On gratitude, appreciation, and right timing

As we near the time of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., I want to circle back to something I’ve been doing for quite a while now. (I wrote about it in this post.)

As a complement to writing morning pages, I have been doing “evening pages” since early last year. I don’t do them absolutely every evening — usually it’s more like once or twice a week at this point. In my evening pages, I simply answer this question: “What worked today?”

It feels fitting to mention this at Thanksgiving time, as I notice it’s become a kind of unintentional gratitude practice for me as well. In answering this question in my journal, I never fail to notice so much that worked during the day that I would not have noticed if I weren’t choosing to focus on it.

For example, yesterday a woman held the door for me for a long time when I was struggling with my bags. (This on a day when I had also complained to my partner about the rudeness of another person I’d encountered.)

Until I sat down to my evening pages, I’d already forgotten about the kindness of this person who held the door — but when I set an intention to think back on what worked, she popped right into my mind.

It’s easy to get swept up into dark territory these days (I think you know what I mean!). And I’m not saying we should “be positive!” and ignore important issues that must be dealt with. But we must also choose to notice how much goodness is present. How much kindness, how much generosity.

***

My evening pages have also pointed me to something else: the rightness of timing.

One of my “default” fears is that I am moving too slowly, that I take way too long to get where I need to go. While I have accumulated all kinds of evidence that this is not true, it still tends to be a go-to fear for me, particularly when I am feeling thwarted in some way.

I noticed this happened for me on Sunday, when I ran into technology issues while trying to get my monthly newsletter out. The more frustrated I got, the longer it took, the more I noticed myself going to that default fear: Why are you so slow? Why does everything take you so freaking long? You’ll never get anything important accomplished. You’re always behind where you need to be.

Although the technology issues had nothing to do with me personally, my poor mind tried to make sense of them by blaming myself and deciding the problem was that I was just too slow. (This is a “child-me” thing — children blame themselves for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with them. With their limited power and perspective, it helps them to make sense of things. How often do we do this as adults, even though we have far more power and perspective than we did as children?).

Finally, I stepped away and decided I’d deal with the newsletter on Monday. As I did my evening pages Sunday night, I found myself writing about all kinds of things during the weekend that had been good timing for me. Things that might not have happened if I’d forced myself to do other things.

Like: I regretted missing a volunteer opportunity Saturday morning — but during that time, I met up with this adorable little dog I know (and his people!) in my neighborhood. We watched this lovely creature bound through the fall leaves, losing his little lime-green “dog booties” — three of them popped right off as he ran — which caused all of us to laugh, and didn’t phase the dog at all, who just kept right on frolicking.

I was so grateful for witnessing that — it felt so nourishing to me — that I went right to it in my evening pages. But if I’d forced myself to do the volunteer thing I’d thought I “should” do that morning, I’d have missed it.

So, my evening pages have given to me this helpful question: What if my timing is perfect? Most humans tend to have a deeply-ingrained habit of asking ourselves unhelpful questions. Focusing on what works, what we cherish and appreciate, can point us to far better questions. 

***

I’ll be taking the end of next week off for the holiday, but you can still sign up for one of my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions through tomorrow, Friday, November 16. If you’re struggling with a tricky life transition this fall and need some support, I’d love to help. You can find out more about these sessions, here.

In the meantime, I wish you much to cherish and appreciate (whether you observe Thanksgiving next week or not!).

What do you notice when you shift to focusing on what worked today, or simply what you appreciated? I’d love to hear from you.

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here

Above images, respectively, by Evie Shaffer and Alvan Nee on Unsplash

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Why it’s okay to be “boring” in your journal (+ community call date change!)

A few weeks ago I received this email (and the writer gave me permission to share it here):

I have been subscribed to your blog for a while now and I notice you talk a lot about journaling and morning pages and how valuable they are to you. While I want to believe this is true, I have so much trouble actually writing in a journal. It seems like everything I write is so mundane I can’t stand seeing what’s in my own mind! So I quit. But then I’ll want to try again, and I do it for a few days and I can’t stand what I’m writing so I quit again. What is my problem? Should I be journaling or not? I feel like it would help me connect with myself, but I don’t actually seem to like it. Any suggestions?

I wanted to share this email here because this is so, so common. I hear similar reports from my life coaching clients and have heard them from so many others when I share that I’ve been journaling regularly for more than thirty years.

First of all, whenever something becomes a “should”, we naturally develop resistance to it. So, no, you “shouldn’t” be journaling. You shouldn’t be doing anything.

There are plenty of ways to connect with yourself besides journaling and/or morning pages. Just because you hear lots of people saying how great they are doesn’t mean you have to do them. Find another way of connecting with yourself on a regular basis if journaling doesn’t speak to you. Find some way of being in your own company and noticing what you’re thinking and feeling. It doesn’t have to be journaling.

But I want to point something out here: When journaling/morning pages feel “boring” or frustrating because everything spilling out of you onto the page seems “mundane”, it may just be that you are uncomfortable with connecting with yourself.

I write tons of mundane stuff in the pages of my journals. I write about how I couldn’t decide which pair of jeans to buy, because one fit better but I liked the topstitching on the other one better. I write about how I can tell I am getting a zit and how I would have died if you told me when I was sixteen that I would still sometimes have zits in my forties. I write about how we rearranged the living room furniture and how pleased I am with how it looks.

And you know what? I enjoy writing this mundane stuff in the pages of my journal. I enjoy it because I am not trying to be “extraordinary” on the pages of my journal — my purpose there, often, is simply to keep myself company, to know the contents of my mind.

We are all capable of focusing on lots and lots of mundane stuff. And if we like who we are, if we enjoy our own company, that’s not a bad thing.

And here’s the paradox: My purpose with journaling is to keep myself company on the page, to know my own thoughts and feelings. And a lot of times, yeah, that’s pretty “mundane”. But my purpose with journaling is also to break through all that stuff, to cut a layer deeper, to get underneath it all.

If I’m really freaking out because I have a zit, if that’s really bothering me on a particular day, what’s underneath that? What am I making it mean? That underneath it all I’m still an insecure sixteen-year-old? That my body is out of control? That just when I’m feeling good, I have to be reminded of how imperfect I am?

You see what I mean? We can use the mundane in our journaling as a jumping-off point to understanding ourselves better. And that self-connection and self-understanding connects us to others — because we’re not so different from anyone else. In keeping ourselves company on the page, we realize we are in lots of good company.

When people tell me “I hate journaling because I can’t stand how mundane I am and how I wallow in my own shitty inner stuff” I want to say: Welcome to the human race. We are all mundane and we all wallow, at times, in our own shitty inner stuff. And, we are all capable of going a layer deeper, or many layers deeper, and letting that very human stuff take us to the core of who we are.

I would say to the writer of this email: There’s a reason that even though you always seem to quit journaling after a few days, you keep on wanting to try it again. You want to know yourself. 

This is a very good thing. Because no one is ever going to know you as deeply as you can know yourself. Not a significant other, not a child, not a parent, not a friend. One of the huge gifts of being here on this earth is that you have the opportunity to know yourself.

People who have the desire to write, to create in any way, usually have a deep desire to know themselves. But sometimes we have a tendency to think this desire is “selfish,” because we are so mundane so much of the time. What if it turns out we’re not that extraordinary? 

Give yourself a break. Let yourself be mundane. When you make room for your “ordinariness”, you will find it so much easier to allow the parts of you that are extraordinary to surface. Because we all have so much of both. We all have so much of everything within us.

A dear teacher of mine once said, “Great writing is nothing more than the truth, plainly told.” You will never see this more clearly than on the pages of your journal. But you need to stick with it for more than a few days. You need to be so loving toward the mundane contents of your mind that you see that you are not so mundane, after all.

And: Due to a scheduling conflict, I’ve pushed out the start date of the Artist’s Nest community calls one month, to Wed. Feb. 28. Want to join me on these monthly calls? You can get the call-in info (which I’ll send out approximately 24 hours before the call) by signing up for my newsletter, here!

Above images: Top,  © Kasia Biel | Dreamstime Stock Photos; bottom, one of my earliest journals, with kitty.

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The power of evening pages and “it’s done” lists

journalpenIf you are a regular reader of my posts, you know that I am a big proponent of morning pages. They are part of my morning ritual, part of my creative process.

And they never feel like a chore to me — I look forward to them, because there’s no way I can “do them wrong.”

They are simply a brain dump, and if they move into deeper journaling and other forms of writing, great. If they don’t, they don’t; I’ve taken that time in the morning to connect with myself, to take a look at my mind on paper and see what’s going on there. It’s a great way to become more conscious of what I’m thinking, and how that thinking is affecting my life.

Lately, though, I’ve instigated a habit of evening pages, too. This might sound like a lot of rituals, but honestly, evening pages take but a few minutes, and they’re making a significant difference.

I decided to try evening pages because I noticed myself feeling overstimulated and jittery before bed, probably from too much iPad use (and my dear, overworked iPad died just the other day, so maybe life is trying to tell me something). Evening is also the time that my brain gets fired up with thoughts that go something like “so much isn’t working and there’s so much more to do!”

Here’s the way I’ve been approaching evening pages: I sit down with my notebook (pen to paper, no electronic devices), and I write this question at the top of a fresh page: What worked today?

The answer may be something seemingly small or even insignificant — “I ended a phone call before I started feeling drained”, “I drank a glass of water instead of more coffee”. But making a note of it in my evening pages causes me to realize just how much good I create for myself in a given day, and, often, how those “insignificant” things I barely even notice actually make a true difference.

After the “what worked today?” question is answered, I move on to an “it’s done” list. The “it’s done” list is the equivalent of crossing off the items on my “to-do” list, but it feels much more real and satisfying to actually write down what has been done. And there is always so much more than I realized, if I look for it. Yesterday, I wrote down eight things — yes, eight — that I hadn’t even noticed I’d accomplished.

What I’m noticing is that this nightly process is helping me go to bed focusing on what I’ve already done, rather than how much there is to do.

Even things that are in the process of getting done (the big things that may take weeks or months) feel better and more manageable to me when I notice what I’m already doing and how much I’ve already done.

And the biggest takeaway I have from this process is that nothing is too small to note. It’s the voice of perfectionism (the pushy, hyper-critical aspect of perfectionism) that tells us “only the big things count.” The big things are, most of the time, made up of tons and tons of teeny-tiny things we did to create them.

One of the most significant things I’ve learned from six-plus years of working with my life coaching clients is that the more we focus on what’s working in our lives, the more we focus on what feels good and right to us — no matter how small it may seem at the time –the more of that energy we invite into our lives.

So often our tendency to is keep our focus on what’s not working. Yes, it’s important to notice when something just doesn’t work for us. If we don’t notice it, we can’t change it.

But we can get into a loop where we think if we can just “figure out” what’s not working and why, we’ll get to the bottom of it and move forward. What I’ve found is that the more we focus on what’s not working, the more evidence of things not working we find, and around that track we run.

So we need to commit to celebrating what is working, and what we have done. We need to remember to celebrate all of  it.

How do you remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished? How do you celebrate it? I’d love to hear from you.

And: On Monday, March 6, enrollment begins for my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program. I’ve been offering this one-on-one coaching program since 2015 and it is such a joy and an honor for me to witness the changes my clients make as I partner with them in this process. If you feel overwhelmed or overworked, or like you’re always putting others first and are ready to put YOU at the center of your life, I’d love to help. Find out more about the Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program, here.

Also: In late April, I’ll be offering a group version of this program. If you’d like to explore this content with a group, please contact me and I’ll send you the info on the group version. You can contact me about the group version through the form on the Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program page, here.

Above image is “Blank Page of Journal” [cropped] © Daniaphoto | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Shaking up your creative habit

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While it’s vital to have a regular habit of creating, I’ve been reminded over the past couple of weeks that it’s important that I don’t become too routine about my creative routine.

I write approximately six days a week (and although I usually take Sundays “off”, I almost always do morning pages on Sundays anyway because they’re kind of a compulsion for me).

My typical routine has been to get up, take a shower, walk down the street to get coffee, then come back home and write at my dining room table.

But lately, this habit has begun to feel really mundane to me. Like the habit itself is encroaching on the writing and causing it to feel less fresh.

So I’ve started shaking it up a little.

I’ve written stretched out on the floor on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, notebook spread before me (my cat, intrigued by my unusual writing stance, took this opportunity to jump on my back and give me a kitty massage).

I’ve written sitting on a bench at a nearby park, to the sounds of kids playing around me.

I pulled out my journal and jotted down some images that were coming to me while waiting in the car for my boyfriend to come out of the drugstore.

I’ve gone to the library and savored the intense quiet and the smell of the pages of old books.

I sat cross-legged in the backyard, notebook balanced in my lap, the boughs of trees overhead creating a sheltering dome, writing to the sounds of sparrows, robins and squirrels fighting over the bounty the mulberry tree provides for them.

What has this done for my writing? For me?

It’s reminded me that I am a physical being with a connection to the earth. That a lot of wisdom resides in my body, and that when I sit for long periods of time at a computer, I can get wildly out of touch with that fact. When my posture is rigid, my jaw clenched, I feel very serious. And the writing I’m most connected to does not usually come from a place of “serious.” I can afford to dial back the “serious,” and dial up the play, the curiosity, the sense of discovery.

It’s reminded me of the importance of place in what I am creating. When I wrote in Ohio, in France, in Guatemala, the backdrop of the place had an effect on me, the writer, even if what I was writing had nothing to do with the place I was in at the moment. When I write in the backyard with my butt planted on the ground, I can’t help but feel connected to the rustling of the leaves, the heat of the sun on my skin, and let that sense of place seep into my writing.

It’s reminded me that, sometimes, we need change for the sake of change. For the sheer purpose of not becoming too stagnant. And that, while there is a lot of change in our lives that in not within our control, there is much that is. There were so many choices available to me about where, and how, to approach my daily writing, just within the few blocks from my home.

There are far more possibilities than we think available to us in any given moment. But we tend not to see them.

What have you done to shake up your creative habit? What possibilities might be right in front of you, if you allowed them to reveal themselves?

And: I have two spaces for one-on-one coaching opening up in September. Are you feeling stuck on a project that’s important to you, or having trouble getting started? I may be able to help. Learn more, here.

Image is “Table with a View” © Scott Patterson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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

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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.