Why do I have to do it if it’s hard? — Frequent Questions

Q: Why do I have to do it if it’s hard?
A: You don’t. It’s a choice you make.

I call this feature “Frequent Questions” rather than Frequently Asked Questions. But I don’t see this question all that often. And I’ll be honest, I’m glad about that.

creating can be hardCreating is hard. You bare your soul and sometimes all you get in return is a yawn. You spend months preparing—whether you’re sweating over your computer while everyone you know is off partying, or scraping the dried paint off your skin after a day of Jackson Pollock-ing in your studio, or rehearsing your cabaret show until you can sing it in your sleep. Then the big reveal and…

[crickets]

No one reads your book. No gallery even hangs your painting. People stay away from your lovingly crafted cabaret show in droves. I’ve got lots of personal experience with that last one.

Yeah, it’s hard. So?

Of course it hurts. When you’ve got six people in a room that seats 100 and three of them talk through the whole show—not fun. Once I was in a musical at a tiny, non-air-conditioned theatre during a heatwave. One night, two-thirds of the audience left at intermission; we played the second act to one person. Got a standing ovation, though. Or maybe he was just trying to beat the rush to the taxis (in New York City, you never know.)

The musical thing didn’t really bother me (except for the heat). It wasn’t my show; it wasn’t my story. My cabaret shows, on the other hand, each new show was better than the one before. I won awards, I got a review in The New York Times. And I was still scrounging for audiences.

But I had something to say, so I said it. I chose to say it. I made the decision to put myself out there, whether or not an audience came along for the ride.

You write (or paint, or sing) because you have to on some level. But creating is also a choice. If you make that choice, embrace it. Do the thing you love because you love it. If the hard part feels too hard, then by all means stop doing it. What you don’t get to do is complain.

Next question?


Write better when you write more often. My next 5-day writing challenge starts September 18th: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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Writing vacation — my week with the Willits

I met some new people on my writing vacation, the Willits. I didn’t much care for them.

I’d set myself up to have five glorious days unencumbered by client responsibilities. Time to make some serious headway on a personal project. And then I met the Willits. Annoying as all get-out.

Every time I sat down to write, one or more of them would appear:

Will it be any good?
Will it make you a laughingstock?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

Plenty of time to answer all of those questions after the first draft. Yes, I knew enough to remind myself of that every time they popped in. Still, having to swat away “will it” questions every time you write a sentence…it’s hard to keep your focus. And the last question—I mean, any rational analysis of the publishing industry would tell you the answer to that is no. But I’m still gonna write, dammit.

I told each Willit in the strongest possible terms that none of them mattered right now. Right now, my job is just to write. They still came back. And brought their relatives.

Writing vacation surprise!

writing vacation
No Willits (2017), fine-line marker on hotel note pad

If you haven’t already met the Willits, I hope you never do. They’re a bunch of nosy bastards. But they surprised me when they showed up, because my writing life is mostly Willit-free.

When I blog every day, I open up my browser, find the appropriate web page, and most often words fall out of my fingers. Occasionally they’re good words, more often they’re merely acceptable. But I write them anyway. If people get some value out of the blog, that’s great. Will it move people?…Actually, I don’t worry a whole lot about that.

You might imagine the Willits would show up when I write for my clients:

Will it be acceptable?

But I don’t worry about that either. Because I know—and, most importantly, my clients know—that it’s a first draft. And first drafts are for experimenting, for pushing the proverbial envelope. For failing, even.

No harm, no foul; no Willits.

Of course, the writing I do for my clients isn’t personal, not to me. My blogging gets personal occasionally and, now that I think of it, I have seen a few Willits in my peripheral vision when I write pieces like this.

But I wasn’t prepared to host the Willit Family Reunion during my writing vacation this week—four generations, setting up picnic tables and volleyball nets all over my lawn. They had a blast. Me, not so much.

Next time I’ll be prepared. I’m making some lawn signs.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Tina Kelley: A National Monument Crosses Over

Tina KelleyAward-winning poet Tina Kelley wrote this months ago, but it seems even more relevant today. She’s written three poetry collections Abloom and Awry (CavanKerry Press, 2017); Precise; and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She co-authored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope and reported for The New York Times for ten years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage. In 2017, she won the Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. Thanks to Tina for being our final guest blogger. I’ll be back from vacation tomorrow—Elaine

A National Monument Crosses Over

by Tina Kelley

“Fuhgeddaboutit,” mother of exiles
muttered, rolling thirty-inch eyes.
Dropped her torch, hiked her skirts,
stepped over to Jersey. With her stride,
three hours to Niagara Falls, Canadian side.

Seidu Mohammed had a rougher trip. In a ten-hour
slog north from North Dakota, in snow waist-high,
frostbite took his fingers off. He feared deportation
from Minnesota to Ghana, where, because he loves
both men and women, they’d kill him. Thin gloves.

“God blessed Canada with good people,” he said,
refugee from the land of the free, land I once loved.

So it’s no wonder “Liberty Enlightening the World” —
her full name — could no longer bear the inscription
asking for homeless and poor masses.  She turned
her francophone sneer and her back to hypocrisy,
headed up Belleville Avenue, past Parsippany,

over the Poconos, across the Southern Tier,
into the embrace of the wise Justin Trudeau,
who tweets love, and “diversity is our strength,”
hashtag WelcomeToCanada, we have more Sikhs
in our cabinet than India does. We don’t do sweeps.

An empty granite pedestal in Upper New York Bay.
Since when are we the people others must escape?

(appeared previously on PoetsSpreadingTheNews.com)

Anaik Alcasas: Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

Anaik Alcasas
Anaik Alcasas

I met Anaik Alcasas through The Marketing Seminar, Seth Godin’s new vehicle for spreading his insights and provoking new ones. She describes her business as providing “brand strategies for remarkables.” Follow her juicy #100booksinayear journey on Instagram @anaik_ed.

Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

by Anaik Alcasas

How in the world can this writer be connecting directly with me—my pain points, core desires, need for affirmation and inspiration, insight and encouragement?

These are the kinds of things you would have heard four years ago if you were eavesdropping on my inner dialogue in the bookshop down the road.

Three years of in-depth research later, using a unique color-coding approach, have revealed several recurring themes in the most engaging motivational and prescriptive non-fiction. In brief, the most engaging writers seem to connect consistently with their readers—or so the research has shown—by touching on elements of audacity, credibility, storification, vulnerability, affirmation, illumination, generosity and inclusion, among others.

So let’s take that step by step, testing this theory, eavesdropping on the inner dialogue of your reader—that reader you’re writing for and to. We’ll italicize these thoughts, to remind us that this is potentially the inner dialogue of that reader:

Audacity

If you’re saying what everyone else is saying, just with a few minor adjustments, I’m not interested. Challenging the status quo? Tell me more. Disrupting some big traditional gatekeepers with your proposition? Tell me more. Challenging the oppressive troll under the bridge (whatever that may be) who scares people away from crossing over into more freedom, more opportunity, more fruitfulness, more solutions, more vital growth, greater resources to make a positive dent in the universe? Yep, talk to me.

While you’re articulating your audacious proposition, don’t forget to articulate the opposition (my pain points) and the promised transformation (why I should keep reading). And feel free to cycle through those things all throughout our time together – proposition, opposition, promised transformation.

Credibility

You’re not just stringing together nice-sounding words that you think will “sell” people (we’ve all tasted the cream-puff positive-psychology bull-o). Your credibility involves having done the hard yards for yourself, demonstrating you’ve put in the years, garnered real-world experience, done the reading and the research. Show me your roots and show me your foundation.

Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure you answer my unspoken questions “Why you? Why this? Why now?”

Storification

I’m wired to read stories, so package your knowledge and wisdom into stories, anecdotes, metaphors and analogies. This is the great antidote to cut-and-dry advice. If I wanted the preachments I’d go talk to my outlaws or that know-it-all neighbour—you know the one—always ready to dole out insular “advice” with an overtone of judgmentalism and a side of “you should.”

Storify your wisdom and I’ll lap it up and ask for more.

Vulnerability

If you haven’t fallen far and hard, suffered loss, run head first into severe obstacles that banged you up–if you’re too perfect and you’re hiding the real parts of your journey in the hopes I’ll trust your “perfect” image more than the next guy who’s sharing about his stomach-lurching lows and dizzying highs, think again.

I, your reader, am a deeply flawed human being with a business that might fall into dire straits without some actionable solutions, and I need to know that your teaching works for deeply flawed human beings and flailing businesses.

Affirmation

My favorite word after my personal name is “you” (copywriters know this), so what’s the “you-quotient” of what you’re trying to teach me?

I know, I know, it’s hard work to distill your training, wisdom, knowledge, and solutions into insanely useful content. But I don’t really care about what you’re saying unless you can bring it back to me through your affirmations and applications. Bring it back to those pain points you already identified. Empathize with my reader’s doubt and answer it directly, point by point.

Illumination

You’ve presented your data, stories, case studies, examples, and affirmed to me that these are written for me, right now, and can move me forward into the promised transformation I long for.

Keep on going! Your illumination provides context so you’re not just giving me a data dump, but you’re stringing it all together, giving it relevance and meaning for those pain points we talked about, and helping me to get excited.

These are the “aha moments” in your content, the tweetables. If you’d said them before the credibility and storification and all the rest, they would have merely been pontifications–unproven claims. But I’m totally on your side now, and I’m nodding along. Illuminate away.

Generosity

If I’ve read this far, it means I’ve already found a sense of tribe, a sense of belonging, within your content. You’ve already joined the ranks of one of my virtual mentors. Guess what’ll tip it into the realm of lifelong loyalty, something that really wows me, something that makes me get even more engaged and possibly make the deeper changes necessary for genuine progress? Your generosity elements – the checklists, summaries, recaps, bonus downloadables, and insider goodies designed just for those who are most on board … your ideal target audience.

Inclusion

You won me over, I voluntarily enrolled, I made the significant time investment to read your book, or watch your free webinar, or work through your ten-day-email tips course. Are you content with a one-sided conversation or do you want to move this into the realm of two-sided? If so, invite me to join your tribe, to sign up for more generous tips and insights, invite me to join a Facebook group, or to email you with questions.

Inclusion can be done many ways, but this is one of the most significant opportunities, one of the biggest differentiating factors between books and content BIE and AIE (before internet era and after the start of the Internet Era).

***

What would any of us do if we could—just for one day—read the minds of our ideal target readers? Certainly, we might change the depth with which we attempt to engage, personalize, and empathize with them.

The theory is that, what the most engaging writers have done intuitively—thanks to long-time leadership experience and high emotional-IQ (EQ)—we can learn to do intentionally, by paying attention to and “hearing” those readers we most want to serve with our writing.

So now it’s your turn to let us eavesdrop … which one of those nine elements describes your inner thought processes when you pick up a nonfiction book? And which one would you most like to nail in your next piece of writing?


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?

Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.

“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.

“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.

And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)

You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.

(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)

But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.

And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)

I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.

If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.

So what does that mean, exactly?

It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.

Here are a few examples:

A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.

Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.

I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.

Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.

You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.

Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.

You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.

But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.

You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.

So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.

Too scared to show your work? It’s pseudonym time

When and how to show your work (and to whom) are some of the toughest questions writers face.

show your work (don't be Emily Dickinson)
Emily Dickinson

On the one hand, you don’t want to be Emily Dickinson, shoving your work in the desk drawer only to have it discovered after you die.

Can you imagine what would have happened if no one had opened that drawer? The Dickinsons could have sold the desk at a yard sale and maybe the new owner would open the drawer when she was painting the thing puce, to match her living room. Look at all this junk, she’d think as she threw away the musty pages. Or worse, she might have published them under her own name and adolescent girls everywhere would now be swooning over the poetry of Gladys Kowalski. I’m sure she’s a nice lady, whoever she is, but she’s no Emily Dickinson.

So don’t be an Emily Dickinson. Except for the brilliant writing part.

But what if you really don’t want to show your work? What if the challenge is less about revealing the work than about revealing yourself?

Then, my friend, you might want to consider a pseudonym.

Don’t show your work—show someone else’s

I mean, you should be proud of your work. It’s probably a lot better than you think (a supportive teacher and/or writers’ group could help you find that out).

But if the thing that’s holding you back is “What will people think about me?” or “Is this ‘off-brand’ for me?” or pretty much any other question that ends in the word “me”—then don’t show your work. Show Gladys Kowalski’s. Or George Sands’s. Or whoever’s. Emily Dickinsdaughter has a nice ring to it. (You’re welcome.)

A pseudonym does an end-run around the obstacles your brain has been so busy creating. Of course, once you’ve cleared that set of obstacles, your brain will create some more. But let Gladys or Emily can slip your work out of the house when your brain isn’t looking. You can always reclaim ownership later, if you want to. And if you don’t, no one will ever know.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

“Write everything” — Lin-Manuel Miranda on inspiration

“Write everything.”

I found this screen-capture from an Ask Me Anything Lin-Manuel Miranda held on his Twitter feed awhile back.

Mr. Miranda and I don’t write the same things; we don’t have a common style. But we do share an attitude toward writing, which only makes me love him more.

He doesn’t believe in writer’s block any more than I do.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to write? You write. Anything and everything. Just cover the page. “Bytes on disk” as a friend of mine used to say.

Sometimes the writers in my 90-day writing challenge tell me they can’t think of anything to write about. I tell them to write, “I can’t think of anything to write about” over and over again—like Bart at the blackboard in the opening credits of The Simpsons—until they’re so tired of writing that sentence, or sentences like it, that they finally let an idea break through.

Notice I didn’t say “…that an idea breaks through.” No, no—your inability to write is not the ideas’ fault. It’s your brain’s. It’s telling you a story about how you’ve gotten blocked. Or you don’t have any inspiration. And you—you’re accepting that story as true.

Well, stop it!

Write everything — it’s about to get meta in here

Yes—full disclosure—it’s past 7pm on Sunday, a day I was supposed to take off. Remember the “day of rest” concept? Yeah, me neither.

And yet dinnertime found me still at my desk, dealing with a balky computer and an as-yet-unwritten blog. Inspiration? You think I have inspiration?

But I do have a folder called:

blog ideas —for when you need to write everything

I said a little prayer to the blog-idea gods and clicked it open: Voilà! Lin-Manuel Miranda to the rescue.

So I’m writing, bytes on disk, and hoping you find some valuable advice in here. If not from me, then for Pulitzer Prize-winning, MacArthur Grant-certified Genius Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Write everything. You’ll find something.

Valuable stuff — permission to write

“Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.”

valuable stuffThat’s what Anne Lamott says in her great book on writing Bird by Bird. And I wouldn’t dream of arguing with her.

I’m in the “naive enough” stage with a personal project I’m working on. Every time my fingers hit the keyboard I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter whether anyone will want to read it. It matters even less whether anyone will want to buy it. What matters is that I give myself permission to write.

That doesn’t quite rise to the level of believing that what I’m “thinking and feeling is valuable”—but it’s good enough to make words appear on my screen. And that’s my goal right now.

Don’t let the noise mask the valuable stuff

Lamott again:

“The discouraging voices will hound you—”This is all piffle,” they will say, and they may be right. What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”

And so I write. Every damn day. Because some of what falls out of my fingers onto the screen may turn out to be valuable stuff.

Which is the valuable stuff and which is the crap?

That’s for sorting out another day—when the discouraging voices take their coffee break. Try to revise when the discouraging voices are on duty and you’ll end up throwing it all into the trash. Which I know writers don’t really do anymore—all we have to do is drag an icon into the trash bin icon. But that’s hardly satisfying.

No, when the discouraging voices shout their loudest you’ll be ready to print out the whole draft for the sheer joy of chucking it into the real-life trash bin just to hear the satisfying CLUNK.

But it’s not, you know. It’s not all crap. There’s some valuable stuff in there, and you’ll see it once you’ve given yourself some distance. So step away from the computer. And breathe.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

 

If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it?
A: Because they think they should.

True story: I used to have a stereo whose sound cut out intermittently. Speaker wires coming loose or something. The problem persisted for a good long while. Annoying, but an easy fix: just jiggle some connections.

writer's block
Jacket design for the original London cast recording, released in the U.S. by RCA

One Saturday morning long, long ago, I was kneading bread, happily singing along to a record playing on the stereo. The original London cast album of Side by Side by Sondheim, if you must know. The first track finished and I waited for the next song to begin—”You Must Meet My Wife,” a slyly acerbic duet. Only…nothing. No sound at all.

The speakers must have cut out again, I thought. But I couldn’t do anything about it; my hands were covered in dough. So I resigned myself to kneading in silence. Then I realized that “You Must Meet My Wife” was not the second song on that side. It was another duet, “The Little Things.” And the moment I realized I’d been listening for the wrong song, I heard the music again.

It wasn’t the speakers that broke; it was my brain. Having decided which song I would hear, I became incapable of hearing the song that actually played. Once I adjusted my expectations, allowed myself to be in the moment, I heard the real song loud and clear.

I think writer’s block is like that.

Don’t pathologize writer’s block

I suppose I could have reacted differently to the blip in my hearing. If the internet had been around back then, I might have Googled “sudden hearing loss” and gone down a rabbit hole of diagnoses, each scarier than the one before. But I didn’t have the internet (or health insurance, for that matter), so I just chalked it up to a strange case of mind over matter. And filed it away as a metaphor that would surely come in handy some day.

Like today.

Maybe you have something think you should write—like the thank-you note to Grandma. Or something you’re scared of writing—like that semi-autobiographical novel. Or something you have to write—that unaccountably boring assignment from your client. I should state for the record that my clients’ assignments never bore me, but I can imagine that such things make the Muse run screaming in the opposite direction. And who can blame her?

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you? No, it means you’re a human being. A creative one. And there’s a reason Henry Ford didn’t put writers on his assembly line: we can’t turn out an unbroken stream of quality words every time the factory whistle blows.

Thinking, not knowing exactly what to write every time you look at your keyboard—they’re perfectly normal processes. Don’t pathologize a perfectly normal process. Because once you allow yourself to believe that “writer’s block” is real, it’ll come back again and again. And writing will become progressively more difficult.

Hear the music that’s playing

Maybe you’re listening for the wrong tune. So be present and try writing to the tune that is playing.

Set yourself a writing exercise. Write something irredeemably silly. Write something serious—but write it in crayon. And not the staid black crayon, either. I’m talking neon green.

Allow your pet rabbit to take over as guest author and write the next chapter from her perspective. Get out of your lane, get out of your head. And stop thinking it’s writer’s block. Because writer’s block doesn’t exist.


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