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.


Reply to Readers’ Comments

I no longer remember which of my colleagues at Live to Write – Write to Live first advised me to reply to readers’ comments, but it’s been great advice, so I’m passing it on.

Here’s why:

  1. It’s easy to send stories out into the world; it’s harder to know if they ever get read, and harder still to know if they hit home. When a reader comments, it’s like an out-of-the-park homer. Replying is simply cheering for the home team.
  2. When a reader’s comments offer me a new perspective, I thank them for widening my world-view. I live a somewhat solitary life, and I appreciate other’s opinions, life experiences and wisdom.
  3. When a reader reveals uncertainty about their writing, I reply with encouragement. I know both how easy it is to become discouraged and how important kinds words can be. Everyone has stories to tell; not everyone has the courage or wherewithal to write them down, let alone send them out into the world. Everyone benefits from kindness.
  4. Humans are a narrative species. We need stories. Stories are a way to build empathy, trade information, and resolve conflict. I want to do what I can to promote such peaceful behavior.
  5. Sometimes, this somewhat solitary writing life gets lonely, and hearing from readers has led to some on-line friendships. I’ve been in love with letters and intrigued by letter writing since I was a kid, and I like epistolary relationships. I still love snail mail, but email is easier and faster.
  6. Recently, an acquaintance I made through my blog turned into a face-to-face visit. Last week, this reader from England stopped by for coffee. (Read about it here.)

The chance to comment on a blog and reply to a reader’s comment is a gift of the internet. Yes, I received fan mail when my novel, Into the Wilderness, came out. No question, it was terrific. But I write novels slowly; I post blogs about six times a month. The frequency allows me to reach more readers between books, and these readers’ comments sustain me. So replying to comments only makes sense.

Thanks to all who read my posts both here and on Living in Place. This post is a special shout-out to those who respond with a comment.Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, public speaker and educator who lives in southern Vermont. There are still a few spaces left for the WOMEN WALKING AND WRITING TO WISDOM WALKshop on November 4th. Learn more here.

Baby Brother & Writing Buddy, Holding Each Other Accountable

Writing Buddy

Baby Brother & Writing Buddy

When my baby brother was born not quite sixty years ago this week, I never would have pegged him as my future writing buddy. He wasn’t the sister I’d hoped for, and at first, all he did was sleep. I was three-and-a-half at the time, and I thought he was dumb.

I’ve long since revised my opinion of my younger brother who, it’s turned out, is a kind, creative, smart man who also happens to be a writer and a good friend.

This brother is a playwright. Like me, he’s working on several writing projects at the moment, some with external deadlines and some dependent entirely on self-motivation.

During a recent visit, we both confessed that we were better at meeting externally imposed deadlines. We regularly keep our word when we commit to writing for others, and postpone the projects that mean the most to ourselves. As a result, the projects that are nearest and dearest often languish as we perpetually put them off.

During a recent visit, we came up with a plan to help each other out – simply by holding one another accountable.

We’ve done this before.

The last time, money changed hands. I sent him a considerable sum to hold in escrow, with a deadline attached. If I met my deadline, I got my money back. If I didn’t, he’d spend it on swag advertising organizations or politicians promoting antediluvian policies I loathe, and which as part of the deal, I’d have to wear.

This was a powerful disincentive, and it worked. I met my deadline and he returned the cash.

I returned the favor – and was relieved when he met his deadline. I wasn’t entirely sure I could actually follow through buying him a membership to an organization I despised.

This time, we’ve changed up the plan.

No money.

No threats.

Just accountability.

We talk each Friday afternoon: 5pm my time, 2pm his. We each report on how we did meeting the goals we set the previous week, then set goals for the next.

We’re both pretty good at setting measurable and achievable goals. And when our aspirations get the better of us, we’re quick to question one another: Really? You’re going to finish an entire draft by Friday while working your day job and hosting how many out-of-town guests?

Knowing that I have to report on my progress at the end of the week helps keep me on task.

Writing Buddy

Brother & Father, celebrating summer birthdays and beards.

Knowing that my brother will question unreasonable goals helps me set achievable ones.

And knowing that I’m helping him do the same levels out the hierarchy of birth order. Jonathan’s not just my baby brother; he’s a valued writing colleague – and a really good friend.


Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living In Place.

Dear Writer, You need more magic in your life.

Hidden Magic (Instagram: @suddenlyjamie)

Do you ever plunk yourself down, pen in hand, and feel like there’s nothing left? Do you ever come to the keyboard and only to find that your inspiration has been thoroughly depleted? You don’t have to answer. I’m betting you’ve had similar experiences. Some people call it writer’s block. Other’s call it life fatigue. Whatever name you give it, there’s a can’t-miss solution to get you back on track: get more magic in your life.

You see, magic begets magic. When you make more room in your life for magic, you’ll find that it fuels your creativity like nothing else. Even better, finding magic is easy. You can do it in the spare moments of your day. All you need to do is keep your eyes open. It’s there, all around you.

I wrote the following column for my local paper, but I’m hoping it may also be suitable to share here among fellow writers. Artists and writers should take special care to seek out magic in their daily lives. I consider it part of my self-care routine, and I can tell when I’ve been neglecting it.

So, here’s to finding magic in unexpected places. Enjoy!



One of the best things about hanging out with little kids is getting the chance to see the world through their eyes. A child’s view of reality isn’t clouded by doubt or cynicism. It isn’t limited by things like logic or so-called “common sense.” When a kid looks at the world, it is with an open mind that is ready and willing to embrace things an adult would overlook simply because of our grown-up prejudice against the impossible.

But, as Alice’s White Queen would tell you, you can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast if you simply draw a long breath, shut your eyes, and try.

The truth is, there is magic all around us, each and every day. To see it, we just need to take the queen’s advice. There’s a lot to be said for deep breaths and other things that help us pause for a moment and become fully aware of the wonders right in front of our noses.

It’s much too easy to surrender to the tugging and nagging of the Everyday World. As grown-ups, we’re supposed to be responsible and realistic. We’re supposed to know about things like taxes and flu prevention and the latest dreadful headlines (of which there seem to be so many these days). Our lives are busy-busy-busy and packed full to bursting with all kinds of Serious Matters and Important Tasks.

But we all need magic in our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Thankfully, magic comes in an infinite number of flavors. In addition to the magic of a child’s imagination, there is the magic of sunrises and sunsets — brilliant and subtle sky paintings in every hue and shade, all lit from within and turning the world pink and blue and purple. There is the magic of spring’s first buds emerging into the bright air despite the cold and lingering pockets of ice and snow. There is the magic of last year’s seedpods, looking for all the world like perfect, faerie architecture with arches and catacombs.

One of my favorite kinds of magic is dog magic. I have yet to meet a canine who lacked the ability to work a spell on me. I see a dog, and I smile. I can’t help it. Dogs lighten my heart and remind me of all the goodness in the world. I can be walking down the street, dragging my cloud of worries behind me, and then I see a dog and those worries just evaporate into nothing. All it takes is one furry-faced smile.

And, of course, there is magic in stories and poems and music and all manner of art. During especially stressful times, I make sure to pepper my day with creative magic. My morning usually includes the enchantment of classical music, each movement and piece offering up a wordless story that is clearly magical. Throughout the day, I take a moment here and a moment there to visit the Facebook posts of certain friends who have a knack for curating the most whimsical and inspiring collections of art. Each visit lasts only a minute, but the effects linger for much longer.

I have reached an age at which I believe I have earned the right to be taken seriously when I say, “Life is short.” The more years I live, the more quickly each year seems to fly by until one blends into the last, blurring experiences and memories into one another. But the moments of magic that I weave into my life always stand out. Whether they are solitary moments standing in awe of Nature’s creative brilliance or shared moments experiencing a work of art, an adventure, or an unexpected encounter with a magical person or creature in the wild, those small moments are the ones that sparkle in my memory like stars in the night sky — constellations that guide me to remember what matters most in this short life.




Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.

Keeping the Creative Fires Burning

“The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Tennessee Williams

A friend posted this quote on Facebook this morning. It was a gem in my newsfeed, glittering darkly amidst a colorful cacophony of political posts, vacation pictures, and LOL cats. I held each word for a moment – violent, mercurial, love, burning – and then, as the bigger concept coalesced in my mind, I was surprised to realize that the idea of living in Williams’ burning building was actually comforting.

Making time in our lives for any creative endeavor is a challenge, but the effort seems particularly Herculean today. Not only is the house burning, but the entire world is ablaze – global warming, political unrest, racial tensions, Brexit, wars, not to mention the dumpster fire of American politics. And yet, even in these precarious times, we feel compelled to write. The fire in our hearts yearns to escape the secret confines of our minds and leap into the conflagration of the real world where it might ignite passion (or at least curiosity) in someone else.

The interesting thing about fire is that while it can be an instrument of destruction, it also provides inspiration, warmth, and fuel. Fire can consume, but it also helps us to build and create. Staring into a fire, it’s impossible not to be drawn into thoughts of the balance between light and dark, the truth of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and the dream of the phoenix. It is impossible not to think about the metaphorical fires that burn inside us.

And yet, even when the fire burns down and the ashes turn cold, there is always a spark or a coal buried deep, just waiting for the right conditions to spring back to life as a dancing flame that lights up the darkness, bringing hope and warmth and the power to pierce the night. Our creative fires never truly go out. They may burn low for a while, or even disappear underground; but then something to turn the earth over, exposing the smoldering coals to the air, and we’re ablaze again.


Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings.  Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
Photo Credit: Christian Ferrari Flickr via Compfight cc