Creating: There’s No Right Way to Do It

A friend of mine recently attended her first ever writing class. She was really nervous. She didn’t know if she’d “fit” there. She thought maybe she wasn’t brilliant or wacky or temperamental enough to be a writer.

She showed up, and things were going along okay, and then the teacher said this: “If you’re not willing to reveal everything about yourself, you have no business being a writer.”

Ouch. My friend felt like a hermit crab retreating into its shell. It had been hard enough just getting herself to the class, and now here’s someone in a position of authority saying that if she doesn’t put it all out there, she has no right to write.

Here’s the thing:

When we begin something new, we are tentative. This is normal. Feeling tentative does not mean we are not serious or that we “won’t make it.” We need to start small, and stretch ourselves a little each time we begin again. And little by little, we become less tentative. We take bigger risks.

When we create, we are exposing pieces of ourselves. We are saying, in essence, this is what fascinates me, this is what I struggle with, this is what I really care about. And that can be hard. That can be terrifying. Particularly if we’re just starting out. And even if we’re seasoned creators, we continue to explore new territory and there’s always an element of fear in that.

Starting small and feeling tentative about it is so much better than not starting at all.

And this is exactly why we need to start small if we are really, really afraid. If you get vertigo when you stand on a chair, you don’t climb up a bell tower and look down (well, unless you are Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, but you get my point).

Some new writers are excited and motivated by the idea of  “laying it all on the line.” And that’s terrific.

But if you’re not excited and motivated by that, if it scares the hell out of you, that doesn’t make you any less a writer. And you shouldn’t have to hide this fear because you’re afraid someone will tell you that if you don’t want to lay it all on the line, it means you “don’t really want it.”

And here’s another truth: The more you care about something, the more tender the subject, the closer it is to your very essence, the harder it’s going to be to write about — or, at least, the harder it’s going to be to share with others.

But this doesn’t mean that, if you’re not feeling ready to do that now, you have no business being a writer. It just means you’re not feeling ready to do that now.

Here’s a question I like: What might help me to feel a little more okay about starting?

Obviously, the idea that she had to be willing to reveal everything about herself shut my friend down. She didn’t want to return to the second writing class; she didn’t even want to write.

So here’s what we worked out together. We changed “I have to be willing to reveal everything about myself” to “I’m willing to reveal some things about myself.” This felt much better to her. And here’s another thought that felt true for her: “I have the right to be a writer because I have a deep desire to write.”

I tell this story because we create resistance when we believe black-and-white, all-or-nothing thoughts about our creativity. There’s no “right” way to create. You can be a “real” writer even if you are not putting one hundred percent of your inner turmoil out there for the world to see.

Here’s what I’ve found: I can usually do more and go farther than I thought I could. But I don’t find that out if I don’t give myself full permission to meet myself where I am. If I set up a challenge for myself that feels insurmountable (or, when it comes down to it, undesirable), I’m going to shut down.

So give yourself full permission to be a beginner (and we’re all beginning, again and again and again). If someone criticizes you for being “too tentative,” or “not serious,” say, “‘I am serious. I’m seriously tentative. I’m trying something new.” And then tell them they have to stop criticizing you. And this goes double if you’re criticizing yourself.

If a belief shuts you down, it’s not the truth for you. There are as many kinds of creators as there are human beings who have the desire to create. And we’re all motivated in different ways. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and thank goodness for that.

Image is MESSY PAINTS © Paige Foster |

Getting out of analysis paralysis (or: what to do when you don’t know what to do)

A couple of my clients, both writers, have been struggling with “analysis paralysis.” They’re ultra-verbal, extremely articulate, and live a lot in their heads. And they’re both also funny and intelligent and sensitive and downright awesome. And I don’t like seeing them in so much stress. So, of course, we wanted to find out how to move them out of it.

Both of them said they had reached a point where they just didn’t know what the hell to do about the particular bundle of issues they were wrestling with. Because there were a lot of issues, and they’d gone over every possible option a thousand times, and looked at it all from every possible angle, and nothing solved the problem. And now they felt totally stuck and spent.

And I so, so get it. In fact, I’d been in the process of curling up in that very same corner (the one I’d so handily painted myself into). And it’s always interesting to see what you’re going through mirrored back to you, but when it’s somebody else’s stuff, you have the ability to see it more clearly.

There’s a correlation between people who tend to be perfectionistic (me!) and “mistake-avoidant” (me!) and people who get stuck in analysis paralysis. We think there’s got to be a right option, a right path, and we’re convinced that we can somehow keep ourselves from ever having any regrets if we can just find it, so we go into the spin cycle of analysis. We try to “think” our way out of whatever is overwhelming us, and in the process, we overwhelm ourselves more by imagining every eventuality.

And in the darkest, heaviest times, this is the stuff depression is made of. Because every option we see has a “yeah, but” attached to it, and since we’re using the minds that created the issues in the first place to try to find our way out of them, we’re truly in a stuck-leading-the-stuck place and more thinking is absolutely not going to help us now.

For those of us who tend to be very verbal and in our heads, it is vital that we connect with our bodies when we are freaking out — though this is probably going to be the last thing we “think” we should do.

That’s why the last time I got massively stuck in analysis paralysis, I got up from my desk (where I was surrounded by words: email notifications, my open notebook, my daily planner) and went into the kitchen and did the dishes.

In fact, Byron Katie actually has a concept called “doing the dishes.” It means, just do that one simple thing that needs to be done. That’s all you ever have to do. Everything else is just a thought, usually a thought about the future or the past.

My clients and I came up with several ways to pull ourselves out of an analysis paralysis “emergency state,” all based on the concept of simplifying and getting into the moment. And because, if you’re in this state, it is indeed vital to keep things simple, I’ve kept the list to three things.

1) Do something that requires physical movement. Think manual labor (like my doing the dishes, or vacuuming), or taking a walk to the post office — no mental heavy lifting. (Again: you don’t want to get more verbal at these times — that’s part of the problem. You want to get into your body.)

2) If you only do one thing (remember, we’re focusing on simplifying here), let it be giving yourself permission to stop beating yourself up for getting into analysis paralysis and everything that has contributed to it. Really, that’s all. Permission to stop beating yourself up. You don’t even have to stop. You just have to give yourself permission to do so.

3) Let go of one thing in your physical space. Yes, get rid of it. Take it to the trash. (If you’re like me, and you believe that even empty boxes of Kleenex just might have feelings, be very, very gentle as you do.) And, since our intention is to simplify and not complicate things here, it has to be something you absolutely have been meaning to get rid of. Don’t get caught up in wondering if you really want to get rid of it, because then you’re right back into analysis paralysis. Then: Notice how it feels to have let go of that object, whatever it was. See if you feel just the tiniest bit lighter. If it feels right, you can continue letting go of things. (I did this with two drawers of clothing recently.) But only if it feels right.

What are your techniques for getting yourself out of analysis paralysis? I’d love to know.

This week:

I have two openings for new coaching clients in July. Are you a sensitive creator who feels stuck or overwhelmed? Contact me to set up a free consultation.

And: This Thursday, July 5, is the last day to register for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I am one of the coaches, and I’ve also been a participant in this group since it started last September. In that time, I’ve completed two previously unfinished novel drafts. If you’re feeling stuck or like you just can’t develop a solid writing habit on your own, I highly recommend you check it out!

Image is TRAFFIC SIGN © Zdenek |

Creativity and the selves within us

Lately with the wonderful creators I’m coaching, I’m noticing a theme of “shoulds.”

“I should be taking more risks with my writing.”

“I shouldn’t be spending so much time lolling around on the beach.”

“I shouldn’t be taking on so many creative projects” or, the flipside, “I should be trying harder to get out there and be more creative.”

First of all, creativity isn’t something you do. It’s something you are.

Our projects are simply a way of tapping the creativity that is always within us, giving it a form. It’s important to remember this, because our minds tend to work in a black-and-white way: “I’m creative when I’m sitting at the computer typing the words of my novel, but I’m not creative when I’m doing the dishes.” (Check out my previous post on defining creativity.)

Actually, you are creative when you are doing both. Creativity is simply the energy of life moving through us, and our particular perspective on that energy at that particular moment. It is always available. 

And, we all have different selves within us. I know I have an adventurous self who loves the idea of living on the edge, taking creative risks, going all out in search of a particular truth (I saw the awesome “Prometheus” last night, and I came out of the theater totally in touch with the adventurous risk-taker part of me).

But I also have many other selves within me. One of my core selves is about twelve years old, vulnerable, self-conscious, unsure of her place in the world and wanting very much to feel safe and cherished. This self is often completely at odds with the risk-taker part of me. And she needs a very particular kind of care.

A quick way for me to get into “shoulds” and create big-time resistance is to ignore the needs of one self or another.

If I ignore the needs of the risk-taker, I find I’m playing it safe (this particularly shows in my writing, when I read what I wrote the day before and realize I’m bored; I just don’t care about what I’m writing because the stakes aren’t high enough).

If I ignore the needs of the vulnerable twelve-year-old who craves safety and boundaries, I wear myself out, I throw myself into situations and relationships without questioning whether or not they are good for this part of me. I find I’m pushing and forcing myself a lot. I can also feel angry, teary, and like I am betraying myself. I may attempt to do something (write about a topic that is tough for me, for example) before I have built the inner resources to go there.

But it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Believe it or not, I can meet the needs of both of these aspects of myself (and the many others as well — though I won’t necessarily be able to meet the needs of all of them at the same time). I can fuel the risk-taking needs of my inner adventurer and also reassure my inner twelve-year-old that I won’t drag her along on these risk-taking expeditions unless she is ready and willing.

This might look like, for example, taking on writing material that feels challenging and scary and risky, but promising myself that I will stop for the day if it starts to feel overwhelming and I’m physically tired or emotionally upset. I can continue the next day, if it continues to feel right for all of me.

And listening to as many aspects of ourselves as we can is beautiful for whatever we’re creating. The more we honor our complexity, the more complex and wondrous our creations will be.

How do you meet the needs of the different selves within you, and what impact does this have on your creativity? I’d love to hear your story.

Image is FREE TIME, ENJOYING THE SUN © Svetlana Komolova |

Making Friends with Discomfort (even when you don’t want to)

My mother once told me that she sometimes skips to the ends of the books she reads because she can’t stand waiting to know what happens.

“Mom!” I said. “That ruins the whole experience of reading it!”

“No it doesn’t,” she said. “It allows me to calm down enough to really enjoy the book. I don’t have to be anxious. I know what’s going to happen.”

Although I don’t share my mom’s inclination to skip to the ending of the book I’m reading (in fact, if it’s really good, I don’t even want to skip to the next paragraph, because I know it’s going to be delicious), I get where my mom is coming from. Probably too well. I’m the girl who’s always wanted to skip to the end of her own life so I can know what happens. So I don’t have to make any choices (because what if I make the wrong one, and that creates another wrong one, and so on, and pretty soon my entire life is derailed?). So I don’t have to be in process.

But let’s face it: When are we not in process? Our lives are one giant process, and each day of our lives is made up of tiny processes. And the thing about process is, it’s a big question mark. We talk a lot about results and outcomes, but as soon as we reach one, it’s already in the process of changing. Our lives simply don’t stay the same for very long, because, if we are committed to our own growth, we don’t stay the same. And even if avoid change like the plague (and some of us do!), somehow it happens to us anyway.

But this process stuff can be really, really uncomfortable. And because it’s uncomfortable, and we read discomfort as pain, we try to do anything to get out of the discomfort.

For me, that has sometimes looked like:

* leaving a relationship before I really understood what was going on because I felt so uncomfortable, and then recreating the same relationship elsewhere;

* leaving a job before I really understood why I didn’t like it and then recreating that same job situation elsewhere;

* impulsively getting into a relationship or taking a job I didn’t even want in an attempt to outrun my discomfort;

* eating when I wasn’t hungry;

* buying things I didn’t truly want or need.

You get the idea. Here’s the thing: We can’t outrun our discomfort. In fact, if we’re in a big hurry to do something, or to get away from something, it’s a pretty sure sign that we are attempting to outrun some kind of negative emotion.

Changing the situation is not going to get rid of our discomfort. We can’t outrun ourselves. I can move to Australia or outer space to try to get away from my discomfort, and once the dust has settled, I’ll still be me.

So what’s the answer? Acknowledge that if we are going to live fully, connected to our emotions and committed to creating the lives we want, we are going to be in discomfort regularly.

Being in discomfort does not mean something is wrong.

If we’re in discomfort, we can:

* Stop (for the moment). Feel the discomfort in our bodies. It’s nothing more than a sensation. What does it feel like?

* Notice whatever emotion is coming up, and, if we are in a safe place, let it come up. Let it come up and out.

* Notice the thoughts we’re having. Our thoughts create our emotions. Our thoughts create our discomfort. Notice your stressful thoughts and work with them. Do The Work of Byron Katie, or talk to a friend or a coach or a therapist you trust who can point out to you what you may not be able to see yourself.

Being in discomfort does not mean we need to flee, look for jobs, relationships, or projects that don’t trigger discomfort (there won’t be any), or resort to the go-to belief that there must be something wrong with us. It just means we need to find a way of creating a relationship with our discomfort. Because it’s not optional — discomfort is going to be there from time to time, whether we like it or not, and especially if we choose to do things that challenge us.

Note: I’m reinventing my free Creativity Consultations, and I will not be offering them in this format again beyond the first week of May! So, if you’re struggling with a creative project or feeling stuck (or really, really uncomfortable!) now’s the time to grab one.

And: Stay tuned for my article series on Letting Go of Perfectionism — for People Who Really, Really Hate to Let Go.

Are You Stretching or Pushing Yourself? How to Tell the Difference.

I wrote recently about how perfectionism can be such a creativity killer. It may seem like perfectionistic striving helps us get things done, but its constricting energy actually puts a stranglehold on the flow of our creativity. Still, most of us learn from an early age that there’s value in pushing ourselves, in being hard on ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone who’s feeling scared and stuck, and at some point in the conversation they say, “I just really need you to give me a kick in the butt so I can get going.”

Sorry, but I’m never going to do that.

What I will do is suggest that you look at how it feels when you have the thought, “I really need a kick in the butt to get going.” How do you proceed from there? Does it feel enlivening? Does it instill confidence in yourself? And, even more importantly, does it create a feeling of trust in yourself?

When I attempt to proceed from that thought, I feel angry. My stomach tightens. My jaw clenches. I also feel some sadness, because I am attempting to motivate myself through force and fear. And I decided a long time ago that that’s not the way I want to live.

The “kick in the butt” method is an example of motivating ourselves by pushing ourselves. If someone pushes me in line at the grocery, I will probably refrain from pushing them back (or maybe I won’t!), but I really want to push back. And similarly, when I push myself, something in me pushes back. I may be feeling resistant to whatever it is I want to do, but pushing myself only creates more resistance. When I proceed from a mentality of pushing myself, I create an inner struggle.

So what’s the solution? For me, it’s changing my mentality from the concept of pushing to the concept of stretching. I’ve always loved the feeling of stretching myself — whether it was stretching my arms and legs in a ballet class as a child, or stretching myself to write that one more page in my journal last night that was just dying to come out, even though I was getting tired.

For me, stretching feels good. It may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar — as when we are beginning to use muscles we don’t usually use, whether we’re in ballet class or starting our first novel — but it’s a challenging sort of uncomfortable. It feels juicy, a bit scary, maybe more than a bit sometimes, but what stretching says is: I trust you to grow toward what is life-enhancing for you. I trust you to more fully become yourself.

What pushing says is: If I don’t push you, you’ll never do it.

I much prefer the message of stretching.

Also, stretching is a good antidote for resistance. If I focus on the feeling of excitement and challenge and discovery that comes with stretching myself, I feel less resistant to doing whatever it is I want (but am scared) to do.

I’d love to hear your experiences with stretching vs. pushing yourself. What have you discovered?

And don’t forget, I offer free Creativity Consultations. Check them out here!

Perfectionism vs. Creativity: The Gloves are Off!

Note: Scroll down to the bottom of the article for a free opportunity for coaching with me!

Last week, the topic of perfectionism arose in several conversations. Each time, we reached a consensus that perfectionism contributes heavily to burnout, which is a huge creativity killer.

Perfectionism tells us we need to drive ourselves. And it’s a pretty tricky little devil. It can wrap its tentacles around an innocent thought like, “I want to create more.” Sounds like a good thought, right? So let’s say your form of creating is writing your novel, and you work on your novel for thirty minutes one day. You feel good, satisfied. But a shrill little voice pipes up and says, “Only thirty minutes? Surely you can do more than that tomorrow!”

So the next day you sit down and you find it’s a little harder to write for thirty minutes than it was yesterday. And on top of it, now you feel like you have to write for more than thirty minutes, because you have to make sure you’re besting what you did yesterday. So you manage to write for sixty. It’s not much fun. You feel like you’re grinding it out, because you’re so focused on how much you do (making sure it’s “more”) that you’ve lost sight of the fact that you wanted to create in the first place because it enlivens you, because it’s a way of using your gifts, of exercising your creative muscles.

The next day, not only do you feel like you’d better write more than you wrote yesterday, but you talk to Jane and she says she writes for three hours every day, getting up at 5 a.m. to do so. The shrill little voice pipes up again and says, “Look how much Jane is doing! Surely you can do that much!”

The following day you get up at 5 a.m., determined to write as much as Jane writes so you can “be a real writer”. Then you read an interview where someone mentions that Philip Roth writes 365 days a year. So now, not only do you need to get up at 5 a.m. and write for three hours a day like Jane, but you need to write every single day of the year. Naturally, it’s already way too late for you to be Philip Roth, but maybe you can still salvage some semblance of being a “real writer” if you write every single day of the year.

You manage to keep this up for about two weeks. By the fourteenth day, you’re so frazzled from keeping up this frantic pace and sleep-deprived from getting up at 5 a.m. — and by now Jane is telling you she’s writing four hours a day, not a wimpy three! — that you never want to write another word, ever, ever again. You get irritated when you hear people talking about how great it is to “create.” Who wants to create? you think. It’s exhausting and it makes you feel bad about yourself. Screw creating!

You don’t do any writing, or any other form of creating, for months (though occasionally you catch yourself doodling in the pages of your journal, in which you scribble illegible fragments that describe how uncreative you feel … hmm). Now you are so not Jane. (Darn that Jane!) You are so far away from Philip Roth, it’s not even funny. You had such good intentions. What happened to how fun, how joyful, it felt to write, way back when? You just wanted to recapture that. What went wrong?

Perfectionism is the behavior created by black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. If you’re not writing four hours a day, 365 days a year, you might as well not write at all. If the short story you submitted to the literary journal was rejected, it’s because it was sucky and you just don’t know how to write. If the writing isn’t flowing today, you might as well quit, the well has run dry. Perfectionist behavior looks like this: Drive yourself, push yourself, force yourself. And when this doesn’t produce the results you want, quit. For months. For years. Forever.

Cynthia Curnan, in her terrific book “The Care and Feeding of Perfectionists” (which appears to be out of print, but is well worth finding if you can), writes that when we drive ourselves relentlessly with perfectionism, we create burnout, and burnout creates what she calls the “backlash.” The backlash is a long period of “underachieving” to balance out our “overachieving”.

Here’s the solution: Notice. Awareness is so, so powerful. I’ll get more into the topic of awareness and how to manage your perfectionism in my next article, where we’ll talk about the difference between pushing ourselves and stretching ourselves.

By the way, despite the title of this blog post, I encourage you not to duke it out with perfectionism. The more you fight perfectionism, the more formidable it becomes, because it engages with that defensive, fearful aspect of you that’s afraid you’ll never have enough, never be enough. It’s better to deftly swim out of perfectionism’s way, and let it go to battle with itself, like the shark in Jaws thrashing the empty underwater cage. (Sometimes I just have to get in a Jaws reference, because Jaws is awesome.)

And finally, here’s the freebie I’ve been talking about in my last couple of posts: Friday, Feb. 24, from noon to 2 p.m. CST, I’ll be hosting Muse Office Hours. This is a two-hour window in which you can call in and get up to fifteen minutes of free, focused coaching from me on any creative issue you’re having. My purpose here is to reconnect you with your muse! It’s a great opportunity to talk about why perfectionism is getting in your way, why you just can’t seem to get started, or how to continue if you’ve gotten stuck or stalled. Call (708) 689-9480 at any time during the two-hour window; if you get my voice mail, leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you in the order the calls were received. I’ll be posting updates about Muse Office Hours in the coming days.

Image is GIRL AND LAPTOP © Geraktv |

To Create or Not to Create? Assessing Your Energy Levels

I’m totally committed to working on my novel five days a week. But today, it got a little challenging. We got a decent amount of snow here in Chicagoland, and in the time between two coaching calls — time I’d scheduled as my writing time for today — I realized I was going to need to go out and shovel. It was just one of those practical, mother-nature-induced, daily-life annoyances that I was going to have to deal with.

It ended up taking longer than I’d imagined it would. The car windows were wrapped in ice. The recycling bin fell over as I tried to pull it over a bank of snow. And so on.

“Screw it,” I thought as I trudged back up the steps to the house, my cheeks pink and my forehead clammy with sweat. “No writing today. I’ll just have to chalk it up to a snow day.”

Around 8:30, I wrapped up my last coaching call. I was hungry. I ate some leftover mostaccioli and opened my iPad and started playing the Fluff Pets Rescue game I’ve become addicted to over the past week, my “reward” for doing all the stuff I had on my to-do list. I took it as a given that I was too tired to write. But I felt a little bit hollow; the “to-do” list for the day wasn’t truly complete.

And then I felt a little pull in my stomach: a tingle of excitement. I noticed something: really, I wasn’t too tired to write. I wanted to write. So what if it was almost 9 p.m.? I could sit there rescuing fluffy pets (and who doesn’t want to sit around doing that?) or I could get up, go to the computer, and do a little writing.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t do much — just ten minutes of new writing. That was it. But, tonight, that was what it took to give me that feeling that I’d done enough. I moved the writing to the place where I’d done what I wanted to do with the story, with the language, for today. It felt good. I felt satisfied. I’d kept my commitment to myself, even if it wasn’t as much as I’d planned to write. It was enough.

Now: had I gotten off my last call at 8:30 and realized I was physically depleted, my eyes were starting to close and I truly needed to wind down for the night — had it felt like forcing and pushing and having to literally drag myself to the computer to make myself write — that would have been a different story. Had that been the case, I would have called it a day for today — no writing. I would have chalked it up to a snow day and left it at that. And it would have been good.

Geneen Roth once wrote, “Sometimes doing it looks like not doing it.” Sometimes, when we need to rest, that is exactly what we should be doing. This doesn’t mean that at those times we are not creating. Something in us, I believe, is still at work; our unconscious may be knitting together that impossible story problem while we dream.

And sometimes, like tonight for me, doing it looks just like that: going to the desk, sitting in the chair, typing the words into the computer, or scribbling away in your notebook (I still often love to write the old-fashioned way, in a hard-backed Cambridge notebook).

You can always listen to your body for information as to what you need most in this day, this moment. When you think about creating, do you get a little flicker of “yes!” in your chest, even if you’re tired, even if you’ve had a headache since noon? Then by all means, go for it, even so! If, when you think about creating today, your stomach plummets to your feet, your tired bones feel like they want to be in bed and maybe you’ve tried dragging yourself to the computer and sat there for a while and nothing’s really coming out, then, by all means, call it a day for today. You can, and will, start again tomorrow. Trust that implicitly.

By the way: Watch for a special announcement from me in the coming days — I have a cool gift for my readers that I’ll be writing about very soon!

How’s it Helping?

A lot of times when I’m coaching someone, there’s some behavior they just hate that they’re dying to get rid of, because it’s ruining everything. Or so they say. (And when I say “they”, I mean, equally, me.)

When it comes to creativity, this behavior is almost always what the client calls “procrastinating.” Or being “stuck.” Or maybe they’re feeling hesitant about submitting a piece of work somewhere, and they’re beating themselves up for not doing it.

If it’s a person who wants to lose weight, the behavior is “snacking too much.” Or “not exercising enough.” Or tearing the doors off the kitchen cupboards and emptying them one by one.

I get it. In my teens and early twenties, I had an eating disorder. At the time, I couldn’t have told you that: I thought it was “normal.” I thought I had about ten pounds to lose, so I would starve myself until I lost it. I couldn’t stay on my crazy extremely-low-calorie diets, so the pressure would build and finally one day I’d crack and I’d binge. Then I’d feel I’d failed, and what was the use anyway, and I’d binge and binge until I gained the ten pounds back.

I tried to rid myself of this bingeing behavior by more dieting. Then I tried to rid myself of the dieting behavior by “eating normally.” But I had no idea how to do that. One day I didn’t show up for one of my classes in college because I’d eaten so much I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman, and I didn’t want anyone to see me.

I was in enough pain by this point that while I was supposed to be in class, I walked to the bookstore down the street and found a book by Geneen Roth called Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating. I had deep skepticism about books with titles like that. But I knew I’d hit bottom. With great shame, I trudged up to the counter to purchase it.

This book changed my life (I still have my little dog-eared, yellowed, paperback copy, in which about half of each page is underlined in red ballpoint pen). Geneen suggested that behavior that appears to be hurting us on first glance actually has a purpose. It’s helping us in some way that we don’t, or won’t, acknowledge.

When we change our question from “How can I get rid of this behavior?” to “How might this behavior be helping me?”, we change the story we’re telling ourselves. I was no longer “woman hell-bent on self-destruction”; I became “woman who’s trying to take care of herself the best she can.”

When I saw how my behavior took care of me, I was able to thank it and gradually let go of it. When I saw that “feeling fat” gave me a good reason to say no, I realized I didn’t have to feel fat in order to say no. I could actually say no just because I wanted to say no. I could actually choose not to attend class just because I didn’t want to attend class. I didn’t have to binge on lasagna and make myself sick so I’d have a “good excuse.”

This was only one way my behavior helped me, of course; it was complex, and I needed to do some digging and some looking around for me to understand all the ways it served me. And it took some time before I was able to truly thank it for its service, and let it go.

When it comes to our creativity, too, our “counterproductive” behavior is serving us in some way. If I’ve stopped writing in the middle of my draft, there’s a good reason for it. I can plow through, force myself to write, but in the long run, it’s probably more helpful to look for the good reason and see how it’s helping me.

That doesn’t mean I will stay stopped. It means I trust that there’s a wisdom within me that wants to be listened to, if I’ll only give it a chance to be heard. This wisdom wants all good things for me — and when I don’t listen to it, it acts out in ways that seem destructive to get my attention. The sooner I listen, the sooner I can discover what it is I really want, and move forward in the way that serves me best.

If you think you are “stuck,” I guarantee you there’s a good reason for it. But you don’t have to stay stuck. Check out my Free Creativity Consultations — I’ll help you find your good reason and we’ll figure out how you can move forward.

The Gift of Finishing

This weekend I finished a first draft of my novel about a forty-year-old unemployed woman obsessed with the musical Cats who leaves her seemingly pretty awesome husband and rekindles a relationship with the crazy artist who made her life hell in her twenties. Whewwww. That was a mouthful.

Finishing the draft was a big deal. I wanted to pour champagne for my fellow participants in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle, who encouraged me through the last ninety pages of this draft. I glowed to my boyfriend. I’m still trying to figure out how to reward myself (can Crystal the Monkey come over and play Galaga with me?).

I started writing this draft in October of 2009, exactly two years ago. I worked on it pretty regularly — okay, more off and on — for a few months. And then I started losing faith in it. I wasn’t sure what the story was about. This is really bad, I thought. And so it sat. And then I went back to it. And then it sat again. And so on. Until I started to worry it was “on the pile” — the pile of my unfinished novels. (This would have been the third.)

I don’t believe we need to finish everything we start. That’s a thought that can definitely be questioned. We can’t imagine every twist and turn our lives will take, how our experiences will shape us internally so that we may not want or need what seemed so vital five years ago. It’s okay to let go.

But I wasn’t happy that these last two novels had been abandoned about two-thirds of the way through. I was starting to think it was a pattern that didn’t feel good: When I feel stuck, I stop. I talked to Jenna in a coaching session and it came out that this last novel, I was kinda bored with. The voice didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t think I cared about the subject matter. The earlier novel, the second to last one, well, as I told Jenna, it scares me. It’s been sitting so long. I don’t even want to look at it. “That’s the one you need to finish!” Jenna said. And I suspect she is dead right.

So I resolved to let this last novel go and get back to work on the scary one, the earlier one. Only, the thing was, this last novel didn’t want to be let go. Hey you, it whispered to me while I was trying to fall asleep one night. I’m not letting you off so easy!

So when the opportunity to join Jenna’s Writer’s Circle arose, I decided I would use it to finish this not-quite-right, kinda boring book. I embraced Anne Lamott’s terminology, “shitty first drafts,” wholeheartedly.

And I learned something: This novel was also the scary one. My boredom with the book, my seeming apathy toward it, was a cover-up for fear. I didn’t want to go where the story wanted to go. I didn’t want bad things to happen to my characters. I wasn’t sure my writing muscles were in very good shape. And I wanted it to be good, dammit.

It was overwhelming.

So, with the daily structure put into place by Jenna’s group, I made my goals feel eminently doable: I’d write at least fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. Often, when I filled out my daily comments for the group, my negative thoughts were something like: I don’t know where to go next. It isn’t very good. And the killer: It’s not dynamic enough. I replaced them with: I just need to write the next sentence. It isn’t bad. And: Who am I to say what’s dynamic? I’ll figure that out in the next draft.

In noticing the thoughts that keep me from moving forward, I take the charge out of them. They are just thoughts. In doing this with a group, I saw that we ALL have roughly the same negative thoughts about our writing. The same fears. That took the charge out of it all a little more.

In forty-five days, I wrote ninety pages. I still have no idea if the draft is good. But by writing, by moving forward step by tiny step, I learned what the story was about. I got a clearer idea of what my characters wanted. And it wasn’t overwhelming because I didn’t have to do it all at once.

Most importantly (and this part makes me plain old tear up), I remembered the joy of disappearing into my story because I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

We can put so much pressure on ourselves when we create. As if, through our creating, we make the world turn. We can be easier on ourselves. We can show up, write for a while — take it sentence by sentence if we need to — and let the writing come through us. It knows what it wants to be. (“Listen to your broccoli,” says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, referencing Mel Brooks’ line, “Your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”)

But we can also be gently firm with ourselves: by committing to a regular habit of creating. And we can get the support we need to keep that commitment.

If you are feeling massively stuck on a creative project — if you’re terrified to go near the thing or even to speak of it — you are exactly the kind of person I looooove working with. Check out my Free Creativity Consultations — I have some openings coming up.


Image is CONTROLLING THE WORLD… © Radu Razvan Gheorghe |

A Short Post about Overwhelm

Today’s blog article is short, because it needs to be in order for me to do it.

I’m overwhelmed. Well, I was overwhelmed earlier today. I’ve had family visiting from out of town for the past ten days, and yesterday, they left. Today, have-to’s and should’s about neglected work stampeded through my brain, and the more I added to the to-do list, the less I actually felt capable of getting any of it done.

And in the midst of all that, I had a very unhelpful thought, something in the realm of “What will so-and-so think if I don’t get this done?”

So, today, here’s how I dealt with my overwhelm (it might be different on another day):

1) I asked myself, what are the musts? What really feels vital and important for me to take on today? (The answer was: working on my novel; laundry; doing the dishes — the housework wouldn’t usually feel as vital, but it’s really piled up).

2) What part of the musts must I do? In other words, what chunk of each must would feel like enough for today? (The answer: thirty minutes of writing; two loads of laundry; half of the dishes).

3) Where am I getting into somebody else’s business? Byron Katie tells us there are three kinds of business: my business, your business, and God’s business. When I’m wondering what my mother will think if I don’t get my dishes done (even though she lives hundreds of miles away), I’m in my mother’s business, and nobody’s taking care of mine. And I’m adding to my overwhelm by neglecting my own business and trying to control what I can’t possibly control.

So that’s it for today. The writing’s done, half the dishes are done, and that second load of laundry is in the dryer. Tomorrow, if overwhelm creeps in, I will look at tomorrow’s musts. But that’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, my friend, is another day.