Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.
My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.
My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.
Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:
I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.
I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.
Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.
It’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.
But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.
Same with writers and our ideas.
Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)
Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.
So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.
I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.
Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.
But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.
“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”
The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.
You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.
So what have I gotten out of this?
I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.
I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!
Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.
Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:
“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.
Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.
I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.
It snowed yesterday—April 2nd. At least three inches, enough to leave a thick coating on my car. I am officially sick of winter.
It snowed until early afternoon but when I looked out my window during my 3pm call, every drop of snow had disappeared. In its place, I saw dozens of tiny birds darting around my backyard. I started to think about writing a Story Safari™ piece about disappointment (snow—in April!) and optimism: birds mean spring!
Then a hawk swooped past my windows. Magnificent, powerful. And on a mission—a mission I knew would involve having one of those little optimism-inducing birdies over for lunch. No RSVP required.
By then I was on another call, a coaching session to help me refine my marketing. I made a note to incorporate more of the courage and freedom of the hawk into my work. And fun—it sure looked like fun, swooping around the sky. Though I would definitely want my clients to have a more mutually beneficial experience than those little birds did.
That hawk had come far closer to my house than it needed to, showing off its wingspan as it turned the corner from one set of windows into another. Perhaps it was doing more than grocery shopping? I’m not sure how much I believe in spirit animals, but I definitely do not believe in coincidences. So I decided to look it up.
“…you are now on notice that even the most ordinary of circumstances could have deeper meanings.”
If that isn’t the definition of a Story Safari,™ I don’t know what is.
“Even the most ordinary circumstances”—birds on a lawn, something people see every day and attach no significance to—”could have deeper meanings.”
Birds as a harbinger of spring, that’s a nice story anyone can tell. But what if we turned that into a story about complacency, about being ready for the unexpected? That story could fit in well in almost any business context.
And that’s a story no one else will tell—not in quite the same way. Because no one else saw the hawk swoop around the corner of my house. Well, no one but Fenway, who delivered a startled “Woof.”
Learn to see the world through the lens of a Story Safari™ and you’ll always have a unique story to tell. Except if you’re Fenway. She said the same thing about the skunk who visited later that afternoon. Fortunately, the skunk didn’t hear her.
Listening to Rachel Dratch on the podcast Conversations with Funny Feminists, I had one of those “Stars! They’re just like us!” moments. You know, when the tabloids run photos of a famous actor buying groceries or walking their dog or toting their yoga mat into a gym. Rachel Dratch is just like us! (At least some of us.) She’s a reluctant writer.
Or as she put it:
“I don’t really enjoy writing. I think it’s very difficult.”
Later she explains it’s not the writing that’s hard, it’s not stringing together words. It’s, well…
“I think most of writing is just making yourself do it—the act of it, without worrying about the result.”
“Without worrying about the result.” Yeah—easy, right?
I set this bar for myself: This has to be this literary—I can’t even write a word because it has to be this work of art, kind of thing.
Yep, that kind of thinking would definitely turn you into a reluctant writer. So she started reading memoirs by other writers—
Just random memoirs. And what I realized is like—nobody’s memoir is like, “They were like Mark Twain.” They were them and everyone had their own style. And that totally took away the standard I set for myself. Just write this how you would tell the story. And then that’s how you do it instead of sitting, prejudging yourself.
“Just write this how you would tell the story.” Or, as I tell my writers, do what Seth Godin does: Start by telling the story. Talk it out loud and write what you say. No one can tell the story exactly the way you can. Because, as Dratch reminds us,
Only you have your voice, and your experiences and personality. So whatever you’re bringing to a sketch or improvising—just trust….Bringing your experiences and who you are is all you can do.”
Of course, I’d add “or writing” to that list. Write who you are—whether you’re telling your own story or someone else’s, or reporting to the board about the third quarter sales figures, do it as yourself. Let your personality shine through. And you’ll shine.
Have a listen to the podcast for yourself—and let me know what you think of it.
Are you ready to discover how to find and tell stories that only you can tell? Use my Story Safari™ technique and you’ll amaze and delight your audiences—whether you’re blogging, writing newsletters, or delivering business presentations. Join a select group of writers on Cape Cod for my Story Safari™ Retreat.
I’ve written before about the, um, idiosyncratic search function at the otherwise-spectacular Stencil. Honestly, it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my business. I have no skill at desktop publishing or whatever it is you need to do to marry images and words into eye-catching designs.
But Stencil’s search function leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I’m just overtaxing it. Maybe I’m offering it too much information. Maybe that’s the problem.
When I typed “frustrated writers” into the Stencil search box, I expected to find people in front of computers pulling out their hair. Something like this, maybe:
Although, on further reflection, this looks more like a woman who just realized she shouldn’t have ordered the diner’s meat loaf special. But among the photos of people legitimately writing (though not in apparent frustration), Stencil dished up this little image:
No! No, goth princess, I wanted to shout. Writing’s not worth that! It never is.
Seriously—is this what the folks at Stencil think when they think “frustrated writer”?
That’s just a liiiiiitle darker than I wanted to go.
Rebranding the comfort zone
I’m rebranding my 5×15 Writing Challenge Facebook group, you see. I’ll still be running the challenges—one week every quarter. But I want my writers to see the group as a place they can post anytime, not just the five days of the challenge.
So it’s about community. But it’s also about acknowledging the frustrations that come with trying to step outside your comfort zone—especially in a creative endeavor. It’s about carving out a safe space for yourself. And if the Willits arrive, saying, “Thank you very much I won’t be needing you today.”
You know the Willits. I’ve written about them before. Here’s a little video I made for the Facebook group that explains them further.
If you wonder what’s going on in the Willits-Free Zone on Facebook, well, we’ll have some community writing projects, themes for each month that people can write to if they like, and I’ll be offering some deals and discounts especially for group members. If you’d like to join us, cruise on over to Facebook and submit a request.
Frustrated writers un-frustrated here. And no Willits allowed.
It’s Day 4 of my latest 5×15 Writing Challenge; my writers have almost earned themselves a nice donation to global literacy nonprofit Room to Read. Through Day 3 we’ve got a completion rate of 100%—the highest I’ve ever had for one of these challenges. I’m thrilled to help so many people discover the joys of daily writing.
His post reminded me of all the things I loved about blogging daily. And all the things I’ve missed since I stopped a little over two months ago. I still write every day: today’s Day 640. But, well…Here’s the comment I left on Josh’s blog:
Want to get better at writing speeches? Click here to get my free tips for speakers and I’ll notify you when my next speechwriting webinar launches.
You need to meet my friend Marlena. She’s a delightful person and very good at her work—which may be why every time I talk to her she says something like, “I couldn’t possibly take on another client; I’m completely booked.”
If New Yorkers are the busiest people in the world, Marlena is a New Yorker on steroids.
But there’s one thing she always makes time for: my 5-day writing challenge.
Marlena knew how to write before she registered for her first challenge, of course. But she wasn’t doing it. She didn’t have the time.
Now? She makes the time, even if it’s just 15 minutes.
This is what she told me the other day:
“It’s a heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment to put words on a page. That’s all it takes, and you are a writer. So many people yearn to write—it’s their heart’s dream. And you help them do that.”
Don’t you deserve a “heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment”?
But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.
I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.
And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?
Will it be a complete waste of time?
I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.
My Willits, and yours
Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.
I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.
If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:
The Willits are full of shit.
The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.
Here’s what I wrote last night:
Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.
And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.
Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.
I’ve been feeling kind of grumpy and hopeless the last few days – being sick sometimes does that to me. But something caught my eye this afternoon, and I think I may just have enough brain function to write about it. It’s a note my friend Melissa enclosed in a gift: “Your Words Matter.”
I’ve said that a lot to my writers last year. And, whaddaya know, they listened.
They’ve written things they never imagined – my lawyerly writer has become a poet; my scientist and academic have written children’s stories.
And they’ve written things they have imagined – reanimating long-dormant stories, turning memories into memoirs. Best of all, they’ve pushed their writing out of the nest for others to read. And it’s good! Better than they think it is, in many cases – which is how we can tell they’re really writers.
One of my writers lost her father in 2017, but during the last six months of his life, she was able to read him stories. Stories she had written, stories she said would not have been written if she hadn’t joined one of my writing challenges.
“Your words matter.” Sometimes more than you know.
Still, Melissa’s note said MY words matter. At first I assumed she meant the blogging I’ve done over the last 18 months (even though I’ve stopped posting daily). Or my writing streak – 615 days as of yesterday. But all of that is just writing. Writing has paid my mortgage for a long time; I don’t think about my words as having any particular value beyond that.
But last year, I pushed some words of my own out of the nest. I opened up my work beyond corporate clients and started working with individuals for the first time, teaching, guiding. Turns out it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Looking back over the past year I think the words that have mattered the most, the words I’m most proud of, are the words of encouragement I offered my writers. When I’ve been able to reassure them that no one writes beautifully every day, that the crap they wrote today means they’ll write something better down the road…when my words have created a safe space for them to create…and they’ve created – that’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. And I can’t wait to do more of it.
You out there, reading this: your words matter, too. So go use them. Write. Revise. And then push your work out of the nest and watch as your words matter to someone else.