6 Reasons To Keep Your Day Job

Once I was on a panel with four other writers in front of a large audience. The event moved the the Q&A segment, and, as writers do, we all held our breath. This next part could go in any direction at all.

The first question was this: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?

It’s an uncomfortable experience to pass the mic down the line, writer to writer, and answer for your success based on the assumption that writing full time is the goal. (And, the corollary, that if you still have a day job, you are not as successful as the others at the table.)

At the time, I was doing contract work that I loved and I said so cheerfully. But I definitely felt like the lightweight in a room full of novelists with multiple book deals and LA screen agents.

These days, my day job involves helping others question and research their assumptions, so let’s take some time to look at the assumptions baked into the question, shall we?

The question again: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?

1. Hard Work And Talent Are Not Enough

The first assumption in this question is that if you are talented enough, and work hard enough for long enough, you will reach that zenith of earning a full time income from your writing. If you haven’t reached it yet, then that means you have not worked hard enough for long enough and/or you’re not good enough.

This is simply untrue. I would say that trends, luck, timing and connections can play a larger role in your ultimate success within traditional publishing. You still need hard work and talent sure is great, but those two alone do not guarantee success.

2. Define ‘Full Time Income’

The question also overlooks other factors that can play a huge role in how much time a writer has available to work each day. For example, do they have a supportive spouse with a well-paying job? Did they buy a house before the market went nuts and so they have affordable housing? Did their parents pay for them to go to university, so they don’t have student loans? Did they retire early from a career and now live off a pension?

Writing full time and earning a living from your writing are not the same thing. It’s equally possible that one of these other factors contributes to the situation — or at least that it did when that writer was starting out. One writer’s full time income might be another writer’s golf membership fees. There is no way to define terms, at least not without asking even more personal questions, which…I mean… why are we asking this again?

3. Validation Is Not A Bad Word

Another assumption in the question is that writing full time is the desired outcome. It’s what everyone wants. It’s the goal that all writers share.

As a writer that has worked full time, part time and not at all outside of my creative work, I can tell you that in my experience, writing full time is not for me. At least, not at this stage.

We sometimes talk about creative people looking for validation through their work, and I agree that the idea can be problematic. If every rejection or critique or bad review leaves you in a puddle on the floor, that’s a problem. If you’re constantly sending out unfinished work and looking for someone to tell you it’s good, you are not homing your craft.

But we are human. We are social creatures. We like to do things and receive feedback for the things we do. We like to make a difference in the world, even in a small way. We like the dopamine hit of finishing a task well and getting outside acknowledgement for it and being rewarded for our work through money.

With a novel, you might only get those hits every year or every few years. The right kind of day job — one that pays well enough and is maybe just a little bit boring but not so much that it sucks your soul dry, can fill up those needs very nicely.

I would argue that a job like that gives more than it takes away. It fills that very human need for validation, so that, when you do have time to write, you can focus on your craft. A job like that is worth searching out and sticking with.

4. Writing is Not Enough

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I spend two to four hours writing every morning. But even if I had more time, I wouldn’t want to spend all day writing.

I can’t really write productively for more than four hours in a day. After four hours I’m distracted and my mood kind of spirals and I turn to social media or research rabbit holes or worry as a way to fill the time, and that’s just not productive for me. I’d much rather work on something that allows my creative mind to rest and my ideas from the morning to percolate. These days, I spend my afternoons and evenings at a job where I do some peopling and then a whole lot of data entry.

If I ever “got to write full time,” I still don’t think I’d spend the second half of the day writing. I’d probably spend it on correspondence or writing business or volunteering or really long walks or quilting or gardening, because I would still need the same things: connection, checking things off a list, creative digestion, rest.

And yes, maybe I would need to carve out some time to sign book deals and speak with my film agent and consult on the UK cover, but I’m still not sure that would fill the whole rest of every day.

It does not follow that if you love writing you need to do it all day long.

5. It Is Okay To Make Money

One of the things I need in order to continue writing is a consistent income. I need money. (OMG I said it.) Writers are the worst for talking about money. We write for the love of it. We pretend we can live on the ozone-rich air of most-anticipated lists and award nominations and the occasional five-star Amazon review.

There is also still the perception that having a book published means earning the big bucks, and while that may be true in some cases and for some authors, I for one am not banking on it. What am I banking on? My own ability to earn money today.

I don’t see earning a living as something that takes away from my creativity. I see it as something that gives me creative space. If I’m worried about money or debt or whether or not I’ll have to work until I’m eighty, I’m distracted when I write.

I would love for my creative work to earn all the money I need, but I’m not going to count on that or demand it or expect it. A day job allows me to have my perfectly valid need for income met consistently, and elsewhere.

6. It’s An Interesting World Out There

Your creativity is fed by ideas. By overhearing a snippet of conversation, or by observing a strong emotion on a stranger’s face. By understanding how something works in the world, whether that’s behind the counter at a gelato shop or inside the cliquey politics of the parent advisory committee.

I believe that, to truly experience the world, you need to be out in it. You can’t get these inputs secondhand through scrolling news outlets or Instagram at your writing table. And while I would love to spend my time travelling the world and hiking and writing, that’s not my reality.

My reality right now includes a day job where I interact with people and colleagues and where I never quite know what to expect out of each day. And that feeds my creativity too.

Never Thought I’d Say This, But…

…Maybe don’t quit your day job. At least not yet. Instead, find one that is kind of boring part of the time. One that earns you the money you need. One that keeps part of your brain free for your creative process to work in the background, but that also throws you the occasional curve ball. One that allows you to go home at the end of the day, or wake up early in the morning, and write for an hour, or maybe two.

And to those who say you’re only successful if you’re writing full time, I say, get your nose out of my business. Are you doing your own creative work right now? Or are you waiting for some kind of guarantee? If you want to write something, then set your own alarm for 5am and get to it. If you have to go to your day job afterwards, so be it, but at least you will be doing the creative work that is calling you.

Fictional Empty Nest

I recently completed a round of novel edits so substantial that I practically rewrote the manuscript from scratch. It took way longer and was way harder than I expected. Those last few weeks, as each day blended into the next, I couldn’t wait to be done. I imagined the relief, the satisfaction, the freedom that would come once I sent this round off to my editor.

Anything that comes next with this book will be easier than this round of edits, I thought.

Once I’m done this, I never have to write another novel again, I promised myself.

Okay, so that last promise is highly unlikely, but I did promise myself this: Once I send this in, I can take the summer to play.

By play I mean write, of course, but write other stuff. Experiment with audio. Write some shorter pieces, maybe some flash fiction or an article. Do some art journalling. Write some letters. Maybe finally launch that online writing class I’ve been meaning to get to for years.

Summer of Play

That promise of a summer to play got me through those last hard weeks of edits. I had blank notebooks lined up and ready, I had picked a few books to read and online courses I wanted to take. I started reaching out to my network for Zoom coffee dates, and even a few IRL coffee dates, since we are allowed to have those now.

At last, the moment arrived. A few weeks ago, I sent the manuscript off to my editor. I lasted two whole days before the urge to jump into a new novel almost got the better of me.

I managed to resist that urge, but then, I came up with a plan to launch my online writing class in July — I’ve taught the class plenty of times and have the structure and the content, so… why not?

I managed to resist that urge too. I’m sitting with the discomfort of not having a novel or big project to escape into. Discomfort, and, I have to say as well, grief.

The Grief of Finishing

I’ve felt this every time I’ve sent a novel off, and every time I’ve avoided the feeling by jumping into the next novel right away. This time I’m taking a look at it what these big feelings are about. A few weeks in, and I’ve found some clues.

First, I miss my characters. I know lots of writers talk about this, and it is very true. We make up these people and then spend every day with them, get them to do things and learn and transform. Then we send them off into the world to fend for themselves. Surely a bit of empty nest syndrome is only natural?

In my case, my protagonist is based on a dear relative of mine, my great-aunt June, who passed away in 2014. So it’s kind of like I brought her back to life and then spent months and months with her and now she’s gone all over again.

Second, there’s the loss of identity. Writing mystery novels is a huge part of who I am. I’ve wanted to do this since I was seven years old. Other than a summer off here and there, I’ve worked consistently towards this dream of mine since 2006. Who am I if I’m not a mystery writer, even for a couple of months?

Finally, there’s the gap. The gap that every creative person faces — more of a chasm really — between concept and execution. I had a big vision for this novel when I set out. A vision that was bound only by the edges of my imagination. I had great hopes, which, by the very nature of the process, got whittled down and nailed into place and became limited, as the concept became a material thing.

Yes, I’ll keep editing and polishing and improving it, but the edges are pretty much set. It is contained. Did I manage to capture some of that vastness that captivated me enough to do this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. And that not knowing is uncomfortable.

So far, I’ve managed to resist diving into something big as a way to avoid this discomfort. I think now I’m ready to start with something smaller. Something I can move through and pass on in weeks, rather than months and years. I’m going to start with an article on winter swimming. See if someone wants to publish it, or maybe record it myself on audio and share it for fun. And then move on.

I’ve gathered some stardust into a novel, flawed and imperfect though it is, and I hope to be able to share it with you someday. Maybe even in the not too distant future. Meantime, I hope you are gathering stones and stardust and glitter of your own and calling it done and sharing it in whatever way you do.

[This post is an excerpt from my monthly letter, which went out recently to my email list. I guess it’s like a newsletter, but I call it a letter, because to me, that’s what it is. A letter from the heart, to my readers. Some readers write back, and have for years now. We’ve got a whole thing going on. If you’d like to join us, we’d be more than happy to have you! You can sign up here. ]

Math For Authors

[When I first started this blog, I promised to reprise some posts from my earlier blog, just for fun. There’s not much that has changed from when this post was originally written, except that the seven-year-old in question is now seventeen. (And he’s really good at math.)

It’s fun to look back at writing from the front lines of parenting. Those of you with younger children might appreciate this excerpt from the trenches. It comes with the promise that it does get easier, but also with the apology that yes, you will miss this.]

I failed a class once. Just once. A math class. It was while I was in CEGEP, which is a concept that exists only in Quebec, Canada. Basically, it’s a junior college that acts as a sorter for students. University? Over here. Trades? Over there.

And for those of us lumped into the university pile, the sorting continued: health sciences, applied sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and fine arts. That math class was not just a math class. It was the last thread between me and one of the more “serious” social science disciplines like economics or geography that might have resulted in, you know, a proper job.

I had to go to summer school to make up the lost credits. I took an art history course.

How to count to 100

The photo above is of my son’s recent math project. He’s in grade two, and this is how he learned to count to one hundred.

When I was seven, if I could have felt the smooth hardness of kidney beans under my fingers as I counted them out and ever so carefully glued them to ultra-big Popsicle sticks – well, I think I would have been better at math.

Don’t you?

Last week I was at a parent meeting and one of the school administrators said something interesting. He said: in order to be good at something, it has to be meaningful in your life. If there is a way to make math have meaning in your life, you’ll be good at math.

How to count to 100,000

Back in 2004 when that seven-year old was born, I made the decision that I needed to write the mystery novel I promised myself I would write when I was seven years old. The first thing I did was take a class. I can’t remember the instructor’s name, but the workshop was called something like “How to Write a Novel in 20 Minutes a Day.” It was my first introduction to what I now call “Math for Authors”.

Here’s how it works:

The average mystery novel is made up of about 70,000 words. So, basically, if you write 191 words a day, you can write a novel in a year.

My books are a bit longer. I think Confined Space comes in at 110,000 words, so I would need to write 301 words a day to pound that novel out in a year.

Simple. The instructor shared his method for outlining, so that you don’t lose track of where you are in the story. And off we went: parents, doctors, veterinarians, realtors, armed with the math we needed to fit novel-writing into our busy lives. Painlessly.

Writing is not typing

According to Wikipedia, the average computer user has a typing speed of about 33 words per minute. Using this math, it would take me about nine minutes and five seconds a day to write a novel in a year.

I tried this for several years. It was an approach that allowed me to think that, while I had two preschool children and a full time job, I could still fulfill my dream of writing mystery novels. And at the time, that was a very important idea to cling to.

Here’s the thing: writing is not typing. Counting is not writing. 100,000 words, typed into a document, do not a novel make. At least not one I would want to read. And that was my goal: to write a novel I would want to read.
However, as much as the 20-minutes-a-day formula has its failings, it did teach me something important. Write for twenty minutes (or even nine minutes and five seconds) every day and before long, you will find ways to write more, and longer, and better.

Math for authors 201

I started seriously drafting my second novel at the end of June last year. (Truth be told, this is my fourth novel, if you count the two that I wrote using the 20-minute method. Those are locked away forever and that’s a very good thing.) In any case, last June I had an outline, a bunch of research and about 15,000 words written. You could say I had something of a head start, but that is when the serious work began.

Everyday, I write my word count on a legal pad that I keep on my desk. Looking back on seven months of data, I can learn some very interesting things about my current writing habits.

My lowest output was on September 4th when I wrote 7 words. My highest output was on July 6th when some miracle of astrological alignment allowed me to write 3812 words. There were lots of days when I wrote about 1300 words, or 1000, or 500. There were two months when, because of moving and intensive editing of Book 1, I did not write at all.

I beat the words out at times and other times it felt like they jumped out of me all on their own. I held myself to a daily count and then negotiated up or down, like an alcoholic, or a dieter. I went with the flow and wrote when I had the chance, between writing press releases and e-newsletters and annual reports, between soccer practice and snow school, sick kids and dinner and laundry.

There were many days when there were no words added. I spent my writing time walking or thinking or reading a book. Writing notes and yes, stressing out that I was not adding words.

And in the end? Each and every month, no matter how I did it, if I was writing, I wrote 15,000 words.

The new math

Could it be that I have an internal writing rhythm, and that I have now discovered what it is? Could it be that, if I give myself time and space to write everyday, I will write 15,000 words in a month?  No pressure. No stress. No crack of the whip needed. I average 500 words a day.


Of course, now you’ve done the math and you’ve realized that I must be close to the 100,000 word point on this novel. You are right. I’m just a week or two away. That is, assuming the story cooperates and actually ends at the 100,000 word point, which is not looking promising at the moment.

But here’s the other thing that was left out of the 20-minutes-a-day formula: editing. That’s the part that comes next.

As soon as I get to the end of the story, word count becomes meaningless. On a good editing day I will take out more words than I put in. It will likely be June or July before I start this whole process over and start counting words again.

And next time? I’m thinking of getting tactile with my counting. I’m thinking 100,000 kidney beans and 10,000 big popsicle sticks. And lots and lots of glue.

[Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane. I can tell you that the lessons around word count I was learning here have really stuck with me. Indeed, I believe this post planted the seed for the title of this blog, Beyond Word Count.

If you’re curious about what I’m working on these days, I invite you to join my monthly letters, where I share stories from the journey of creating and sharing my next novel, a mystery set in Montreal in 1947. If you are interested, you can sign up here. ]

Do Your Own Work

Most of the time I’m all encouragement and you-go-get-‘em on here. My purpose with this blog is to light a fire under writers and get them working.

If you are someone that has a strong desire to tell a story, and if the idea that you might die before you write it keeps you up at night, I hope you’ll dive into these posts and find all the tips, tricks, courage and positivity you need to get started. I will share what has worked for me and what hasn’t. I’ll share anything and everything I can related to writing process and getting your work done. I will not hold back and I’ll keep right on showing up.

But here’s the thing. It’s still your work.

No one else can do your work for you.

I’ve worked with writers facing many obstacles. Writers hampered by shame, often stemming from an incident around writing that happened in high school. Writers who have faced severe trauma and yet still have an overwhelming desire to share their stories. Writers who have never used a computer and want to write a manuscript.

When I’m working with a writer, I am never daunted by such obstacles. I’ve listened to their stories and shared tools with them, encouraged them to start, helped them practice setting boundaries with family, written them letters of permission on beautiful stationery — I’ve been willing to help in whatever small way I can. I know I’m just a spark. It’s their own desire to tell their story that will see them through.

But there is another type of writerly desire that I find very difficult to work with:

People who want to see their story out in the world, but aren’t willing to put in the work it takes to get it there.

No, for real, this happened:

One time a man came up to me when I was writing in a coffee shop. He had a burning question for a writer, and since he knew I was one, he thought it appropriate to interrupt and ask me. He told me he’d spent twenty years writing morning pages. (If you’ve never heard the term, Morning Pages are an exercise from the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. ) Now he had masses of notebooks full of his early morning thoughts and wanted to know what to do with them.

As someone who had practiced morning pages for over twenty years myself, and had recently abandoned the practice, I did have a few thoughts. I suggested he shred them or burn them. You see, the point of morning pages is to clear your mind, quickly — in twenty minutes or less — in order to make space for your true creative work to come through. It’s like practicing scales on the piano. The real work is what comes after the morning pages.

No, I was wrong, the man told me. He was sure that what he needed was an editor. Someone to sift through his hoard of notebooks, extract the gems, polish them and publish his brilliant book, all at no cost to him. He wanted me to tell him where to find such a person, or, maybe I could to do it for him? You see, he’d had a really interesting life and there were a lot of good thoughts on those pages.

Also, this really happened:

Recently, another man called me in the middle of my writing time (yes, shame on me for answering) and made me an offer. I could keep some of the royalties, if I wrote his father’s life story.

I was as polite and firm as I could be and clearly said no, but he still tried to talk me into it. Not only was I missing out on an opportunity to make a lot of money, including cash from the Netflix deal I was going to negotiate on our behalf, but I was refusing to help his father, who could sure use a financial cushion in his retirement years.

When I asked why his father didn’t write his own story, he told me, well, that’s a lot of work. And besides, his father doesn’t have my kind of connections.

There were so many layers of unchecked assumptions in making this request that I knew there was no point in challenging them. I simply got off the phone as quickly as I could. I’m sure in his mind I’m an unhelpful person who missed my chance.

My purpose in sharing this is not to give an old man with a good story a hard time.

No, my point is to tell you that a good story is not the thing.

A great idea is not the thing.

Lots of people have good stories and great ideas. Each Thursday, my small town weekly newspaper has enough good starting places for stories to keep a mystery writer like me busy for three novels.

Your passion for the story is the thing.

Your willingness to do the work, to put in the time, to overcome the obstacles, to hone your craft, to learn the next thing, whether that’s how to write suspense or how to make quote posts for Instagram or how to use a semicolon or how to write a query letter — these are the building blocks for getting a great story out into the world.

There is no end to these blocks. They will come up all the time, and, unless you are independently wealthy, you can’t subcontract all that stuff out.

Sure, you can learn from others. You can hire out some pieces. You can collaborate and trade. You can access free resources and choose to pay for others. You can judiciously ask other writers or industry professionals for advice (but only after you have done your own research.) You can attend conferences and festivals. You can join a writing group. You can hire editors and you can learn to edit yourself by trading pages with other writers. You can work with agents and publishers and publicists and social media brand managers.

But you can’t delegate your vision to any of these people. And if you try, it will fall apart.

Even the biggest names in writing know that no one can do their work for them. (Yes, even those that can afford to hire ghost writers still need to do their own work in other ways.)

You need to hold the big picture. You need to know what you are doing and why. And you need to be willing to put in the hours, over the course of years, to work toward your vision.

An athlete might have a coach and a physiotherapist and a corporate sponsor. They might have national team funding to send them to the Olympics and a nice hotel to stay in when they get there. But they still have to run the race when the time comes. No one else can do that for them.

Writing is the same. No matter how much help you have, you still need to do your own work.

I really hope you will. Or at least that you are willing. For those that are, I’ll keep showing up here and share with you whatever I can that might help you along. (And if you have a burning question or a topic you’d like me to cover, leave a comment and I’ll try to cover it.)

For those that are looking for someone else to write, edit, pitch and sell their story for them so they don’t have to, please don’t interrupt me. I’m busy over here doing my own work.

[These days my work in progress is a mystery set in Montreal in 1947 that features one of my ancestors as a fictional sleuth. I send a letter to readers every month about this project and if you are curious about what I’m up to, you can sign up here. ]

15 Things To Do During Your Writing Time

In one of my earlier blog posts, here,I talked about the importance of scheduling your writing time, whether it’s twenty minutes a day or an hour twice a week. And then I told you the most important rule of writing. Really, the only rule of writing as far as I’m concerned: Show up for yourself.

Now What?

It is quite possible that now that you’ve carved out the time, you don’t know what to do with it. When you set the timer for twenty minutes and put your laptop on top of the dryer while your kid gets a precious allotment of screen time in the next room — or whatever it is that you’ve sorted out for yourself — you might well ask, what the heck do I do now?

My answer to you is it doesn’t really matter. Just do something.

But wait. You have this burning idea. You’ve got to write your memoir or your novel or your poetic study of wetland frogs and I say yes, you do. You do and you will. You have carved out time to finally write that idea that won’t leave you alone. It’s important — crucial even — that you do this. I I believe that if you have an idea that won’t leave you alone, it is the job of your lifetime to let that story out of you and into the world.

(And yes, I believe this even if your story never gets published or goes anywhere beyond your computer, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

But, back to this moment. Back to your writing time. Yes, you need to let that story out. But here’s the thing. It’s not going to all come out today. That pressure and expectation will not serve you. You’ll flame out in hurry and frustration.

What you are doing now is establishing a habit. Carve out writing time and show up. Start by touching on the topic in some low-impact way. What you are doing, really, is putting a stake in the ground and letting your inner critic, your inevitable creative resistance, your family and friends and your inbox know that you are serious. That you are determined, that you really are going to do this and that none of it will kill you (or them).

This is you, practicing scales before you perform a concerto. The concerto will come, with practice. With showing up. With time.

Here’s a list of 15 low-key things you might do in your writing time, either when you are first starting, or when you are between projects, or when resistance inevitably shows up and threatens to put a stop to all this nonsense once and for all. (Don’t let it.)

15 (Low-Key) Things To Do During Your Writing Time

  1. Write by hand. I like to work on big sheets of paper and with coloured markers. Or massive index cards. Or in a journal with a special pen. I write down ideas, brainstorm, doodle with words. (I firmly believe in the creative power of a healthy stash of office supplies.)
  2. Write a letter to a friend. Tell them about the story you want to write. (I borrowed this one from John McPhee’s fabulous essay in The New Yorker Draft No. 4.)
  3. Write a diary entry in first person, from the point of view of one of your characters. If you are writing memoir, write from the point of view of one of the other people in your story. How did your high school teacher or neighbour or parent perceive the events you are describing? If you are writing non-fiction, try writing from the point of view of a person (or why not, object) that lived at the time, or is impacted by the events or processes that you are writing about. (Yes, write from the point of view of those wetland frogs facing extinction.)
  4. Ask an outrageous question. Then write down possible answers.
  5. Write an alternate ending. What would Thelma and Louise be doing today if they hadn’t driven off that cliff? Would they even still be friends?
  6. Write the action of a scene in action/reaction point form, like a screenwriter would.
    Action: He jumped onto the couch.
    Reaction: She screamed and tried to get out from underneath him.
    Action: He grabbed a handful of her popcorn.
    Reaction: She started crying and called for Mom.
    Action: …
  7. Write a list of objects found in your character’s home. Pretend you are an auctioneer, or a crime scene officer, and make an inventory.
  8. Describe a change of circumstance in minute detail. The change in expression on someone’s face when they hear bad news. Bathers on the beach when the wind picks up and it looks like rain. The thoughts of a man sipping a drink and realizing he’s gone from pleasantly tipsy to absolutely drunk.
  9. Read. Writers are readers, and if they aren’t they need to be. (I promise to do a whole blog post on writers as readers at some point. I have very strong opinions on this subject.) If it’s all too scary, if the resistance is that strong, it’s okay to read. Sometimes reading is as good as writing. I will ask one thing though. Set a timer to go off 5 or 10 minutes before the end of your writing time. Then go back to your paper or your laptop and write something down. Write about what you read, your thoughts about it. Something. Anything. Yes. That counts.
  10. Go for a walk. Walking (or gardening) for me will often get the story moving again when I feel stuck in place by resistance. In her beautiful book If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland advocates walking hours every day. I love this idea, though it’s rarely possible for most people. Write, or garden, or move your body in some way. Then come back to the page and write down your thoughts. Capture something, anything, of that walking session on paper.
  11. Notice. I talked about this in a post here. Notice the details. Notice people. Notice changes in weather. Notice sounds in different places, smells. Notice with all your senses. Then write it all down in great detail.
  12. Describe a bad smell.
  13. Eavesdrop and write down the conversation later. Then make up a story about who the people are and what they were talking about, no matter how mundane. There’s conflict somewhere, find it. Make it up and then convince yourself it’s true.
  14. Make things really hard for your character. No, harder than that. They have to give a speech? Give them laryngitis and a big red zit. They are hiding from a mad killer behind a dumpster? Make it start to rain, or snow. Making dinner for his girlfriend and her mother (who thinks he’s just not good enough for her precious daughter)? The power goes out. Try this in the middle of any scene where you are stuck. Make everyone just a little more uncomfortable and see what they do.
  15. Cut and paste. This is a favourite of mine. When I’m writing a scene set in a particular time in the past, I find magazines from that time, and make a collage of whatever might interest my character. Home renovations, interior decorating, fashion, housekeeping tips. Think of this as making a vision board for your character. It’s 1982, what outfit will they wear? How would they like to redecorate their house? I am pretty sure you can do this on Pinterest these days, but I like to do this the old fashioned way. I collect old magazines and physically cut and paste them. These quick collages provide significant detail for scenes later on.

I hope these ideas will give you a place to get started. To me, moving beyond word count means broadening the definition of what it means to write. In order to finish something you are going to have plenty of days where you sit at the computer and write. But I believe it does not serve you to push your face harder into the screen when you feel resistant or stuck, or at a loss for ideas, or like you can’t face the screen for one more minute. How is that helping? Give yourself permission to shake things up a bit and try one of these tricks. (Or make up your own!)

After all, if you are going to write that thing that won’t leave you alone, it’s going to take time. You’re going to have to keep coming back to the blank page. Why not make that time enjoyable, rather than a punishment?

Do you have a way to get yourself writing when you are stuck? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

If you are curious about my own writing process these days, I write a monthly letter sharing all the details about my work in progress. You can sign up here.

The Fine Art of Noticing

First, A Story

Every year, a friend of mine organizes a staff Christmas party for her one-person business. She calls it the Company of One Christmas Party, which I think is a brilliant name.

The first year she was indeed alone, and she posted a photo of her solo lunch on social media. She talked about what a great time she had, how important it is to celebrate milestones as a solo-preneur, even (or perhaps especially), those milestones that no one else can see. (Like say, your company earning enough extra money in a year to take yourself out for a nice lunch.)

Of course that was the last time my friend had a solo lunch — a bunch of us that run our own businesses hopped on board, and we’ve been having “staff” Christmas parties together ever since. Sometimes they happen as late as March, because that’s when all of us can make it happen, and I think one year it was even in summer, and that was okay too. (This year, rather than have the party on Zoom, we have held off. Maybe we can have take out in the park when things warm up and open up a bit.)

What I want to tell you about is something that we all witnessed at one of our Christmas staff party lunches. There were a whole lot of us that year, and it was late Spring and we stayed so long that the restaurant staff were mopping the floors around us, so I’m pretty sure it was a dinner, not a lunch, but you get the idea.

Part way through the meal, I noticed a couple sitting at a table across the room. There was something very tense about their situation, I picked that much up at first glance.

Without me even being aware of it, the writer in me perked up. What was it? Where was the tension coming from? Was it in their body language? They were just a young couple, having dinner, weren’t they? How did I reach the conclusion, after barely a glance, that this was a conflicted moment for them?

At the time, I was not thinking about how this question might serve me as a writer. I don’t go into experiences looking for writing prompts, and the idea that I could be that transactional as a person makes me shudder. I think it’s more that I cannot help but notice these kinds of details because I am a writer. The curiosity about the people and world around me comes first. The noticing comes first. The practice of turning those details into story comes much, much later, if at all.

I was at a table with six or eight fabulous women, each one an entrepreneur or remote worker, making a living in a small mountain town by their wits, talent and the sheer force of their creativity. I crave that kind of connection, and every single one of these women was a friend. It was a pretty spectacular outing, and yet, I kept being distracted by the couple at the table across the room.

I knew it was tense. But how did I know? I looked closer.

I decide it must be their clothes. She’s wearing a tank dress in a silky material, a pastel-coloured wrap that looks soft and inviting and a pair of tights. Leather boots that hug her thin calves. I’d love a pair of boots like that. I bet they cost more than a semester of my son’s piano lessons. Her hair is curled and shiny, she’s wearing full makeup. We’re in a mountain town, remember. Dressed up is a clean hoodie and Blundstones.

He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Like guys everywhere, I think, but even more than that. He looks like he’s made an extra effort to look like he’s making no effort. I know that looks can be deceiving — his t-shirt might be ripped-on-purpose silk-cashmere, his jeans might be designer don’t-you-dare-ever-wash-them, but I really don’t think that was the case.

Could it be their expressions?

They’re not talking, or when they do, it ’s not for long. She smiles and says something. He replies in a mono-syllable, then the conversation halts. In the quiet minutes, I watch her face. The yearning I see there makes my heart ache. It also makes me think this is not their first date. Could you have that much yearning for someone you’ve never met before? I start to think that this is a break up date. Or maybe a fight date.

She smiles, her whole face animated, and says something. The hope hangs in her face for a moment, smile sustained, eyebrows high, eyes too bright. It takes a few seconds after his grunt of a reply for her expression to fade, like the tension being let go from an elastic.

It was so remarkable that I tapped the arm of the woman next to me and asked her what she thought was going on. Eventually, everyone at our table was taking surreptitious looks at the couple. Now, I’m not sure there’s a way that we could have been discreet about this, eight self-starting women staring at one couple, but we were quiet when we conferred with each other. And we all reached the same conclusion. This was a date from hell.

By the time she got up to go to the bathroom, we were all watching. And you won’t believe what happened.

He started eating French fries off her plate.

What do You Notice?

I’m going to leave that story there, at the height of tension, because the story itself is not my point. My point is that writing starts with curiosity. Writing comes from noticing. Good writing is full of specific detail, so, it follows that noticing details wherever you are, and letting them sift down so that you can rummage through them later, is just something that a writer does.

There are the details themselves, and then there’s the viewer’s opinion about the details — which gets expressed as point of view. As the viewer in this instance, I immediately think it’s a bad date. Maybe they hooked up once, and now he’s moved on, and she’s hoping it will turn into something more. My experience in life makes it easy for me to assume that he’s trying to get away with the minimum amount of effort. Also, I’m jealous of her boots.

But what if this scene had a more sympathetic viewer? What if they are not a couple, but brother and sister. What if she’s flown in from the city to check on her brother, who has a mental illness and has been having a hard time. Maybe this is as hard as he can try. Maybe him even showing up in the restaurant and eating a meal is a miracle in itself. Maybe it’s part of a very different story than the one I imagined.

What do you think this story is? Could be anything. That’s the thing – you’re the writer. This kind of detail is your clay. You get to call upon some details, picking the ones that will build your story.

You can see how witnessing a small vignette like this can keep a writer busy for a long time.

I hope you are still showing up for your writing time. If you are looking for something to do, feel free to play around with this story and fill in your own details. If you were the viewer, what would you notice?

P.S. I am developing an on-line course about getting your writing done without going to battle. Peace, Love and Writing your Novel or something along those lines, (okay, the title is a work in progress). If you’d like to receive and email from me when the course is ready to go, drop me a line here and let me know!

The Myth of Productivity (Or…Don’t Just Do It)

Just as I was getting ready to write this post about resistance and how I’ve learned to overcome it over the years, I smacked right up against a brand new brick wall around my own work in progress.

Funny how that works.

When I first started taking my writing seriously, I had one day a week to write. At the time, it felt like a minor miracle. On Fridays, our older son had a full day of kindergarten. We managed to swing the cost of a full day of day care for the younger one and there you have it – Writing Fridays.

On Fridays, I wandered the empty house, clearing clutter, tidying up and baking cookies. Every time I sat down to write, I had to fight against something that seemed determined to stop me. The harder I pushed against it, the harder it pushed back.

I could barely sit in my chair. Anything and everything seemed urgent, even though all week long I’d been looking forward to this time. The day I found myself doing laundry stain removal instead of writing, I had to admit I had a problem. I had to figure out how to get past the wall of resistance, or I was going to have to give up on my writing dream (and the expensive day care slot it was costing our family each week.)

In my next few posts, I’m going to share my strategies with you in detail. (And I’d love to hear yours, in the comments!) We’ll start today with one block I’ve butted up against time and again. The Myth of Productivity.

Creative work is not valued in our get it done world.

Crush your goals!
Make every minute count!
Like a boss!
Learn a new language while you sleep!
Inbox Zero!
Do more with less!
Get ‘er done!
Just do it!

You don’t have to look too deep into your Instagram feed to get the message that what matters in our society is getting s**t done. Doing more, doing it faster, checking it off the list. There are plenty of writing methods that will encourage you to take this crushin’ it #girlboss-style approach to writing, but I believe this will lead to more resistance, not less. When you battle resistance head on, it only grows.

In an earlier post I encouraged you to be unrelenting and inflexible in setting, and keeping to, your writing schedule.

Yes, you absolutely have to show up. But once you get there, allow space, and grace. Make it more of a dance than a battle. If resistance shows right up with you, let it be there. Sit through the discomfort. Do one small thing. Then show up again for your next scheduled writing session. And the next.

All the messages you’ve ever received will tell you this is unproductive time. Keep showing up anyway.

You might be bombarded with negative messages within your own head about wasting time. If you have had to negotiate this time, or pay for child or elder care, if your spouse is doing both dishes and bedtime, if your friends are watching Netflix together on Zoom, these messages might be all the more persistent.

The temptation to get up and “do something productive with your time” will be almost overwhelming. Before you get up, I want you to remember something.

These thoughts? They are just thoughts. They are loud thoughts, and kind of mean thoughts, but they are just thoughts. It’s okay for them to be there. It’s okay for you to stay in your seat and co-exist alongside them. Imagine parallel playing with resistance like you are both 2-year-olds at the day care sand table. You’re there. It’s there. Both doing your thing. Full on engagement will only lead to someone getting whacked on the head with a plastic tractor.

Try this: Talk back to those thoughts.

“It’s okay to be unproductive sometimes. It will help me be more productive later. ”

“I know you are scared, and that’s okay. I know you are trying to protect me. I can see that and I appreciate it. And I’m still going to be here for half an hour and do a few things. Won’t be long. Please try to keep it down so I can concentrate.”

Also, remember to drop the expectations. Maybe yesterday you wrote a thousand words. Maybe you wrote a thousand words every day last week. Today is new. Who knows what will happen today?

Productivity and creativity don’t always go hand in hand, especially not at first. (Like when you first start writing. Or when you start a new stage in a project. Or when you suddenly find that everything that was working for you no longer works. These are all good times to drop the expectations.)

Productivity, as our society defines it, is the shortest path from beginning to end. Creativity is more of an exploration. What happens if we go this way? Or this way?

Let’s redefine productivity.

How about we say, for the next six months, productivity means setting your writing time and showing up, over and over again. Show up and check that box off your list. Show up and try something. Explore.

Give it six months. Let’s see what happens.

Remember, we’re in this together. I’m facing the same thing right now with my own work in progress. I’ll share some of my more specific strategies in upcoming posts, but these are just my strategies. I don’t pretend to know that they will work for anyone else.

I’d love to hear yours in the comments!

The Bad News for Writers

Way back in the Before Times, when we were allowed to gather in groups, I taught a writing workshop in a library. I called it, ‘Get Your Work Done,’ and we covered all the things that get in the way of writing.

What is it that stops writers, or would-be-writers, from getting down to the work they are so drawn to?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of scheduling writing time and showing up for yourself, session after session, month after month. I encouraged you to find 20 minutes a day, or 45 minutes, two or three days a week, in order to write.

When I said this at the library workshop, hands started to shoot up.

“But — but — but…” People said.
(And maybe you said “But!” while reading my last post.)

The “Buts” were along these lines:

“But my husband…”
“But my wife…”
“But my kids…”
“But my grandkids…”
“But my parents…”

I listened to a few of the Buts, and then I put my own hand up to stave off the onslaught.

“It is okay to spend a few hours each week doing something creative that your loved ones don’t necessarily understand, approve of or think is a valid use of your time.”

There was an audible gasp from the back of the room.

It’s Okay to Put Your Writing First for Twenty Minutes

I imagine that your days are pretty full, even without writing. We’ve all got our things we need to do: work, family, exercise, household management, life admin, leisure, friends, sleep. It’s not like any of us are sitting around.

If you’re going to find a few hours each week to write, that time needs to come from somewhere. It means changing a pattern. Dropping something you’re doing already, or doing less of something else, in order to prioritize your writing instead. It means asking for help.

It might mean asking your spouse to do more around the house; to take on the bedtime routine or do the soccer drop-off a few nights a week so that you have time to write. It might mean watching less TV or giving up a weekly social night, which can involve saying no to friends and family. It might mean going to bed later, or getting up earlier (very quietly, so you don’t wake anyone else up.)

If you are a grandparent, it might mean saying no to last minute babysitting requests from your own children. (I recognize that this is doubly difficult, since you need to say no to both your kids and your grandkids. And yet, I ask you, if you are not going to do the writing that is calling you now, when exactly are you going to do it?)

You might not answer the phone at certain times. You might not be free for coffee or volunteer work when people used to always be able to count on you to say yes. You might actually need to leave work on time.

You are going to carve out two hours a week in whatever form you can, and you are going to put your writing first.

Your People Will Not Like This

When you start prioritizing your writing time, the people around you might not like it very much. (They won’t like it at all.) You’ll probably get pushback. (You definitely will.) You might have to handle hurt feelings. Someone you love dearly might get mad at you and you’ll have to navigate discomfort and conflict.

In order to start down the road of writing this thing that will not leave you alone, you are going to have to hold boundaries and advocate for yourself and your creative time. You are going to have a difficult conversation or two. You are going to need to change some patterns.

You are to going to need to plop yourself down and write for twenty minutes. You are going to need to walk out the door at the time that you have freed up for yourself, and go to your selected writing place and write, even in the face of disapproval, or annoyance. In the face of the unwashed dishes, your unwashed hair, and the thirty-two unopened emails.

I can hear your “Buts” already.

You are an adult, you say. You have responsibilities!

I am not asking you to shirk them. I’m not asking you to neglect your children or let your house go to ruin or get fired from your job. I am suggesting that, if you want to write, you will need to negotiate with your spouse or children or parents or employer to carve out a little time.

I believe that most healthy relationships can handle this level of boundary-setting. After all, you’re not setting out to do anything dangerous or immoral. You’re just writing.

If negotiating this with your spouse or parents or children feels dangerous, please do not do it unless you have reached out for crisis intervention and support. If it feels scary, because it wasn’t okay to have boundaries growing up, then it’s time to learn. (I had to do this. It was not easy (still isn’t) but it’s easier than ignoring the call to write.)

How do you set boundaries with loved ones? Google some strategies and try them, ask a friend or colleague that seems to have mastered the ability, or ask a professional counselor for help.

Do Not Ask Permission

You are not asking for permission to engage in the act of writing. You are simply arranging some uninterrupted time for yourself, on par with your partner’s floor hockey nights.

You do not need anyone’s permission to write. You’re not hurting anyone by writing. (I would argue that, if you feel called to write, you are hurting those around you by denying the call.)

You are not asking permission. You are arranging time. You don’t need anyone else to think what you are doing is important. It’s important to you. That’s enough.

It might be in your kitchen or against the steering wheel as you wait in the car outside the indoor soccer gym or in the chair in the orthodontist’s waiting room — I have written in all these places and more. More pleasant might be in the guest bedroom/home office with the door closed against interruptions, or maybe a coffee shop during Cub Scouts. It could be at the dining room table with headphones on. It does not need to be fancy.

Inner Resistance is Not Outer Resistance

It’s important not to confuse your own inner resistance to creativity with the outer resistance of families and friends. Inner resistance is something all creatives need to learn to face, over and over. (Sorry to say, it doesn’t really go away, but you can get deft and working around it. I’ll cover that in my next post.)

Inner resistance can feel insurmountable, and yet it comes from nowhere. It’s easy to want to blame the people around us, since we can see them after all. They want to keep us from our creative truth, those meanies! But while it can feel like sitting down to write for 20-30 minutes is an epic battle against an invisible enemy that is out to stop us no matter what, that enemy is not your spouse, your child or your grandchildren.

Now Write

You’ve negotiated the time, now use that time to write. Don’t know how? It’s true. You may not have done this before, or at least not for a long time. Give yourself a chance. You’ll learn. Your first writing session, like the first of any new venture, will be about creating the space, going through the motions: Get to the place, open the computer or notebook, write a few things down. Write a list, write a goal, write the exact colours of the shawl the woman across from you on the bus was wearing. Write about how she tied that shawl. Where do you think she got it? Or did someone give it to her? Write that story down.

Writing will come with practice. You’ve carved out some space and time. Now commit to yourself. Keep showing up. Allow yourself to be a beginner. You’ve already started.

Write something. Anything. Write one sentence. There now, see ? You’ve already started.

The Myth of Flow

Photo of fountain pens, notebooks and a vase of flowers on a wooden table.

I first started taking my writing seriously in 2006 after spectacularly walking out of my day job. I had one week of day care that was already paid for, and after that my day job would become parenting two pre-schoolers. Any writing would happen while they were sleeping.

A novel had been developing inside me for almost a year. I worked in a brewery and, inside my head, I plotted out a mystery novel set in a brewery as I went about my day. (Creepy? I guess so. But I’m a crime writer. It’s what we do.) I knew the victim, I knew the killer, I knew the clues. All I needed was time to write.

But now, suddenly, I had that time. Five whole days with day care already paid! I thought that, if I worked every minute of those five days, I could get the novel out of my head and onto the computer. It had been dammed up in there for ages, and now that I had space and a little time and no distractions, it would just flow out.

That very first week I came smack in the face of a very common (and mostly untrue) myth about writing.

Writing Should Flow. (Shouldn’t it?)

I mean, how hard can it be? I had an idea, a story arc and time. All I needed to do was turn on the tap and it would flow out. Right?

I learned, only gradually, that writing is not typing. That the romanticized image of the writer in the garret, wrapped in shawls and sipping tea, (or in skin tight jeans, hyped up on espresso, or in a moth-eaten cardigan drinking scotch straight from the bottle, you pick) typing away, the words flowing steadily from their mind to their fingers, is not the reality.

That book, Confined Space, did eventually make its way from my imagination, through my fingers, into the computer, and then out into the world. But it was in fits and starts over the course of several years of dedicated early morning morning writing sessions. I had to learn how to write, like a musician learns scales. I had to learn how to structure a mystery novel. I had to learn how to edit my own work.

You would not expect to sit down at a piano and play the solo from a concerto, along with a full orchestra in front of an audience on the first try, and yet we expect that of ourselves when writing a manuscript.

Myth, Meet Reality

In order to finally get that book, and all the others I’ve written since then, out of my head and into the computer, I’ve had to overcome what I call the inner expectation of the Myth of Flow. I’m going to tell you how I did that, because even if your inner expectation — your inner myth — is of a different flavour than mine, the answers I landed on might be helpful to you, too.

Drop the Expectations

Looking back now, it seems completely unrealistic to expect myself to write a novel in five days. I know, I know, there are stories of it being done. In fact, if you Google “How to write a novel in 5 days” you’ll come up with thousands of results, mostly from people who will happily take your money so you can learn their “method”.

Hey, I’m not dissing the 5-day method. Not at all. I’m not saying my method is the best, either. But the method I have figured out is the best for me. Me, married and with two teens at home, a half-time day job, a household to manage and writing commitments to meet. What works for me? Writing for two hours, five days a week, will net me a book every 18 months. (Longer for historical fiction, since I’m a bit obsessive about research.)

No waiting until I retire. No waiting for summers. No subliminal music to listen to as I sleep. No saving for a 5-day retreat to Sedona. (Though I have been to Sedona and it’s lovely and I do have an idea for a novel set there.)

That’s what works for me. What will work for you?

Set a Schedule

I suggest you start small and keep your expectations very low. Are you the kind of person that needs to do something every day in order for it to stick? Then maybe start with 20 minutes a day.

Do you have more time on certain days and less on others? Maybe try 45 minutes, two or three times a week.

For example: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 am to 7:15 am.

The important thing is to find an amount of time that feels easy and stick to it. You want to meet the goal and feel like it was completely manageable. Make an agreement with yourself that once you’ve met that goal, you’ve done really well. You’re all set until the next scheduled writing session. Shower yourself with praise — give yourself the gold star! Then move on with your day.

When that little voice comes up and says, “But, but, but, but — not good enough, not long enough, you need to push and push and make this happen,” remind it that you have a schedule. Remind it that good writing happens over time and with practice. Tell it that you are not in a hurry, that you plan to enjoy this process. Tell it exactly what day and time you will be back for more writing. Then get on with your day, knowing you’ve done what you can for now.

Write During Writing Time

What should you do during your writing time? This topic deserves its own blog post, so I’ll add that to my list of things to do during my own writing time. For now, I’ll just give you a few suggestions. If you’re writing a novel, why not take one of the elements of a novel and work on it for a while, and then gradually move on and build on what you’ve written. Maybe you want to start with a few paragraphs describing the setting. Or start by interviewing a character to get to know them. If paragraphs feel intimidating, start with a list. You’ll build on it later.

Or, start with plot. What happens in this story that you are writing? Pretend it’s something that happened to you and you are texting a friend about it and write that down.

Sound easy? Good. Why not start with easy? Make it gradually more difficult. Allow yourself to be a beginner. (This is true for experienced writers too. Each novel comes without an instruction booklet.) What is most important is that you finish your writing session feeling like you’ve done something. That way, you’ll look forward to coming back, and the next time you will show up and do it again.

Expect to Edit

There’s this beautiful memoir called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominic Bauby. Do you know it?

Bauby was editor of French Elle when a massive stroke left him with locked-in syndrome. He could think and remember perfectly clearly, but could not speak or move any part of his body except for one eyelid. He dictated his memoir to his caregiver by blinking out each letter.

In order to accomplish this, he needed to have each word, each sentence, lined up in his mind. Then he needed to remember them, and spell them out with his eyelid, one letter at a time.

Intense, right? But here is the thing, you are likely not afflicted with locked-in syndrome like Jean-Dominic Bauby. You can get your words out now, and edit them later. The expectation that the words should come out as they will appear later in the printed book is not realistic. All professional writers expect to be edited. While some writers can produce a rough draft that is close to the finished product, many cannot. It’s just not their process.

I need at least three drafts before I will even consider sharing what I’ve written. Yes, even for this blog. Editing is part of writing. Expect it, plan for it, count on it. Editing is what makes it okay for you to write during your allotted time, let what is there come out, and then move on, knowing you will have an opportunity to fix it later.

Write Now. Don’t Wait for Flow.

Sure, flow states happen. Of course they do. They are more likely to happen with practice. And while they feel good, I’m not ready to correlate good feeling writing time with good writing. Sometimes the best writing I do comes from a place of discomfort, from having to work a little harder for it, from a writing session that frankly felt pretty crappy in the moment.

Flow is not the key. The key is setting your schedule and showing up. Over and over and over. Show up. Keep your expectations low. Do your work in the moment. Expect to edit it later. Put it away and get on with your life. Then show up for your next writing session.

Until next time, I wish you regularly scheduled, tolerably pleasant writing time.

During the months of October and November (in 2020, this year of the pandemic) I am giving away four books by local BC writers to subscribers of my newsletter. You can join in on the fun by signing up here.

Why is Writing SO Hard?

As I write this, the sky is filled with smoke from fires in Washington and Oregon, smoke that is reaching all the way across Canada. It’s hard to go outside, even to walk to the car, never mind go for a walk. Living in a rural area, the fact that we can still get outside and hike, go to the beach and the many parks in this area has made the pandemic somewhat bearable.

Now it really feels like the world is ending. That the smoke is so dense and the fires are not near here reminds me that we are all in this together. We all breathe the same air and it’s the only air we’ve got.

I’ve got the whole day to write, and aside from a few calls, the only thing I plan to work on is a few blog posts. But I am struck down with WHY BOTHER? Why bother writing? Why bother sharing with others?

Why bother doing something that can only count as a luxury, when the ground is literally on fire? What is the point, when so many are having trouble even breathing? When the places in our communities where people would congregate to escape the smoke – the churches, libraries, community halls and rec centres – are all closed or have limited access because of COVID measures?

For several weeks I’ve wanted to write a series of posts about how to overcome writing avoidance and resistance. For some of us, the need to write is urgent. We are called to this. Desperate to tell stories — our stories, others’ stories, the stories borne from our imaginations — and yet, sitting down to write is a battle.

There’s always something that gets in the way. Today, for me, it is grief. Grief that all my places of reprieve – my garden, the trails, the city park, long walks with my friends – have been taken from me. How long will it be? Days, weeks, months? The grief would keep me from writing if I let it, but I will not let it.

You see, I have, for the most part, figured out how to get around the resistance that comes up with writing. It’s taken me years and a lot of practice, but I have found a way that works for me. The only thing keeping me from retreating to bed today and watching Faulty Towers until the sun comes out is that, by writing down what I’ve learned and sharing it here, I might help someone else.

Someone who feels that same urgent call to write, but gets caught in the weeds of resistance and expectation. Faulty Towers will have to wait. This post feels as urgent as climate change all of a sudden.

Has this happened to you?

When you really want to write, it stays with you all day. For me it used to go something like this: I’m going about my day and everything I do — the kids, the day job, chores and social obligations and exercise— for all of it, I’m just biding my time until I can get to the writing.

But then it comes time to write, and first thing I do is open up Twitter. It’s like my chair is on fire and it’s torture to sit down and concentrate. I’ve spent hours or days looking forward to this moment and now that it’s here, I’d rather do anything else. Literally anything. Scrub the bathroom tiles? Empty the litter box? I’ll do it! Anything and everything is better than writing.

Maybe for you it’s more of a seasonal thing. You’re a teacher and you can’t wait for summer so you can write. Or, maybe it goes on for decades — you’re waiting to retire and you’ll do all your writing then. But when the fateful time comes, when it’s just you and the table and chair and the blank screen, you can’t get anywhere. Before you know it you’ve joined three boards and trained as a hospice volunteer and you’re way too busy to even think of writing.

Why is writing so hard? What is that anywhere-but-here feeling and how can we get over it?

The long answer to these questions is coming up in the next few weeks, but the short answer to what stops us from writing is: resistance and expectations.

We think writing should be easier than it is, because know how to write. We write all the time. We write emails, we write Facebook posts, we write to-do lists and instructions, procedures and legislation. Sure, maybe our grammar is not the best, but we know how to write. How hard can it be?

When we finally sit down to write, it turns out it’s harder than we expected. The rewards that we’re after — the acknowledgement, the accolades, the bestseller lists — these are a long way off. There are no gold stars for sitting in your chair and forcing out a thousand words. There’s nothing finished, so nothing to check off a to-do list. And these are just the internal expectations.

What about those around us? They love us and want to protect us from hurt, and this writing thing we are so hell-bent on seems to be causing us a lot of pain. Plus, our long-suffering loved-ones are used to more of our attention. Why pay extra for a babysitter when all we’re doing is writing? Why aren’t the dishes done? Why can’t we take the grandkids this weekend?

Really, if we just stopped with the writing already, it would be easier on everyone. External expectations like these have stopped many a would-be writer in their tracks.

Plus, there’s that brick wall of resistance that comes up every time we sit down to write. What is that and where does it come from? Is there any way around it? Does it ever go away? The guilt, shame and anxiety. Oh, and let’s not forget the fear in all its glory. (Did I leave the stove on? Will my mother disown me when this gets published? Will this ever even get published? I’m terrible at this and should stop. I always wanted to do this and now I’m terrible at it and who will I be if I’m not a writer?) I’ll stop now. You get it.

We are going to talk about all of these things, and how to overcome them in the coming weeks. Since it feels like the world is ending out there though, I don’t want to leave you hanging for the answer.

The answer to all of it – ALL OF IT – is routine and practice. Find a routine and settle in to it. It could be half an hour, three times a week. In that half hour, you write. Keep your expectations low. Just do something. Write a list of ideas. Interview a character. Pretend you’re writing a letter to a friend about the story in your head, and write it down.

Keep it simple, quiet and regular. Show up when you say you will. Your body and mind will come to expect it. Your loved ones will get used to the idea. Your inner critic will cross its arms and let you do your thing, whatever. Even the wall of resistance will move back a few feet and give you a little bit of space.

That’s all you need. A tiny bit of room to breathe. That’s all any of us are getting right now anyway. Take it. Do something with it. It’s yours. You can watch Faulty Towers later.