Creating rituals around the tough stuff


For almost everything we call “hard,” it’s hard in part because our tendency is to force ourselves to jump in and “just do it.” We live in a culture that loves the idea of “just do it”.

And sometimes just doing it is totally helpful and appropriate.

And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it makes the hard stuff harder.

When we think of something we want to do that scares us as a big, solid mass, like some monolithic thing rising up out of the sea, and we tell ourselves to “just jump over that!”, of course it’s going to feel really hard.

Everything that we think is hard has many, many increments and layers to it. And we can approach it this way, too.

Once, I was asked to create a piece of writing around a photograph in a museum exhibit, then read the piece to an audience as part of a writing festival. I had only about a week to get to the museum, look at the photograph, write the piece, and practice the reading.

A week goes fast, and I had lots of other stuff going on that week, too, so in reality, I knew I’d only have a few hours to do this. But it felt fun and challenging, so I decided to take it on.

Except when I looked at it all as a whole, it felt really hard. And when I say hard, I mean it actually felt hard, like a glinting black bowling ball. I could feel my abdomen contract just thinking about having to write this thing.

And this is what we often do when we’re confronted with something difficult that needs to be done: we get really hard and rigid ourselves around that thing. We set up walls around it and then we talk about “breaking through them.”

What if we set up softness around the tough stuff? What if we created a relationship with it that we enter and exit?

If I go back to my example of that piece of writing, I notice that there was a lot of entering and exiting the hard parts, within the whole process of getting it written.

There was going to the museum to look at the photograph. I made that softer by wandering around the exhibit for a while, letting the work of these photographers sink in and appreciating it. I made it softer by doodling stars and cat faces in my notebook before I started taking notes. I made it softer by treating myself to coffee on the way home.

Then I made the process softer by giving myself some time after I got home to sit with my notes and the feeling I got from the photograph. I let my notebook simmer next to my computer before I sat down to write. I let myself take a little time to get a good sense of what the picture conjured up in me.

And when I sat down to write, I made that process softer by reminding myself that right now, I was just writing, not sharing. I wasn’t thinking about the sharing until I was good and done with the writing. And I was writing one sentence at a time.

And within that writing, I took little breaks from time to time where I exited the process.

On the day of the actual reading, there was a lot of entering and exiting, too.

I didn’t turn it into, “Just do the reading! Just Do It!!!” Instead, it was more like: Get up. Have coffee while taking ten minutes to do a run-through of the reading. Keep enjoying that coffee while choosing an outfit. Ride train to reading, and while on train, start getting into reading mode — start entering reading mode and preparing for the reading.

Ahhh. Being allowed to enter and prepare, and making that a completely separate thing of its own, made the impending reading feel so much more soft.

There was a little period before the reading, where I congregated with the other readers, who were also freaked out, and acknowledging each other’s freaked-out-ness made it all feel much softer.

And then there was the reading itself, and meeting the warm eyes of certain appreciative audience members. And that made the reading itself so much softer, so much less like a glinty, flinty bowling ball and much more like a marshmallow or some Silly Putty.

Fast-forward to the present. When I sit down to work on my novel, it often feels hard, until I remember about creating rituals of softness.

There’s getting coffee and feeling the warm cup in my hand. There’s turning on my computer and watching my wallpaper come up (it’s a picture of my cat stretched out on the couch, sleeping). There’s opening my document and noticing all the other documents alongside this one, documents full of things I’ve written in the past, and that makes me happy and gives me courage: Oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, this writing.

And then there’s the first sentence of the day. I make that softer by allowing it to be a totally crappy sentence. And I make that softer by reminding myself that I can go back and change it later. And then, nine times out of ten, I’m off and writing. If I get stuck (which I often do), I make the stuckness softer by allowing myself another crappy sentence which I can change later. A lot of days, my cat jumps into my lap while I sit at my computer.

Ahhhh. So soft.

How do you create tiny rituals of softness around the tough stuff? I’d love to know.

Image is “Necessities” © Liz Van Steenburgh |

4 thoughts on “Creating rituals around the tough stuff

  1. Nice one, Jill! I totally resonate with this. I definitely have to create softness around writing… if I didn’t, I doubt I could produce much. I’m finding it takes at least as much time reflecting and in distraction as it does to write, sometimes more, and it doesn’t detract from the final product in the least… probably adds to it, in fact.

    I don’t do anything all that different from you (well, maybe a few more games of Words with Friends), but yep, those are pretty time-honored softeners for me.


    • Sue, I’m glad this resonated for you, and I agree — when I remember to have “soft energy” around my writing, I’m much more likely to write, and write from a joyful, playful place. Thanks so much for sharing!


  2. I light a candle, and sometimes I allow myself to do something crafty at my desk before I write, like draw or make a card or a friendship bracelet. I never usually finish the craft because half way through the urge to write has taken over, but it’s a good doorway. Great post:-)


    • Ooh, I like those ideas! I light a candle sometimes, too, and had forgotten about that one. I like how you used the word “doorway”. Doorways in and out of the hard stuff … yes! Thanks so much for reading!


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