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.

Setting Goals for 2018

setting goals for 2018Last year, I made affirmations, not resolutions; this year, I’m setting goals for 2018.

I’m using a technique I learned last February, when I felt overwhelmed by projects and obligations.

It worked, so I’m trying it again.


setting goals for 2018Take a pad of paper, sticky notes, or a stack of index cards and write one goal per slip of paper. It doesn’t matter how large or small the goal is, and the number of cards you can fill out is limited only by the number of cards you have on hand.

On one slip, I wrote down “Time Passes” the middle section of a novel-in-progress. On another, I wrote down, “Weekly posts for Living in Place”.

I also wrote down the perennial homestead activities, like plant the vegetable garden and order meat birds.

I wrote down the dates of the board meetings I chair for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center and the date I’ll be moderating Town Meeting this year (always the first Tuesday in March).


Once I’d written down all the things I could think of, I sorted them by kind, and came up with seven categories: Writing Projects; Writing Business; Teaching & Public Speaking; Family; Household; Self-Care and Civic Engagement.

These categories mimic those I use in my Planner Pad, part of my Month, Week, Day system of keeping track and accounting for my time.


setting goals 2018Since many of my goals are to work on long-term projects, I’ve learned to prioritize and schedule the steps that will help me meet them.

One of my writing goals for this year is to “Draft Hunting Book” This is a large, on-going project to which I assign a block of time most workdays. How I’ll use that time will become apparent as the work progresses. Some days I’ll write; some days I’ll read or research; some edit. And some days, I’ll set the project aside to meet a deadline for a teaching gig or a public lecture.


In addition to meeting work goals, I’ve also set goals for self-care, which include outdoor exercise, yoga, and piano. On another page, I wrote down “vacation.” We’re planning a trip to Alaska.


I meet deadlines, including ones I set for myself, and I track my progress in my work diary. Of course, I also keep track of my earnings, although I’ve learned that income is only one measure of success.


flexibilityWhen I get stuck (and I will), I can always refer back to my stack of goals and shuffle them as I meet a goal, or as my priorities or circumstances change.

How do you set your goals?


Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, teacher, radio commentator and blogger who spends so much time alone, she thinks yoga is a social activity.

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.


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.

Tempting the Muse – A Quick Bit of Advice

Sharon Stone in the Albert Brooks 1999 movie, The Muse

I’m going to bet that your muse doesn’t always show up when you want her to.

Muses are tricky, fickle creatures. They are like cats in that they prefer to do things only when they damn well please and never according to anyone else’s schedules or needs. Also, like cats, they have a tendency to show up when you least expect them. How often have you been struck by inspiration in a moment when you absolutely cannot act on that inspiration (like in the middle of a business meeting, for instance)?

But then, when you’re ready to make your move and itching for that lightning-bolt-out-of-the-blue whack upside the head, your muse is nowhere to be seen. You’ve set up the perfect conditions: steaming mug of tea, a quiet environment, your lucky sweatshirt, several hours of uninterrupted time, and a handful of Dove dark chocolates. You’re ready to rock and roll, but … no muse.

It can be infuriating.

The thing is, your muse is not a creature of habit or a 9-to-5 worker who is going to clock in at the same time every day. She’s more wild and spontaneous than that, which is why you need to learn to work without her – butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, muse or no muse.

Your muse likes to sneak up on you while you’re in the shower, driving down the highway, or cutting cauliflower florets for dinner. It amuses her to stop you in the middle of doing something else and surprise you with an epiphany that leaves you frozen in thought under the shower head, missing your exit, or knife paused mid slice.

While I’ve learned to work without my muse and to adapt to her capricious ways, I’ve also recently realized that I can be sneaky, too. I’ve discovered that I can lure my muse to me with the right bait. Lately, the bait that has been most effective is a morning power walk to the epic sounds of my Lindsey Stirling station on Pandora. I walk and listen, and the world of my book opens up before my inner eye. Scenes play inside my head as though I’m watching them on a movie screen. Flashes of character insights pop into my mind unbidden. I keep moving. I keep listening. If my logical brain tries to veer into the mundane territory of the days To Do list, I gently lead it back down the rabbit hole of my story daydreaming.

And every once in a while, I take out my phone as casually as I can (don’t want to frighten my muse away) and type in a few notes to help me remember the things that I’ve discovered.

If you’re having trouble managing your muse, maybe a different approach will help you reconnect with your inspiration. Sometimes, inspiration is something that you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Squinting at it head on will only give you a headache, but if you just pretend you’re not paying attention, your muse may just sidle up and make herself comfortable.

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.

From Digital to analog to … Danalog*

*Danalog = part digital, part analog.

Last fall, I wrote about my trials and tribulations on my search for planner peace.  Eight months later, my epic journey continues.

Things I’ve learned on my quest for planner peace:

  • Using digital methods (Google, GQueues and Teamwork) to collect my appointments and tasks is crucial. I can add things on the go and prioritize during my weekly planning time.
  • I need to “write” things down for them to stick in my brain (I’ll explain the quotes in a minute).
  • Each part of my life requires its own unique color for clarity and retention.
  • I need a both weekly spread and a daily spread.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned is that I’m not likely to find a pre-printed paper layout that meets all my needs.

I’ve mentioned I’m part of an awesome paper planning group on Facebook. Recently someone sheepishly posted that she’d created a digital layout and was using the iPad an Apple pencil to complete it weekly. In the immortal words of Gru from Despicable Me “LIGHT BULB”.

Creating the layout digitally allows me to design layouts that meet my needs. Using the Apple Pencil to fill in the layouts by hand on a weekly basis creates connections in my brain that fuel my productivity and personal growth.

My weekly layout. The seven days run across the top 3/4 of the screen with hourly breakouts for each day. The bottom quarter is my to dos by category.
I experimented, creating layouts using InDesign and Excel. I like InDesign better, but if you are considering creating your own layouts, don’t wait for the perfect software, seize the moment and make it happen! You can use whatever program you are most familiar with (any word processing or graphic design program would work). The nice thing about creating your own planner layout is if you decide something doesn’t work, you aren’t stuck with it. Plus, if you really want to stay analog, you can print your templates out.

Steps to create your own planner layout

  • Determine what you need on the page (Breakout of the day hourly? To do list? Tracking chart? Word count? Water consumption?)
  • Design your layouts
  • Save them as .pdf files
  • Open them on the iPad (I email them to myself and open them using and annotation program such as Goodnotes, Explain Everything or Notability).

I'm adding a task to my to do list using Google pencilIt’s worth noting that an Apple Pencil is not required, many of the programs listed above will let you add text boxes and enter information via a keyboard. I just need the hand to brain connection.

I have developed a routine where Sunday morning or first thing Monday at the absolute latest, I sit down and plan my week. I copy what’s on my work and home Google calendars and create a to do list for the week drawing from my task managers. I only plan one day ahead. At the end of each day, I’ll make the plan for the next. Using both a weekly and a daily layout means copying things twice, but it gives me a big picture view of my week and allows me to focus in on specific tasks on any given day.

I’ve been at it about six weeks now and I’ve made tweaks along the way but I’m really happy with the results. Not only am I noting (and completing tasks), I’m tracking personal development too. I’m keeping a food journal and also tracking pain management and treatment for a foot injury as well as my modified exercise regiment. At the end of the day it’s so nice to see progress! Even if I’ve only checked off 3 things. If they are the three things I set out to do, I’m ecstatic.

What’s the draw back? The layout is fairly utilitarian. I’m too pragmatic to make it pretty. I keep telling myself I’ll make time to make it look nice, but alas, I don’t. I’d rather be working on my WIP or out riding ATVs with my family. I’m jealous of my paper planning friends who utilize stickers and all the pretty washi tapes, but on the upside, I’m saving trees by not printing and money by not buying washi and stickers. 🙂

So that’s my latest installment in my search for planner peace. I’m not sure I’ll EVER be 100% satisfied, but this is working better than most of my last iterations.

Have you tried making your own time management templates?

Lee Laughlin is a writer, marketer, social media consumer and producer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She writes for the Concord Monitor and her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on the second draft of her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.