Category Archives: writinglife
The arts can be a lonely profession. So many hours of solitude, reflection, tapping into what’s deep in our hearts, and trying to channel our inner voices and create works that reflect our true values. Every day, no matter which direction we look, we see a world that is becoming more and more hostile, more divisive, and more violent. In response, we try to create a bubble around ourselves, shielding us from the anger, the injustice, and the fear. However this, in turn, can lead to feelings of isolation and detachment.
Creative people on the whole are much more sensitive to these external forces. We feel the pain of others, the negativity, the excessive bullying and the criticism. This so often can lead to self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and hopelessness.
It is in these times of uncertainty that it is most important for writers, artists, poets, photographers, and all other creators to speak out, to make our work, to dig deeper, and use our talents to speak out against the ugliness, the screamers, and the hatred, and to remind ourselves and everyone around us of the beauty and life that still remain and still belong to us.
All too often, it is the creative souls that are crushed by the loneliness, the mental anguish, and the feeling of having nowhere to turn. Sometimes just writing down your thoughts surrounded by people in a café or a library can help, or having a weekly phone call or cup of coffee with a friend to just check in. But sometimes, nothing seems to help, nothing seems to be enough. If you’re struggling with depression, isolation, excessive anxiety, or other mental health problems, there is no shame in asking for help.
Please, if you or anyone you know is suffering alone through mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, call one of the numbers below for help.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline
Crisis Text Line
Text “HELLO” to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Being creative and productive don’t always go hand in hand, or in my case, they constantly argue and smack each other around a lot. As I continue to dig deeper into the creative process, I’ve found many systems centered around the Getting Things Done mindset and experimented with a good amount of them. Most are so “task-oriented” that they leave little room for brainstorming, spur-of-the-moment ideas and side trips, and just what I’m going to label as “creative freedom”. Now many people are very successful in writing down a list of tasks to accomplish during the day, and one by one checking off each one. I’ve seen pictures of several bullet journals that make me want to take a nap after just reading them. And if these methods work for you, I celebrate you for being so orderly and precise.
There are so many things that can be put on those to-do lists…things we need to do, ought to do, should do, might do, want to do… it’s impossible to ever get to the end. The entire day is spent just checking tasks off the list.
In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman has developed what he calls the 3/3/3 method. Here is a summary of his premise…
“Those of us who spend our working days doing things with computers and ideas and words (instead of, you know, actually building houses out of bricks, or something) face the omnipresent challenge of how to organise them. My case may be fairly extreme, but at most points, each weekday, I could choose to tackle almost any of the items on my plate – and while that freedom is exhilarating, it’s also daunting. This is where it’s useful to follow some rule for structuring the day, like the 90/90/1 Rule, or the Most Important Tasks method, to name two I’ve found beneficial.
It’s not that any one rule is the objectively right one. These aren’t natural laws. But a simple heuristic is useful because a) it makes it easier to decide what to focus on; and b) for reasons that remain slightly mysterious to me, it provides much more motivation to actually do what you intended. In that spirit, I offer a rule I invented – or, if I’m honest, cobbled together from various sources – and which has served me well for months now. Following an intensive process of focus grouping and brand development, I’ve named it the 3/3/3 technique.
Every normal working day, my intention is:
• to spend three hours on my most important current project, having defined some kind of specific goal for the progress I aim to make on it that day;
• to complete three shorter tasks, usually urgent to-dos or “sticky” tasks I’ve been avoiding, usually just a few minutes each (I count calls and meetings here, too); and
• to dedicate time to three ‘maintenance activities’, things that need my daily attention in order to keep life running smoothly.
1. It’s non-comprehensive in terms of tasks. It’s not a grandiose attempt to find time for all the things I’d ideally like to do with the day; nor is it an attempt to organise every single thing I do most days (family activities, phone calls with friends, housework, school runs, etcetera). It’s just an effort to pick a handful of things that matter, and to try to ensure that no matter how the day pans out, they get done. On a good day I might do more. But that’s extra, not part of the plan.
2. It’s intended to take less than the time available. Most weekdays, I get about eight hours to control largely as I wish, and it’s no coincidence my 3/3/3 activities account only for about six of them. This isn’t a foolproof way around Hofstadter’s Law (Hofstadter’s Law: “A task will always take longer than expected, even when Hofstadter’s Law is taken into account.”) But it does mean I don’t embark on each day as if on a tightrope walk, needing everything to go exactly right in order for me to make it through the plan.
3. It’s loosely structured, not overstructured or unstructured. I’ve reluctantly come to accept that while I’ve used and preached it in the past, and admire those who stick to it, rigorous “time-boxing” – assigning a specific task or type of task to every hour of the workday – isn’t for me. One of two problems always arises. Either things don’t go as planned, and I find it hard to roll with the punches by repeatedly revising the plan. Or things do go as planned, and the plan starts to feel oppressive; I resent having to spend the day trudging my way through it. The 3/3/3 method gives shape to the day (for example, I know I need to do those three focal hours before anything else, or they’ll never get done) without boxing me in.
The most revealing thing about the method for me, though, has been how it functions as a form of “active patience”, training me to be satisfied with accomplishing less on any individual day as a way to accomplish more over the long haul. It’s tempting to disdain a plan as modest as 3/3/3 on the grounds that you can’t possibly afford to get so little done each day – so you adopt a far more ambitious plan instead, or simply dive in without a plan, intent on (say) writing for seven hours straight, or blasting through your admin backlog.
“The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly,” wrote Adam Smith, “not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.” Yes, doing less is a way to be kinder to yourself, and to be more present to the world around you – but paradoxically, it’s also an excellent way to get more done.
I’m currently using this method of trying to be more productive with my time and add an additional hour a day for reading. It keeps me moving forward towards accomplishing my goals but feels less restrictive than the more rigid methods. It also encourages a more positive mindset and continued focus on the end goal. At the end of the day, it’s more about what did get done than all the little things that didn’t.
There are times in our lives when we become so absorbed in our daily activities and routines that we often forget to pick up our heads and see the special people and things around us. We’ve gotten so used to seeing them, that we no longer see who and what is really there. Instead, what we do see is the dust on the pictures hanging on the walls, the pile of papers building up on the table, the stack of unopened mail in the kitchen, or the shoes forming a pyramid at the front door.
It’s so easy to become distracted and unfocused with our overextended schedules and the massive amount of information that the world presents to us relentlessly. Just processing all this information can leave us drained and inattentive.
Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back from our lives to see what’s right in front of us. Often, all it takes is simply moving these things from where they are for us to notice them again.
A few suggestions for seeing things in a new light…
1. Rearrange the paintings and artwork you have hanging on your walls. You loved them when you bought them, but when was the last time you really noticed them? Move them around and replace the ones you aren’t crazy about with something new.
2. Switch out some family photos on the walls, tables, or mantle with more recent ones. Or better yet, take some new pictures this weekend, frame them, and put them out.
3. Move some of the furniture around. Start with a few smaller pieces, and create a new cozy reading area or an inviting conversation nook.
4. Change some of the things you have displayed. That crystal clock your mother-in-law gave you that you never liked but felt compelled to leave out? Replace it with a bowl of shells from your last trip to the beach, that sculpture you picked up on your vacation, or maybe a pretty wine bottle that you and a loved one shared.
5. Put the piles of papers, unopened mail, and unread magazines in some matching baskets or bins. They are much less visually distracting, as well as more manageable.
6. Take everything off your bedside table. It’s the last thing you see at night and the first thing you see in the morning. Replace only what you need, and a few things that inspire you or have special meaning.
7. When you do have the time to dust or clean, you don’t always have to put things back exactly as they were. Move things around and you’ll have a better chance of noticing them.
8. Get rid of all those half-finished projects you have no intention of ever finishing. Hide them in a closet, give them to someone else, throw them away…give yourself some space and remove the stress attached to them.
9. Replace those generic office supply storage containers on your desk with some favorite objects. Dad’s coffee can from his workshop makes a great pen holder, Grandma’s teacup is a perfect paper clip holder… Have some fun finding and using things you have and love.
10.. Take 10 minutes out of your day to really see someone important to you. Pay attention as they speak, hear what they’re saying, watch their expressions. If they can’t be there in person, make that phone call. Tell the people in your life how important they are and that they matter to you.
Life can easily get overwhelming and distracting. Take a few minutes to clear your mind and your space. By simply moving things around and surrounding yourself with the people and possessions that matter to you, you’ll find it much easier to change your focus to what is truly important, and with that, gain a much better perspective on your life.
The following are excerpts from the book Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. He has researched and documented the rituals, routines, and daily practices of some of the greatest creative minds in history, from Benjamin Franklin to Beethoven, from Silvia Plath to Picasso. We all have our own individual ways of summoning the muse, of flexing our creative muscles, of getting our brains and bodies aligned to do our best work. Here are a few examples of how some well-known creative individuals spent their time.
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
The author of such psychological thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was, in person as solitary and misanthropic as some of her heroes. Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable. “There is no real life except in working, that is to say in the imagination,” she wrote in her journal. Fortunately, Highsmith was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.
Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. The biographer Andrew Wilson records her methods:
Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost fetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”
Highsmith was also in the habit of having a stiff drink before she started to write- “not to perk her up,” Wilson notes, “but to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic.” In her later years, as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day. She was also a chain smoker for most of her life, going through a pack of Gauloises a day. In matters of food, she was indifferent. One acquaintance remembered that “she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”
Ill at ease around most people, she had an unusually intense connection with animals-particularly cats, but also snails, which she bred at home. Highsmith was inspired to keep the gastropods as pets when she saw a pair at a fish market locked in a strange embrace. She eventually housed three thousand snails in her garden in Suffolk, England, and once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a gigantic handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails-her companions for the evening, she said.
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
“I usually go in shifts of three or four hours with either naps or, like, you know, fairly diverting do-something-with-other-people things in the middle,” Wallace said in 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest. “So, like, I’ll get up at eleven or noon, work til two or three.” In later interviews, however, Wallace said that he followed a regular writing routine only when the work was going badly. From a 1999 radio interview:
Things are either going well or they’re not going well…I’m working on something now and I just can’t seem to get it. I flounder and I flounder. And when I’m floundering I don’t want to work, so I invent draconian “All right, this morning I’ll work from seven-thirty to eight-forty-five with one five-minute break”- all this baroque b.s. And after five or ten or a dozen or, you know, as with some books, fifty tries, all of a sudden it will just, it will start to go. And once it starts to go, it requires no effort. And then actually the discipline’s required in terms of being willing to be away from it and to remember that, “Oh, I have a relationship that I have to nurture or I have to grocery shop or pay these bills” and stuff. So I have absolutely no routine at all, because the times I’m trying to build a routine are the times that the writing just seems futile and flagellating.
David Lynch (b. 1946)
“I like things to be orderly,” Lynch told a reporter in 1990.
For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate milkshake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.
Lynch’s other means of getting ideas is Transcendental Meditation, which he has practiced daily since 1973. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. “I meditate once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for about twenty minutes each time. Then I go about the business of my day.” If he’s shooting a film, he will sometimes sneak in a third session at the end of the day. “We waste so much time on other things, anyway,” he writes. “Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.”
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life. “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival-all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.” Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity, a way of taming the muse to his own schedule. “A modern stoic,” he observed, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same time every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. He usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. He went to bed early, never later than 11:00, and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.
To maintain his energy and concentration, the poet relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine- “the chemical life,” he called it-for twenty years until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco-although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”
Taking a one or two-week “Art Break” every so often is an amazing and rejuvenating experience that I find reenergizes my writing and creative muscles. As someone who writes every day, who attaches words to every emotion and experience, spending time expressing myself through lines, shapes, and colors really alters my perspective and engages a completely different set of creative muscles. It also prompts me to see things that I would normally miss.
I am not an artist by any means, but I enjoy making art. It’s not a requirement to be great at something to still enjoy the process, which I have to remind myself often. These few months of the year when it isn’t unbearably hot here, there are outdoor art festivals almost every weekend, and the art museums are open once again. Seeing in person what others are creating and immersing myself in visual art has been incredibly uplifting.
My weekly schedule makes room for some type of visual art, aiming more toward the easier just grab and go setup, like a small watercolor set and block, a few zentangle tiles, or just a pencil and sketchbook. Keeping these things handy and accessible makes it much more likely that they’ll get used. But overzealous goals and unexpected events can frequently push these time blocks right off the page.
There are so many people out there clamoring for your attention that it’s easy to lose yourself and your voice in the noise. As a writer, it’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the world, to document these events, and voice our support for those whose voices are being stifled.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, greater input equals greater output. The more you can nourish your creativity, the more you can feed it, in whatever form, the easier it is for it to take center stage. Filling your free time with things you love doing, creating, and learning about, conversations with people you can connect with, time with friends and family, enjoying the work of others…all just adds to the well and gives you that much more to draw upon.
There is inspiration everywhere you turn. You can’t wait for it to come and find you. If you’re feeling stuck, indecisive, or unmotivated, try adding more input in different ways. Spend your time like you spend your money, for we only have a limited amount of each.
There are dozens of websites for writers out there, many of which pertain to specific genres, publishing and marketing advice, jobs and submission opportunities, courses, etc… Here’s my list of favorite general writing and creativity websites that offer tips and tools, advice, prompts, creative inspiration, and writing communities to connect with. Most are free to join, and some ask for a small contribution to help keep their sites going.
1. Creativity-portal.com. For over 20 years, Chris Dunmire has been providing inspiring articles, ideas, prompts, and exercises to bulk up your creative muscles. The site covers a wide range of topics on a multitude of creative outlets and makes for a great browse if you’re having a little trouble getting started or just need a shot of inspiration. There is a $5/year subscription fee.
2. Nanowrimo.org. As you might know, NaNoWriMo started out as National Novel Writing Month, where you are challenged to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Since its inception, it has grown into a multi-faceted organization providing year-round challenges, advice, inspiration, pep talks, and local groups to connect with. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of, and a great help to get you moving towards finishing (or writing) that book.
3. Writetodone.com. A comprehensive collection of articles, tools, tips, and resources for both fiction and non-fiction writers. From headline generators and blogging advice to master classes by David Mamet and James Patterson, it covers all the bases. One of my favorites for their lists of resources.
4. Themarginalian.org. (Previously known as Brain Pickings) Maria Popova has collected over 15 years of interviews and writing by some of the best literary giants of our time. Book reviews, poetry, current topics, and newsletter subscriptions to keep you up to date on all that is going on in the literary world.
5. Thewritelife.com. A huge assortment of information for everything writing-related, from freelancing, productivity, publishing, blogging, and finding inspiration and publishing opportunities.
6. Almostanauthor.com. Another general resource guide, especially good for those just starting out. From writing the first draft to publishing options, chat rooms, resources, and links to many other writing-related websites.
7. How to Be An Artist. Jerry Saltz’s 33 Rules on How To Be An Artist on vulture.com. This isn’t a website, but a fantastic list and insight by New York art critic Jerry Saltz. Words of wisdom on how to live a more creative life.
8. Writing.com. A community of thousands of writers sharing and offering advice. You can upload your work for reviews, or just enjoy reading what everyone else is writing about. A very supportive and thriving environment with a great library of resources.
9. 99u.adobe.com. This is an excellent site for anyone in a creative field, especially those freelancing from home. From managing anxiety and isolation, developing creative routines, and dealing with self-doubt, I highly recommend checking this site out. Articles, interviews, videos, and tools to help you be your best.
10. Writermag.com. Inspiration, articles, publishing opportunities and contests, tips and advice for all writers, as well as links to other resources. A great spot for general information, copyright laws, submission guidelines, and answers to many questions for those just starting out.