How Peaceful the Disconnected Life Can Be

My studio was originally Internet-free; now it is intentionally so.

Earlier this week, the Internet connection to my studio went down and I was reminded how peaceful the disconnected life can be.

I had no Internet when I first moved into my Chapel of the Imagination, as I call my one-room studio tucked into a wooded corner of our land. At first, I was stunned by the intense quiet; I wrote with concentration and focus.

It was only when I returned to the house to use the printer or send email that I fell into those black holes of distraction: Facebook, news, solitaire.

As my blogging output increased, I had to return to the house and connect more frequently for fact checking, uploading photos and formatting posts. Reluctantly, I wired the studio to the Internet, which saved me the walk to the house, but where I often succumbed to the time suck of cyber distraction. Even when I was on-line to research a subject, I found myself spinning into information that was as off-topic as it was interesting – and hardly better than going deep into Facebook.

So when my connection went down, I was amazed how quickly my focus returned, and how sharp my mind without all the cyber static that has crept into my workspace.

About the same time, I started reflecting on my day with Evening Pages, rediscovering the joys of writing by hand.

The combination of turning off the static and physically shaping my words on the page has been profound. I’m recapturing the sustained quiet where my imagination is most audible and my ability to capture my ideas into words most profound.

In order to protect this renewed quiet, I’m turning off my email and silencing my phone in the studio. By disconnecting to the interruptions and distractions of the Internet, I’m concentrating on the words and stories at hand.

What are your distractions and how do you tame them?

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Note to my Readers: I wrote Lessons from the Long Trail after hiking from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains in 2016. This summer I’ll be hiking from Alaska into the Yukon along the Chilkoot Trail. While I’m gone, I’ll be republishing some favorite posts both here and at Living in Place. I hope you’ll check them both out. I’ll look forward to reading and responding to your comments when I return. All best.

Words On The Page

words on a page

Words on a page – where it all starts.

Whether it’s a post, a radio interview, or a keynote address, events like these represent great opportunities for a writer to build audience and generate income – and they all start with words on the page.

Yesterday, I was interviewed on Vermont Edition about a writing talk I’ll be giving on Friday, called Having the Last Word: How to Write Your Own Obituary.

Vermont Public Radio picked it up due to a commentary I wrote and recorded for them the week before.

Tonight, I’ll be giving the keynote address, Making the Most of Middle Age at the annual meeting of the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, thanks to my blog, The Middle Ages.

Wednesday, I’ll be talking about Getting from Here to There: A History of Transportation and Settlement in Vermont in New Haven, Vermont.

All these presentations represent audience outreach and income, and all started with words on the page.

So, it’s worth thinking about going beyond print to get your message out, and it’s worth remembering that it all starts with organizing your thoughts into words.

How do you reach your audience?

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who advances issues through narrative and tells stories to create change. Read her weekly blog at www.deborahleeluskin.com

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?


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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.

THE TECHNIQUE

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).

SORT

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.

PRIORITIZE & SCHEDULE

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.

BALANCE

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.

ACCOUNTABILITY

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.

FLEXIBILITY

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.

WRITING PRACTICE

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.

TEACHING WRITING

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.