Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.


If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice

If you want to write: write!

We’ve all heard some form of this advice, and its more crass counterpart, “put your ass in the chair.”

What I hate most about this advice is its simplicity. I know that the only way to write is to sit down and do it.

Easier said than done.

When I sit down to write, I often sit down surrounded by my ambition, my hopes, and a running to-do list of other tasks I should be doing. I developed my Spell Against Self Doubt – the actions I take to prepare for writing – to build my confidence as a writer. I needed something other than a page number to measure success, and so it was surprising that one of the most useful tools is completing three pages of automatic writing before opening my computer. It made me wonder:

Is the secret to unlocking better writing as simple as writing more?

Time @ Desk (Time + Wordcount) / Hours Procrastinating = Quality

Is there an equation to better writing?

According to Julie Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Understanding, writing more is the way not only to get better at writing, but also better any creative pursuit. The task is simple: write for three pages without a plan. Just keep writing.

For the first few weeks, I remained dubious. My morning pages were painfully mundane. I scribbled to-do lists, petty anxieties, and physical descriptions of my surroundings. While I had succeeded in getting my ass in the chair, it seemed to only confirm the fear that I had nothing interesting to write.

And then something shifted. One morning some of the smog lifted. I started writing about a dream I’d had. The daily practice of unplanned writing led me to unplanned ideas. Unexpected details crawled through my still-foggy brain. I accessed the joy I’ve observed in a marker-wielding three year old: fierce commitment to coloring page after page, followed by total abandonment when snack time rolls around.

So is the secret to writing better, writing more?

My morning pages have not manifested into a manuscript. They have become a beloved junk drawer of detail, observation, and memory. Though I write my morning pages when I am still half asleep, they have woken up my delight in writing. I no longer sit at my desk wondering if I have a story to tell, but which story I will share with this audience.

Writing more has improved my writing, because I now approach my writing like a three year old — content to be completely absorbed in the act of creating! I write from a place of trust and delight. Of course, I’m not saying that quantity equals quantity. Word count is not a panacea for a poorly formed argument, but it may be a cure for doubt.

Art by my favorite three year old - one of 13 pieces made that day!

Art by my favorite three year old – one of 13 pieces made that day!

If you want to write – write! Write when you are half asleep, write when you are annoyed that your friend is late to meet you (again), write when you see something that delights you.

So what do you think? Is writing more a path towards better writing?

Small_headshotNaomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery

My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.


Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.


Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.


Know your audience (Who are you?)

I’m new here.

My first post was supposed to be at the end of December. It was titled, “What did you write in 2017.” But then my snarky inner voice chimed in, “did you even write anything in 2017?”

Of course I wrote.


What I wrote in 2017

I wrote shopping lists and to-do lists.

I wrote cover letters, thank you letters, and condolence letters.

I wrote job announcements and bid announcements.

I wrote newsletters and love letters.


I wrote finance reports, grant reports, and project reports. I wrote e-mails (so many e-mails).

Most of my writing is anonymous or functional. The majority is both. It is technical writing, which means it is a step in a process, but not the final product. The benefit s of this type of writing is that it is published, it is read, and it is paid. The downside is that my writing is functional. It is more likely to alter someone’s to-do list than their sense of wonder.

My favorite part of being a pen-for-hire is knowing my purpose. My audience varies from officers at the Environmental Protection Agency, to parents at an after-school program, to clowns. When I sit down to write, the first question I ask myself is “who will read this”? Followed closely by “why am I writing this.” How I write, and what details I include, vary based on the reader.

This clarity can be a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to creative writing. One of the biggest challenges I face when I sit down to my creative projects is a sense of purpose. There is no deadline. There is no guaranteed paycheck. And, most troubling, there is no audience. 2017 wasn’t exclusively a year of functional writing. I also I wrote two plays, two performances pieces, and six (and a half) short stories. Some of these pieces have been performed or shared in a workshop, but most have only had an audience of one (me).

One of my goals for 2018, is to get more work in front of an audience.

That’s where you come in.


Who are you?

The trouble is, I don’t know you.

Who are you? What do you want to read? What brings you to Live To Write, Write To Live?

I’m excited to write about: making time for a writing practice, combatting self-doubt, sharing unfinished work, and blogging ethics. What do you want to read?

I look forward to reading your responses in the comments and getting to know you!

Small_headshotNaomi Shafer is a writer, performer, and project manager. She works for Clowns Without Borders. Her written work has been performed at an array of theaters, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, Middlebury College, the New England Youth Theatre, and Peppercorn Theatre. She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

Defeating the December Doldrums

December Doldrums

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed.

Every year, I stall in the December Doldrums, when moving my pen across the page feels like trudging through wet, ankle deep cement. Instead of climbing out of my chair, I sit at my desk longer than I can be productive – behavior that can trigger a cascade of discontent.

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed, sometimes for weeks. The term has been appropriated into the common language to describe a period of inactivity, listlessness, or stagnation.

I’ve been becalmed here before. As the calendar winds down and the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, my thoughts can turn as dark as the day is short.

In early December of this year, I submitted a novel to my agent. Now, I’m waiting. Submission is an act of yielding to another’s judgment, and it often elicits a sense of helplessness in me. I’ve done all I can, and now the fate of my work is in others’ hands.


Self doubt comes to roost.

I wait and I fret. Self doubt perches in my soul.

To wait in the dark of the year only intensifies my feelings of being unsettled, listless, itchy in my own skin.

But I’ve been around this bend before, and I’ve learned that the wind will pick up. In the meantime, there are activities I can do to make waiting for it more bearable. Here are five ways I navigate through the doldrums.

1. Declutter

One of my favorite ways to wait out the doldrums is to clear clutter and organize the nests of papers, piles of books, and tangles of string too short to be saved. The number of places in my house where I could apply this organizing energy attests to how infrequently I’m becalmed.

2. Get Outside

I also know that even better than cleaning is getting outdoors. This year, we’ve been blessed with early snow followed by bright, cold days. I’ve skied myself stiff, replacing psychic pain with physical aches.

3. Give Gifts; Volunteer

Last Sunday, I offered Writing to the Light, a free writing workshop. Fifteen people showed up, wrote and shared their stories. They enjoyed stepping out of the holiday circus for reflection, and they all expressed appreciation for my efforts, which made me feel good.

4. Check the Data

It’s easy to see only what’s lacking while in the doldrums. This is why I keep a daily account of my time.  All I have to do is look at my records for the year for a solid reality check of the work I’ve produced: weekly posts at Living In Place; bi-weekly posts for Live to Write – Write to Live; and publications for my paying markets, including broadcasts on Vermont Public Radio. I also taught grant funded literature and writing courses; gave a dozen public talks for the Vermont Humanities Council; and hosted the Rosefire Writing Circle throughout the year. This is all in addition to revising one novel; rereading another; and continuing research for a piece of non-fiction. I’ve increased my readership and my income. By all measures, 2017 has been a good year.

5. Have Faith

The sun will turn the corner, and the earth will begin its journey back to the sun. The wind will pick up and I’ll leave the doldrums. This too shall pass.

By engaging in a combination of these five activities, I’ve already caught the wind and started sailing toward the sun.

Wishing all of you light and love to carry you into the New Year.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place.

Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.


Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.


I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.


What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

Mark Rothko

What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

It was completely irresponsible to drive to Boston and spend the Monday of a packed week at the Museum of Fine Arts, but that’s just what I did yesterday.


My husband had the day off after a week of being on-call at the hospital, and at first I couched the sortie as something he needed before returning to the clinic today. But it turns out, the expedition was a good reset for me, too.

What I Saw

One of Takashi Murakami’s huge paintings.

Neither of us wanted to look at Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics. My resistance to viewing the busy, cartoonish paintings of this contemporary Japanese artist was all the red flag I needed to force myself to go. Reluctantly, Tim joined me in visual discomfort.

What I Saw

Japanese scroll hanging in the same gallery.


The best way I know to make sense of challenging art is to play a game of “I see,” naming the different elements in the painting. Both of us quickly fell into the first giant canvas, and our prejudices fell away as we looked and learned. It’s a spectacular exhibit that juxtaposes Murakami’s contemporary work with Japanese masterpieces from the MFA’s collection. I saw the connections, learned a bit about Japanese culture, and expanded my own store of metaphor. This was hard exercise for the visual processing part of my brain. My overworked linguistic muscles appreciated the rest.

Is rest the same as stillness? I think not, especially after viewing Seeking Stillness,  another exquisitely curated show of meditative pieces in different media. I was drawn to the abstract paintings of Agnes Martin: white canvases with lines, like a piece of paper waiting for words.

These paintings contrasted sharply with the dark, color block work of Mark Rothko, hung in an adjoining room.

All these canvases showed me how paint can have texture, pattern, rhythm, line and color. Some paintings told stories; some were intellectual challenges; others simply/complexly emotion.

Tim and I walked and talked, rested our feet at the museum café, and returned for more, more ,and more.

Art Changed How I See

This building looked like a work of art after a day at the MFA.

We finished with a stroll through an ongoing exhibit of modern paintings, before stepping outside in the late afternoon, where the sky looked like a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, and the fenestration of a building across the fen looked like a Mondrian.

I highly recommend an artist date, especially if you don’t have the time; and I encourage you to look at art, especially art you think you don’t like.

Have you been on an Artist’s Date lately? Where did you go? What did you see?

Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WALKshop participants at Chaos Junction.

Here’s a photo of Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom last Saturday,  where we learned tools to nurture and listen our wise, inner voice.

You can learn more about what I write and the professional services I offer at Deborah Lee Luskin.