"]. As I’ve written here before, much of the time I feel stress it’s because I’m in someone else’s business. That includes worrying about how my creative work will affect others in the future. There’s a place for this concern, but it’s not while we’re creating the work.)

* I could go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.

* I could check in with someone who helps me gain perspective when I’m stuck.

* I could drink more water. (This might sound silly and completely unrelated, but truly, dehydration can cause us to feel stuck, because water helps our physical systems move and flow. And, particularly if your system is highly sensitive, you may be susceptible to the effects of dehydration.)

* I could take more walks. (Sitting at a desk, especially if you use a computer to do your creative work, can cause you to feel sluggish and static. Moving your body shakes things up and help you shift perspective.)

* I could employ tunnel vision (in a good sense). Think of a racehorse who has blinders on so he is not distracted by what’s on either side of him — he’s only focused on the immediate few yards ahead.

* I could shift my work time to earlier (or later) in the day.

* I could work in a warmer (or cooler) room.

* I could take more frequent breaks when I work.

* I could aim for a B- rather than an A+ (this one is especially important for perfectionists, which most of my clients are). If it didn’t have to match your perfect vision, how much freer would you be to finish? Think about your favorite books, movies, music, artwork. Are they perfect, or are they inspired? There’s a big difference.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone with my work.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone in my existing audience with my new work.

These are only a few examples of what we came up with. But notice how simple most of them are. Sometimes there’s one small tweak we can make that really helps. And we noticed that the phrase “just for today” was especially helpful.

It’s very human to make things much more complicated than they are. Usually, when I find myself in the land of analysis paralysis, it simply means that I’m scared and I need some support. Notice if this might be the case for you.

What might make your current project easier — particularly if you’re getting close to finishing? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

And: If you’re stuck near the finish line and need some support in completing a large project, I’ll be forming another small, low-cost support group soon. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to be put on the list to learn more.

Image © zaliha yussof | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting the deep pull inward

rowboat

Looking back over the past twenty years of my life, I notice that times of a lot of external change were usually preceded by a deep pull inward: a period of maybe a week, or two, or more, where I needed to become very still, write in my journal more than usual, and detach from the external world.

I remember a period like this in my early twenties where I took lots of long walks in the evening after work for several weeks. And another period years later where instead of going out on the weekends like I usually did, I stayed in and wrote intensely in my journal. I didn’t have the money to actually quit work or take a long vacation in order to go within, but it was like some force compelled me to figure out a way, anyway; it was a taking stock of where I’d been and where I was so that I could move forward in a clear and powerful way.

Except I didn’t really know this at the time. I can only see it in retrospect.

I have a couple of clients right now who are feeling this pull to move inward. And, not surprisingly, they’re having a hard time listening to it.

We often resist this inner calling for a while before we finally surrender to it. I think there are a several reasons for this:

1) We have an increasing number of distractions at our fingertips (the other night I was watching American Horror Story on my laptop WHILE looking up trivia about it on imdb on my iPad — and not fully present for either activity). I believe that our ability to focus — or maybe simply our willingness to concentrate on one thing — is becoming seriously impaired, and we need to take charge of this, STAT. It’s killing our souls.

2) We’re afraid of what we might find if we do go inward and be really present with what’s there. What if we discover that we need to make big, painful changes in order to live the life we want? Sometimes we’d rather not know and live in a murky sort of limbo.

3) We’re afraid of the intimacy that comes from having a relationship with ourselves. Truly tuning in and heeding that inward pull means we actually get to know ourselves on a really deep level. (I’ve had clients tell me that they don’t want to do morning pages for this reason. They aren’t sure they want to know themselves that well. They aren’t sure they’ll like the person who shows up on those pages.) Just as becoming more and more intimate with another person is a risk, so is getting to know ourselves. What happens when we encounter pieces of us that we just don’t want to be with?

The good news is that, whether sooner or later, our intolerance for a disconnect with our essential self wins out, and we do go inward. (It’s just usually better for us when we listen to the call sooner rather than later.) Our souls won’t tolerate the numbness that comes from a life half-lived, and eventually we are forced to listen.

Here are some suggestions, though, for making it easier to trust that pull inward, when it comes:

1) Take a weekly break from the online world. A total break, for a few hours, or more, if it feels workable for you. During this break, pay attention to your body, go out for a walk; remind yourself that you are a physical being in a body with a connection to the earth, not a just fingers and a brain connected to a device.

2) Just as you are allowed to take your time in getting to know another person (in fact, true intimacy with another often develops slowly, over time — the quick kind tends to evaporate), you are also allowed to take time in getting to know yourself. If you have resistance to connecting with yourself, it may be because you’re trying to do too much too soon. You can connect with yourself in small doses, whether that’s through journaling or just being present with what you’re feeling for a couple of minutes at a time.

3) Promise yourself that you don’t have to take action on anything you discover about yourself. Recognizing that you really want to move to Europe does not mean you have to take action on that knowledge, now or ever. You may choose to act on it (and hopefully, if it’s truly right for you, you will!). But, as I so often say to my clients, it’s simply good to know. That’s the point of connecting with yourself — to know the truth about yourself. It is not about forcing yourself to completely overhaul your life. I’ve seen time and again that we are far more willing to know our truth, and own it, when we trust that we do NOT have to take immediate action on it.

Have you struggled to trust the pull to go within and connect with yourself? What made it a challenge for you, and what helped? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “One Sepia Rowboat” © Tatiana Sayig | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Saturday Gratitude #7

firstflower

Here we are at Saturday Gratitude post number seven already. These posts really help me slow down and connect to myself, and I hope they trigger good stuff for you, too. (Please share in the comments if you’d like!)

So, here are three things I’m grateful for this week:

1) The robins have arrived, signaling that it really and truly IS spring.

And they are everywhere. There is something moving to me about the way they are completely absent from the landscape during the winter, but they always return when the weather warms up and claim their territory as if they never left. Seeing them again reminds me of the mama robin who built a nest on our front porch a few years ago. She protected this nest so fiercely that I had to tell the mailman to leave the mail in the back, because the robin would fly at the head of anyone who ventured up on the porch. We left the porch to her until her babies grew up enough to leave the nest. I was tempted to call her mean, but what looked like meanness was actually excellent parenting.

2) Anger. And recognizing I needed to act on it.

Anger and I have not always had a very, shall we say, friendly relationship. My tendency has been to press it down or pretend it’s not there. But actually, anger is a friend — and a good one, if I listen to its message and make a conscious choice about whether or not to act on that message. Karla McLaren calls our healthy anger “the honorable sentry.” She says it helps us protect what needs to be protected, and restore what needs to be restored. Yes. I’m grateful I was able to honor my honorable sentry this week.

3) Four fluffy little dogs moved in across the street.

They move as a chaotic little group, each wearing a different colored harness, pulling their owner all over the sidewalk. It’s a delight to watch and I look forward to seeing it frequently.

What are you grateful for this week? I’d love to hear, and I wish you plenty of moments to be grateful for in the week ahead.

Image is “First Flower” © Tomas Stasiulaitis | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Invisible progress

spiral

My friend Julia Roberts, an awesome creativity coach, posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago that she “made lots of invisible progress today.”

I loved her term “invisible progress,” and told her so. Julia elaborated: “I think of pregnancy. It buoys us to know that even on the most uneventful day, we baked the baby a bit that day. We’ve already had a hand in altering the universe. Most days have more progress than we know.”

To that I say, YES! And I wanted to muse a little on the concept of invisible progress today.

Years ago, when I was a chronic overachiever, perfectionist, and dieter, I read these words by Geneen Roth: “Sometimes doing it looks like not doing it.”

What? I thought. How can that be? We’re either doing something, making tangible progress on it that we can see, or we’re not doing it, not making progress, and, therefore, falling behind.

And yet, even as my logical, rational mind rejected this idea, when I read the words, something resonated for me, deep in my abdomen. It felt true.

I realized (I was about twenty-two at the time) that I could live the rest of my life only believing in what I saw, or I could live my life trusting that sometimes things were happening beneath the surface, even if I couldn’t see them in the physical world (yet).

Trusting in invisible progress means recognizing that we need to balance our doing with being. While “perfect balance” between doing and being is not possible, we can acknowledge that we do need both in our lives. Most of us are better at one than the other. And some of us have trouble transitioning between the two (me!).

For me, invisible progress often happens when I am in a “being” state. For example, when I’m out walking, I sometimes get ideas for my next blog post or the next scene in my novel, or a completely unexpected solution to some problem I’ve been struggling with pops into my head. I’m not consciously “trying” to come up with ideas; in fact, they come because I’m letting my subconscious chew on things while I’m focused on my walk.

Invisible progress can also happen when we’re being distracted from what we intend to do. This week, I had to take my cat to the vet, something that seriously freaks me out. Both the stress and the actual act of going to the vet took a big chunk out of the day and I had to let some things go.

While I was at the vet, though, the vulnerable feeling that came over me actually ended up being precisely the feeling I’d been trying to get in touch with as I wrote the short story I’m working on. Even though I wasn’t able to put in much actual work in on the short story that day, the vet visit — the act of living life! — gave me exactly what I needed. I was able to return to my story and give that vulnerability to my character, which was exactly what the story needed in order to move forward.

And sometimes, as Julia pointed out so eloquently above, invisible progress is like gestation. Something is growing in us, but it’s not yet ready to burst forth into the world.

We may not even have words to describe it yet (fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have told you I was going to become a life coach one day — I didn’t even know then what a life coach was). We can try to push it and hurry it up, but ultimately, whether we’re growing a baby or a book, it will be born when it’s ready to be born and not one second before.

There are also days where we don’t notice our progress because it has become second-nature to us. Maybe we did something and did it well but since we’re so used to doing it, we don’t “count” it as progress or even think of it that way. It’s worth taking time to notice our accomplishments, maybe particularly the ones we tend to discount.

And, Melody Beattie has written that on some days, we need to congratulate ourselves for what we didn’t do. This, too, is “invisible progress.” I remember when I was having a particularly crappy day a few years ago and at the end of it I realized that, well, despite everything, I didn’t call my ex-boyfriend back even though he was trying to get in touch with me again, and I didn’t eat a box of Twinkies even though hearing from him really made me want to. And that a few years earlier I totally would have called him back and I totally would have eaten the Twinkies afterwards. Invisible progress for the win!

What does the idea of “invisible progress” mean to you? I’d love it if you’d share.

Also: I’ll be raising my coaching rates slightly in one week. If you’ve been thinking of working with me but haven’t gotten around to it, now’s a good time to get in on my current rates!

Image is “Spiral Diagonal” © David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Saturday Gratitude #6

rainbowsprinkles

Time for another Saturday Gratitude post.

So much to choose from this week — and I feel blessed to be able to say that.

1) So it was my birthday this past week.

And I’m not a big celebrator of my birthday. I never have expectations for it or anything. But something about this birthday felt extra-special, extra-celebratory. The day unfolded in such a lovely way — I spent it with some of my favorite people (and cats!) — and I felt so loved and appreciated.

And the funny thing was, I had decided to give myself the gift of a day away from the internet. And that felt so peaceful, so replenishing, so grounding. I needed it. But then, when I did return to the internet, there were all these lovely birthday wishes on Facebook, and some emails from good friends.

And I was reminded that so much love flows through the internet, too. I just need to balance my internet time with my “in the physical world” time, or I start feeling like a strange, cramped, distorted version of myself.

2) While writing and revising a short story this week, I made some discoveries about why fiction writing has felt extra-hard for me lately.

Interestingly, I had to step away from my main project (a novel) in order to make these discoveries. The short story actually served as a metaphor for the struggle of the novel — but it was easier to see and grasp because a short story is a less vast and unwieldy thing than a novel (for me, anyway. I certainly don’t mean to say that writing a short story is not hard or confusing.). Metaphor! It can make things so much more clear. (More on this is a future post.)

3) Finally taking action on something I’d been on the fence about for a long time.

And then the noticing that what unfolded after I took action was not nearly as scary or overwhelming as I’d feared. And that I can create safety for myself along the way, with each step of the continued unfolding. In other words, I have more control than I think I do. Good to know!

I’d love it if you’d play along with me, if that feels good to you. What are you grateful for this week? What comes up for you? Feel free to do this silently, on your own, too, if you don’t want to share. But either way, do notice how focusing on the good stuff creates more of it. It’s true!

Image is “Rainbow Sprinkles” © Cyrus Cornell | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Creating during the rough times

twinflowers

A reader wrote me with this question recently (and gave me permission to share it here):

Lately I have a number of unexpected stresses in my life that have descended on me all at once. Almost every day I reach a point of overwhelm where I just have to do the minimum and then rest. My work on my novel has gone out the window. It feels like I spend every day just keeping up and managing my emotions, and have no energy left for anything creative. I keep trying harder to “do the work” and it’s just not happening. Any words of wisdom for me?

Oh! Creating during the rough times. What a challenge it is to get hit with a lot of “life stuff” and try to keep on keepin’ on as we have been.

In answering this question, I want to look at it from two different angles.

The first has to do with embracing reality.

When life throws a lot at us — whether that change is external or internal, or both — things are not as they were before. Pretty obvious, right? But let me repeat: life has changed.

I really want to underline this, because what I see again and again (and I see it in myself for sure) is that when our lives change radically — or sometimes even when we are afraid that they could change radically in the near future — we have a tendency to go into denial for a while.

Sometimes this looks like freezing and not doing anything. Often, though, it looks like trying to keep on exactly as we have been — even though things are not as they have been.

Which is perfectly normal. But — after a point — not totally helpful.

What embracing reality means from the standpoint of doing our creative work is that when things change, it’s pretty much a given that we won’t be able to approach it exactly as we have been.

If we are suddenly taking care of a sick child (or parent), that is taking up time. If we have to take on a full-time job when previously we worked part-time, that is taking up time. We literally don’t have as many hours in the day available for our creative work: it’s a fact.

Another aspect of embracing reality is who we are.

How do you tend to handle a lot of sudden change, especially certain types of change? How emotional and sensitive do you tend to be? Some of these things are innate in us: we’re not going to change them — even if we want to — beyond a certain point.

I value the fact that I have a very emotional nature (I’m a Myers-Briggs “feeling type,” for sure) and I’m also highly sensitive.

But this means that, for example, when I lost two loved ones in the same week several years ago, it rocked me to my core and I could not “just keep on.” I remember people suggested to me at the time that my grief could be good for my creative work, and that I could “write through the pain.”

That felt wrong in every fiber of my being. I didn’t want to create at that time. I wanted to grieve. Things had changed, and I needed to ask myself if there was value in forcing myself to continue writing during that time.

For me, there wasn’t. For someone else, there certainly may have been. But we need to take ALL of us into account during the difficult times — not just the part that wants to create and keep momentum with creative work. If it feels right to scale back, we need to give ourselves permission to do that.

The other angle I want to take here has to do with our emotions themselves and the way we approach them.

If, like my reader (and me!), you tend to be “emotionally intense,” the way you approach your emotions in and of itself can create more stress for you during the hard times — or not.

When a lot was going “wrong,” I used to say things like, “This sucks! I am so overwhelmed!”

Venting is a good thing sometimes. But it’s also important to look at what we say when we vent.

Here’s why: When I say “I’m overwhelmed,” I’m fusing my identity with the emotion. And, even if I value how deeply and intensely emotional I can be, my emotions are not me. They are simply energies moving through me.

Probably one of the things I say most frequently to a client when they share how they’re feeling about something is “Good to notice.” That’s because noticing is pure gold. We can’t change a thing if we don’t first have awareness of it.

And, at the bottom of it all, “who we are” is simply that awareness — not what we’re doing, what’s happening to us, the emotions we’re having or how we’re reacting.

So, now, when I catch myself saying “I’m overwhelmed,” I say instead, “I’m noticing that I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m noticing a feeling of overwhelm within me.”

Do you see how this immediately creates a space between you and the feeling?

From this space, you are both the person experiencing the emotion and the observer of that emotion, how it feels in your body, the way you are reacting to it, the thoughts you are thinking around it. And from that space, you are not rocked and thrown by your emotions; you are not fused with them; you are simply experiencing them.

So, during the difficult times, here are two places to start. I’d love to know if anything here resonates for you, or if you have other suggestions, in the comments.

And: If you’re in a rough patch right now and you need a shift, my awesome friend Dawn Herring, founder of Refresh with Dawn Herring and #JournalChat Live on Twitter, will be offering a Refresh Intensive e-course, starting April 3 (the deadline to sign up is April 1). And it’s only $21! Want to learn more? Find out, here.

Image is “Out of the Darkness” © Emi Pascuzzo | Dreamstime Stock Photos