journal with inspiring word on it and a pen

It’s really tempting to just binge-watch and eat all day.

It’s really tempting to binge watch and eat all day while scrolling through all the distractions on my phone. One second another breaking news alert about the death toll or social distancing, the next minute a recipe for a black bean buddha bowl I just have to try.  And it’s okay to spend some time doing that. This blog is about how to make time to make art even when we work full time, have families to tend, have other hobbies and interests, etc. Basically–How do you make time to do the solitary, hyper-focused, emotionally taxing work that is art?

All of a sudden I find myself with nothing but time at home. The high school where I teach is closed. My yoga studio is closed. I can’t meet my friend for coffee. This is no longer about making time for me. This is no longer about setting a timer to squeeze a spare half hour before work to make progress on my novel. This is about how to set aside the anxiety of the moment to get some writing done. Some things that are working for me: 

Wake up early

On weekdays I am still setting my alarm for 4 to get up and write. As always, this is my best creative time, because the house is totally quiet and the sun is not yet up. There is no solitude like the solitude before dawn. 

Put your phone in quarantine

I am leaving my phone downstairs at night, not checking it until after I write, and setting it aside or turning it off for big chunks of time during the day. There is this app that sends me a digest of the news on any given day that takes two minutes to read. Over the course of this past week, I’ve noticed something. Spending more time than that reading my news feed does not give me more news. It just gives me more time worrying about the same news. If you really feel that you must be an informed public citizen, pick a publication you love and trust that reviews the news and set designated time aside to read just that publication. 

Get you work out there

If you’ve got work ready to send out into the world, get it out there. Whether that means submitting work to agents or journals, updating your artistic portfolio, self-publishing, or whatever it is for you that is equivalent for you putting your work into that little paper boat and sending it across the water–do that. Yesterday, I revised my query and sent it out to two agents. Just that act was enough to float me through the day. But then–guess what? They both replied asking for more pages. Getting our work out is how we artists who are solitary beings by nature connect. Now is the time to connect. 

Make a schedule and be gentle, but firm with yourself about keeping it

It’s taking me much longer to get settled into the work, and I’m much more distractible, but if I set a schedule to sit at my desk writing from 5–9, I am going to set at my desk attempting to write from 5–9. Will I waste some of that time? Sure. No big deal. Just sit for the time you’ve promised to. 

A note for those of you with younger children

Our kids are grown or mostly grown, but I realize that some of you may just have flipped time. Time you would have been at work, you are now spending homeschooling your kids. I have seen a lot of advice online for parents about how to make a schedule for their kids. For your sake, I sincerely hope that part of that schedule includes (if your children are old enough not to be a danger to themselves) unstructured playtime where they can do their own thing and you can get a couple of hours of creative break time for you. Especially moms out there–kids need to see you reading, making, and living apart from them and they need the same. Take a cue from famed short story writer Alice Munro, the most badass stay-at-home mother/ writer ever. 

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picture of a zine made by Liz Shine about how to make time to be creative

I love the feeling when a new story starts to take shape…

I wrote the prologue of my new story last week. It’s maybe 1000 words, maybe not even, and I know I will need to go back to it. It took me two weeks to write. I dipped out of writing often to research. I spent a fair amount of time just staring at the blank page. I wasn’t in love with at the end. 

This morning I started in on chapter one. This book is a multiple point-of-view book about three women who were in college together and have grown apart. It’s about the scripts we fall into and how difficult it can be to rewrite those scripts. It’s also about isolation and how social media shapes our thoughts and feelings. I think. It’s awfully early to say what the book is about, but I think it is about those things. 

As I started chapter one, I almost immediately had that skull-shining feeling that one gets when a story begins to take shape around you, when it’s no longer just you trying to type words on the page, but there are these characters, and these places, and these desires that you want to follow to the end. 

Needless to say, writing went well this morning. Despite the fact that my brain glitched and stalled when I first sat up in bed at four and reached for my laptop. No matter how tempted I was when I say that my computer was going to take time to update to just close the damn thing and go to bed. 

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quill pen with text that reads "make time"

Make Time in 2020.

The Dark Side of Grit

It’s been almost a year since I last posted to this blog. Things had gotten to the point that if I had any time to spare for writing it had to be for working on my manuscript. No time for free writing! It was also right about this time I resolved to let it go in 2019. And what let it go meant to me was to let go of work that I took on just because I could, because my impulse to prove my worth had become so automatic, and I was so run-down and divided. I wrote all about it in my igloo builder post, where I explored the darker aspect of what has always been a fond memory of my ability to persist. This is the trait that help me run a marathon. This is the trait that got me through college with a 3.8 GPA and a toddler in tow. But is there a dark side to this grit and determination? Turns out that yes there is, and thankfully nothing is fixed forever. I am still revising my story, after all. 

Finding a Way

I spent the year cutting out work and consciously slowing down. I set up a meditation space and started using it. I started writing down three things to be grateful for every day. I added the most gentle yoga class offered at my studio to my weekly practice (thanks, Anne, if you ever read this). I quit my coaching job. Bit by bit, I quit overparenting and hypervigilance about little things that didn’t seem to concern anyone else, so why was I making such a deal? I have been learning and am still learning the power of knowing when to take a deep breath and let it go and when to hold fast and strong. I have also become more apt to ask for help around the house. In the process I’ve realized how everyone benefits from housework. Overachieving in that realm deprives family members of opportunities to build self-worth and connection to home and the people who cohabitate there. 

It’s a New Decade, Friends

What has resulted? For starters, I have the energy again to write in the mornings, and I am finally learning to play guitar. I have longed to play my entire remembered life. All those memories of my mom plucking away and singing. Perhaps one of a few times I knew for sure I was safe. I knew those songs and even if they were sad, I knew what was coming. Those are the same songs that I sing to soothe myself to this day when right in the middle of life panic takes me and squeezes me in its unrelenting fist. I am working on a new book (working title: Scripts) and am deep in edits on another. I wrote for almost two hours Monday morning and again this morning. Pretty amazing considering it was the first Monday after winter break! 

The peace and relaxation I feel has paved the path to eliminating my near daily habit of needing wine to unwind all the tension I accumulated during the day. I haven’t needed to do that in two weeks now, and at the moment, I have no desire to. It seems like such a waste of precious time. 

Precious writing time!

My goals for writing in 2020 do not include making any specific accomplishments. I simply hope to make time for writing whenever possible and to enjoy the spaces in between. I will seek opportunities to get my work out into the world and take those opportunities without hesitation. I will invoke my spider muse.

I woke this morning and finished a rough outline of my new novel. All I ever write are rough outlines. I am one of those writers who doesn’t know the way until she sees her characters come to life on the page. This means I will never finish a book Kerouac style, and I am okay with that. Tomorrow I will write the prologue. My only goal is to have a few pages to bring to writer’s group next week. 

Friends, I hope to write something that might inspire you in your creative goals this year at least once a week. If we aren’t making art in the face of it all, we aren’t truly doing all we can. So let’s keep making time.

 Send me a personal note about what you are working on in 2020 and I will send you some inspiration in return. Email: eatyourwords.lizshine@gmail.com.  

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turtle

Write slowly.

The cult of speedy writers.

There is a lot of hype out there tying triumph in writing to your ability to write fast. Success in self-publishing seems to have more to do with the number of works a writer can churn out than anything else.The goals seems to be to create a link of works that can be consumed one after the other after the other. NaNoWriMo has done it’s part to popularize, even grossly extend, the virtues of the so called shitty first draft.

Writers everywhere seem obsessed with word count. I have tried these ways and I don’t argue that they work for some writers really, really well.

What mindfulness has taught me about myself as a writer.

As the new year got rolling, I re-committed myself to writing and slashed some commitments that were getting in the way. I started using an app to write in singularly focused short bursts with breaks. My goal right now is at least three such intervals every day. I also re-committed to a regular meditation practice and I’ve only missed a few days all year. I believe these two practices in conjunction have allowed me to observe my habits and reactions a little more clearly.

I noticed at first that when I started the timer and didn’t have words immediately ready to flow from my pen, I got nervous. Time was literally ticking after all! I observed this a couple of times and then began to examine this way of thinking. Was it okay to spend some of my writing interval staring out the window wondering what was really motivating my character in the scene I was working on?

The answer was of course, yes. I may be setting a timer, but I am not running a race. Or if I am, I am running tortoise style, because over the years that is the way I have always felt I should be writing. Sometimes I need fifteen minutes to write a sentence, sometimes fifteen seconds. Trying to write at a certain pace, obsessing over word counts–these habits not only don’t work for me. They suck all the joy out of writing for me. They cause me to focus more on the end product than the experience of each moment in a story. The former makes me feel anxious and insecure; the latter is what flow looks like for me.

Be a tortoise or a hare.

So, be a tortoise or a hare in your writing! There is no right way to go about this work. As for me, I will ignore all the buzz about writing fast and making word count. It’s just not how I’m gonna roll. At ease with my tortoise pace, I have finished four new stories in six weeks time without really trying to.

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igloo

Building Igloos

The Igloo Story

When I was fifteen or so I built an igloo in the snow. We were having Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas?) in Yakima at my aunt’s house. There was way more snow than we ever got in Aberdeen. Anyway, somehow my cousins and I got started building an igloo and even when we hadn’t finished and our hands were numb and the sun had set, I refused to give up. I stayed out in the cold and the dark to finish that igloo.

I’ve hung on this memory ever since, and I’ve tended to focus on how it was an early indication of my ability to persist, to keep tirelessly pursuing a problem or project until it’s done. That’s not untrue. I am not one to give up easy.

I am seeing this memory from a different angle right now, its shadowy side.

Stuck in a rut

You may have noticed I haven’t written a blog here since last July. the trouble really started before that. For many months now, I’ve been stuck in a rut writing-wise. As you know if you read this blog, I will do just about anything to make time to write. Even wake up at 4 AM! I don’t do this anymore, but I did for a couple of years. For a while, this allowed me to keep writing in spite of everything else that I do in a day. It worked until I reached the point where I was sitting in front of my laptop at 4:45, working on my second cup of coffee, having written three sentences and deleted nine all the while in a zombie state, my heart a cold stone.

It wasn’t getting up at four that created this burn-out state. It was something else. It was the shadow side of that igloo story.

I can’t pinpoint one event in my life that forced a change, but change is actually what is happening right now. It was really a culmination of circumstances that pushed me to the wall where I had to choose: fight or die?

I chose to fight.

The circumstances? An ever mounting workload brought on by my own overachieving and perfectionist tendencies. More work piled on when my partner took ill and could not do much of anything for weeks. Months of random fits of sadness that brought me to tears. My own nagging resentments and unhappiness. Day after day in my plan book with nothing written under the daily log labeled WRITE. The habit I’d fallen into of numbing my pain each evening with a glass or three of red wine.

What this all has to do with igloos

Here’s the shadow side of that igloo story.

I’ve struggled my entire remembered life with anxiety and imposter syndrome. I learned through childhood trauma and fifteen year in an abusive relationship to make myself small. So, it’s no wonder that I’ve spent so much of my life feeling like I had to prove my worth. It’s a vicious cycle. You feel like a fraud, so you try to do more in hopes that you might become worthy.

That igloo? I was one hundred percent aware that my cousins kept checking back with me and that they had reported to the adults exactly what I was up to. There was no way I was not going to build that igloo with all of those people watching.

The drive to achieve has served me well on so many occasions, but it is also the reason I found myself sitting like a zombie at my writing desk last September. And it has taken me all these months to bring myself back to life.

What needs to change?

So I am making some changes.

I am only building the igloos I truly want to build. I won’t do it for approval, because I don’t want to say no, or because someone else thinks I should. I am choosing my igloos carefully from here on out.

I am shedding responsibilities I never wanted right now to make room for more of what I love. I am learning to say no, to delegate, to ask for help. I am learning to say “I don’t know”. I am shedding habits that don’t serve me and I’ve been making the time to meditate daily for two weeks now. This is really helping me see all the rest of this more clearly.

As for writing, what is working for me now are short bursts of hyper-focused writing. I use an app called BeFocused to time and log my writing sessions and I aim for two to six sessions per day every day. In the past two weeks, I’ve polished up four short stories and readied them for send-off, made an outline for my connected stories, and started a new story.

I hope to get back to this blog more often, though it feels right to keep my posts to when I really have something meaningful to communicate about this journey we are on to live creative lives in the face of commitment, distractions, and our own self-defeating habits of mind. Also, more ironic listicles because I really like writing them.

Happy New Year fellow creatives! I’m here and I’ll be checking in from time to time. In the meantime, keep choosing only the igloos you want to build.

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spiral staircase

30 Things To Do Before You Sit Down To Write

30 Things To Do Before You Sit Down To Write

  1. Re-read old stories you wrote years ago and consider fixing them.
  2. Organize all the pens on your desk by color or type of pen and then fan them out into a pen rainbow.
  3. Answer the phone call from your mother.
  4. Decide to call a family meeting about the pressing issue of the dishwasher not being emptied or filled at a suitable pace.
  5. Ponder this question: Do I even have what it takes to be a writer?
  6. Decide now is the time to intervene about your child or spouse’s social media addiction.
  7. Go on Amazon. You just can’t write until you have a new notebook/binder/purse.
  8. Patch all the nail holes in your walls.
  9. Deep clean anything. Some ideas: the washing machine, the bathtub, the kitchen counters.
  10. Try a new recipe that requires an ingredient you have to go to the store to find.
  11. Clip your toenails. You’ve been putting it off way too long.
  12. Then pull every random facial hair you can find.
  13. Check your email. Be sure to fill out the customer survey you find there for a chance to win a $100 gift card. You never know!
  14. Google dog training services in your area. You’ve been meaning to sign up for years. You really can’t put it off another day.
  15. While you’re at it, give the dogs a bath.
  16. Make a sandwich you can barely get your mouth around because all work requires fuel, even typing. Eat it, then take a nap.
  17. Edge-clean the floors.
  18. Decide that now is the time to talk to your teenager about the importance of having a plan for the future.
  19. Download an app to help you get focused when you write and learn how to use it.
  20. Make a list of books you need to read for research.
  21. Organize your desk and sharpen every pencil so that it is ready to use when you need it.
  22. Read some blogs about effective outlining techniques or how to write stories that have tension.
  23. DM your best friend that you are about to start writing! Preferably through Snapchat so you can use an animal ears filter or start a game of blow the bubbles.
  24. Dress up your pets and have your own pet parade.
  25. Decide on paint colors for your bathroom, because certain colors inspire creativity and you need that before you write.
  26. Ask your spouse/ significant other/ friend to read what you’ve written so far and give you feedback so you know what a reader might think about your work before you move forward.
  27. Read that article that just came through your feed about the latest Trump-fail.
  28. Paint your nails your main character’s favorite color to get in the spirit.
  29. Write a blog list of Things To Do Before You Sit Down To Write.
  30. Check your retirement account and shift some things around.
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roundabout sign

Letter: Dear FOBO

Dear FOBO,

I just learned you existed yesterday. Well, I learned you are a thing with a name, which also means there must be countless other people out there who struggle with you.
Fear of better options–you make me keep switching POV in my stories. You make me abandon entire drafts to work on that fresh new idea. You make it impossible for me to get a single word written until I’ve mad a list of writing goals for the day, because–hey, when there are so many possibilities–why not start by making a sandwich?
FOBO, you have the best of intentions. You come from this desire to make great art, to make that art better and better. But you keep me from hanging out in the now, struggling through the problems and rough patches of a project.
Hey–Can we make a deal?
When I set my writing timer, could you go hang out somewhere else?
Because when I’m in it, I want to be in it. While I might decide later to make some important change to the narrative, I have to be in it first, follow it from start to finish.
So, I’m setting my timer. Go play somewhere else for a while.
Respectfully,
Liz
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The word writer, hashed out with a don't sign

Five ways to sabotage your writing time

Want to sabotage your writing time? Have I got some ideas for you.

1. Do anything else “real quick”.

This includes checking email, social media accounts, doing a little food prep for dinner, taking out the trash. There are so many important tasks that will show up as soon as you event think about writing. Just do a few real quick.

2. Listen to negative self-talk about your story.

When you are in the middle of death-defying act like sky-diving or some crazy triple-flip aerial is that the time to question whether or not you are cut out for skydiving or gymnastics?

No.
Same goes with writing. You want to kill your mojo real quick? Let all those negative thoughts in. Engage with them.

3. Be narrow-minded about when and how much time you need for writing.

If you’ve decided that if you need two hours for writing, but you’ve only got an hour and a half, bag it. Go watch TV instead.

4. Always take your work seriously.

Don’t ever freewrite. Don’t ever intentionally write your story as cliche, full of adverbs, and over-told as you possible can for a laugh. Always be severe in your expectations.

5. Work on more than one thing at a time.

Hope springs eternal, right? If you finally sat down and made time, why not try to bust out two short stories instead of one? Do some research and write a blog? There’s no effing way you’ll get past the first thing on your list and you’ll feel like a failure, but goals are good–right?

 

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flying clocks

Dear Teacher-writers: the idea that you’ll have more time to write in the summer is a myth. Let’s face it.

I often tell people that part of why I teach is so I can spend my summer writing.

I don’t mean to lie.

Before I became a teacher, I thought this would be how it would work. I mean it makes sense to believe this. If I’m not working, I should have more time, right?

I have found that the answer is NO!

Every year since I started teaching I hold out hope that summer will bring all the time, inspiration, and motivation I need to write with speed, fluidity, and voice. Truth is, in summer we still have to work to make time. For one thing, there is nothing more devastating to a writer than losing her routine.

The routine is the only thing keeping the momentum in spite of self-doubt, exhaustion, and criticism. What happens to teachers in summer?

The bell ring. *Poof* No routine. Or maybe a new routine if you have a summer job–which is equally devastating.

Two weeks ago I wrote a summer writing schedule and a fall writing schedule. Then I downloaded an app to track my writing time. I’m ready! Tomorrow when that bell rings, I’ve got a plan in place and I’m not lying to myself this time. Writing this summer will not be easier than during the school year. In fact, at first, it will be harder because of the disrupted routine.

It helps to know that you will be here making time with me.

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purple spring flowers writing

Some writing advice and some inspiration for your week to come: Let’s do this!

How is the writing going?

Earlier this year, my best writing buddy and I were struggling to make time to write. Both teachers, the school year—and it was clearly going to be a doozy—had us firmly in its grasp. We wanted to get away. Maybe a weekend at the beach or—hell—even a cheap motel in town (as we have done in the past). But we couldn’t afford that. So we committed over a long weekend to dedicate most of each day to writing.

We made a retreat basket for each other. We each had a box to open three times each writing day: morning, afternoon, and evening. The idea here is that you’d have to write through the morning to get your afternoon surprise.

Inside our boxes, we might find an inspirational note, chocolate, or anything really. We had a lot of fun surprising each other and being clever. I even got a piece of bread to toast.

It is memories like this lately that keeps me from throwing in the towel.

I’ve had so many colleagues this year say to me: I don’t know how you do it all. For a moment this makes me proud. Clearly, I am getting shit done and getting noticed for that. Then, I admit the truth to myself. I’ve been writing, but every time I sit down to write, my time is up just as I’m getting into the flow.

 

Getting my act together.

But I made a new writing schedule for the rest of this year and another one for summer, which is the first thing I do when I can’t seem to make enough time. I put the schedule in my phone and set all the reminders, then I added “I wrote today” to my habit tracker app. I looked back at my daily goals for last week and cried, but then shook it off and continued to make a plan.
Here is my current mantra for making time:

Let it go, let somebody else take care of it this time.

This beautiful intention is the gift this past school year has given me. Now? Onward. To a new writing schedule, summer, and making time!

Buy my books here. 

Creative Challenge for the week:

If you live in a family: Every time this week you notice something around the house that needs to be done, ask someone else to do it. It’s just a week. Let it go.
If you live alone: Notice what needs to be done and then let it pass right back of your mind and finish the writing first.

Writing Prompt/ Inspirational Photo:

Prompt: Write something that includes some colors of spring.

purple spring flowers writing

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