When I Can’t Write

Sometimes I get into a place, mentally, where the words just won’t come. It’s not really writer’s block, it’s usually when I’m going through some situation that causes a lot of emotion, which makes it difficult for me to “clear my mind” and write.

But I know that situations change, emotions fade, and my mind will clear—eventually.

So I don’t get too upset about it.

There are things I do do when this happens that seem to help me settle my emotions and gain that clarity I’m looking for.

One thing is I move more. For example, I had a lot of “to-dos” on my list today, but I went snowshoeing for two hours anyway. Returning from the woods and the pond, I was much calmer and ready to tackle that list.

Another thing I do is anything that involves using my hands. I’ve picked up various projects and worked on them in the past few weeks, from a shawl I’m knitting to a latch-hook rug I’m making for my son.

I’ve also started making zentangles. I’ve always been a doodler, but I recently read about making doodles as a meditative practice. I took to it right away.

Here’s the first zentangle I drew:

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Here’s the most recent one I drew:

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All you need is a pencil, a pen, and a piece of paper (or a tile, which is just a small square piece of very nice paper to draw on.)

I have found doing the zentangles therapeutic, and I’ve also gotten some ideas about my writing while doing them. When I do them right before bed, I find myself more relaxed and I’ve been getting more ideas. It’s a right-brain exercise that often leads to a left-brain “ah-ha” moment.

The point is just to do them. Insights may come, but the act of focusing on a small square of paper and a repetitive design is what’s important. The hardest part is giving myself permission to “waste” time in this way. When I do, I’m always glad I did.

How do you clear your mind and settle your emotions so you can write?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I’m plugging away at my writing life, in the midst of everything else, just like everyone else I know.

 

Writer Profile: Vincent Panella

Vincent PanellaIn her recent post about time, Jamie wrote, “Time. It’s what we writers fight for. Without it, we have no hope of bringing our written creations to life. We need time to study, time to read, time to ponder, time to dream, and of course – time to write.”

My neighbor Vincent Panella writes. He’s arranged his entire adult life around writing. “When I’m writing, I’m happy,” he says. “When I’m not writing I’m not happy.”

Vincent wrote his first novel when he was twenty-three, while he was in the army. “I drank six pots of coffee a day and the book poured out of me. But my writing was better than my characters, I didn’t have any knowledge of form.”

He burned the manuscript –and wrote five more novels – or maybe six; he’s lost count. At one point, he had an agent; Vincent Panellaat another, he sold a novel to Simon & Schuster, but they never published the book. “I’ve had a lot of near successes,” he says – and he keeps writing.

After graduating from the Iowa Workshop in 1971, Panella spent a year as a reporter for a daily paper – a job he loved for what he learned, but it kept him too busy with daily deadlines to write fiction. He switched to jobs teaching writing at law schools in Iowa and Florida before landing in Vermont.

Otherside by Vincent PanellaDespite growing up in Queens, Panella found life in New York City too distracting for writing. “You create a world you inhabit and you think about it all the time,” he says. In the course of his career, he has written in a closet, in a small cabin, and in now in a comfortable outbuilding on his Vermont farm. Even when he was teaching, Panella started every day in the studio building beside his old farmhouse, where he writes by hand. “I don’t turn the computer on until later in the day. I try not to check email until I finish writing.”

Cutter'sIsland by Vincent PanellaTen years ago, Panella took a year off from teaching to write full time. He never went back. Since then, he’s published two books and written countless stories.

Cutter’s Island (Chicago Review Press) came out in 2009 to critical success. In 2010, Panella self- LostHearts by Vincent Panellapublished Lost Hearts, a collection of short stories, also to great reviews. While he’s glad he brought the stories out, he says, “I don’t have the energy for that any more. It’s too much of a hustle, and I just want to write.”

Now 75, Panella is currently concentrating on novellas and short stories. His novella Canada can be read on line at wipsjournal.com. He’s now more concerned about writing than selling his work. He says, “I have more stories to write than I have time and more work than I can really accomplish, and I think that’s a good thing.”

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is an author, blogger, and pen for hire. Learn more about her writing services on line at www.deborahleeluskin.com

It’s a challenge to be your own boss

Being your own boss is thrilling, isn’t it? It’s nice to not have someone to report to every day. You don’t have to deal with someone hassling you if you don’t show up or if you spend all your time chasing dust bunnies, shiny objects, or killing time on Snapchat or Facebook.

Of course you want to impress your clients, but they come and go and care about what you can do for them, not necessarily about your personal success.

There’s a lot of freedom (insert Mel Gibson’s scream from “Braveheart”) in working for yourself. Maybe too much at times.

To be successful and keep your business on track, you need to think like a boss. What do I mean? Here are a few tips.

  • Determine and write down your goals
    • Yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals will help you achieve the success you want. Written goals keep you focused.
  • Set check-ins and review milestones
    • Schedule time in your calendar, at least quarterly to review your progress on your goals.
  • Set and stick to a schedule
    • When working for someone else, you had to show up at a certain time, it’s just as important t o set a schedule for yourself and show up daily. It doesn’t have to be 8-5 5 days a week, but you should have a regular schedule – consistency and predictability are great for productivity.
  • Track your time
    • Use a timer and track how long  you spend doing different tasks – including those ‘shiny object’ time wasters. Tracking billable hours is imperative to running a successful business.

If you had a boss, you’d be responsible for all of the above – you’d be accountable for achieving certain tasks each day, week, month, quarter, and year. You’d even have once- (or perhaps twice) -a-year reviews. Which brings up another critical requirement for being your own boss: the self-evaluation.

It can be tricky evaluating yourself, so a tip here is to act as though you’re reviewing someone else — it’s important to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses to achieve the success you want. No one else will see the report, but spend time on an honest evaluation, as it can only help you achieve the success you’re after.

So if you start acting like the boss, you can the success that you want in your own business.

Why not start now? You’re the boss – even if you’re the only employee. 

 

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with Lisa on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Putting Food Into Words by Leda Scheintaub

cultured book cover

Today’s guest post is by cookbook writer Leda Scheintaub, whose new book, Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen is at the top of my holiday gift list – both to give and (hopefully!) receive. Leda’s journey to published author is an inspiring one, and I’m as delighted to bring it to you here as I am to welcome Leda to my neck of the woods. With best wishes for Thanksgiving, Deborah Lee Luskin

Growing up I had a mission: to share with the world the dangers of refined sugar and the horrors of factory farming. In high school printmaking class I created a notepad stamped with “Leda’s Natural Sweets” for penning my favorite recipes, and my most memorable piece of writing was a paper titled “One Man’s Meat Is Another Man’s Poison.”

I experimented with gluten-free baking before there was such a thing called gluten-free baking, and by the time I worked my way to managing editor at Penguin Books, I counted many and varied diets.

Though I loved the publishing world, I wasn’t a nine-to-fiver, and my early dream of a life in food remained a constant.

The day I was assigned the new edition of Rebecca Wood’s The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia the seed was planted for a career shift. Rebecca became wholefoodsmy mentor, and her invitation into the world of traditional foods inspired me to take my love for food to a new level. What sealed the deal was a blowout with my boss at The New Press just a few years later, coincidentally on the day of an open house at the Natural Gourmet Institute. The evening’s winning raffle ticket was my ticket to a new chapter in my life; with it I promised myself I’d enroll.

By the time I finished my culinary education (supplemented with cookbook copyediting classes at NYU), I had lined up a few private chef clients and I began to take on freelance cookbook work. It was enough to leave my day job.

My first jobs were proofreading cookbooks, then copyediting and editing. Testing recipes came next, then writing headnotes, developing content for recipes, talking with authors, bringing out their voice; I found few people had the unique match of editorial and culinary skills that I offered.

I found a niche: celebrity ghostwriter. I recommend this career path for those with both an eye for the minutia of the English language and an obsession for precision recipe writing. It’s not glamorous, but it’s rewarding and it keeps me away from the daily grind. And it enabled me to land my first solo book deal, and with it a platform to share that early mission of health, healing, and making the world a better place with the food we put on our plates.

LScheintaubLeda Scheintaub trained as a chef at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and has been a recipe tester, editor, and writer for the past thirteen years. Her most recent cookbook is Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen: 100 Recipes Featuring the Bold Flavors of Fermentation. Her next book, The Whole Bowl: Gluten-Free Dairy Free Soups and Stews, with Rebecca Wood, will be published in January 2015. Visit her at www.ledaskitchen.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

The Artist’s Date

artistsway-t           Several years ago I followed the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Well, I followed some of them; I wrote my morning pages without fail. But I confess: I didn’t do the collages, and even though I went so far as to schedule regular Artist Dates, I didn’t always follow through.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes taking oneself on a regularly scheduled “artist date.” An artist date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”

Even though I’m good at blocking out time for writing and other word-related activities, I’ve never followed through on Cameron’s advice, even though I carried a shadow of shame that I should – if only I had the time.

Then last weekend, while I was in the Hudson River Valley for a family wedding, I visited The Storm King Art Center, a world-class sculpture park.

Waves, by Maya Lin

Waves, by Maya Lin

It was as I was strolling across the rolling terrain studded with sculpture of all sizes that I finally got it – what the artist date was all about.

Most of all, I became more observant, especially as my point-of-view of each sculpture kept shifting first as I saw it from a distance, then as I walked closer to it, around it, and then again from a distance. What I was seeing changed from each vantage point, just as our stories are shaped by the point of view from which we tell them.

I was also struck by the way the relationship of objects and angles bent space and changed one another, just the way details in narrative shift in importance and meaning depending on how they are presented.

I was especially struck by the power of negative space – the blank area created by sculptural lines that nearly vibrated with tension. Great prose can do this too – outline what’s not there, what’s not being said, but what may in fact be forcing all the characters in a story rushing toward mayhem.

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Many of the sculptures were abstract. Nevertheless, I nearly always tried to make up a story about them, to ground them in narrative, because that’s how humans (or this human, anyway) makes sense of the world: through story. And once I noticed myself trying to tell a story about each orange girder, I challenged myself to see it simply qua orange girder, the way in yoga class I’m learning to acknowledge intrusive thoughts and then let them go. This technique allowed me the freedom of seeing without storytelling, sharpening my observational capability and focusing my concentration, two key tools for writers.

Some of the artwork literally stopped me in my tracks, they were so breathtaking, others barely registered as I strolled by. I simply noted this, without trying to evaluate it. Isn’t it interesting, I said to myself, that some of this art is so moving and some leaves me cold? And I walked on.

By the end of the day, I was seeing ordinary objects in new ways, which is one of the wonderful things that any IMG_1302art can do – sculpture, painting, music, prose. Suddenly, the way two trees leaned toward each other was pregnant with meaning, as was the relationship of two trashcans standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels guarding the parking lot.IMG_1312

And that was it: looking at art changed how I look at the world.

It also taught me the importance of the artist’s date, which I’ll now ink into my calendar and heed.

 

 

 

IMG_1298Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist living in southern Vermont.

Rejuvenate and Explore: My Two Nights in a Museum

We’ve talked about getaways and writing retreats and taking time for ourselves as ways to recharge, get back in touch with the muse, and just to enjoy life — because what’s life if you aren’t enjoying it, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a fabulous opportunity to join a group of other active older adults who enjoy group outings through Boomerang Adventures. This one involved an island, a ferry, a golf cart, tai chi, yoga, kayaking, walking, cycling, and dining on fresh-from-the-ocean lobster, mussels, and clams.

NightAtTheMuseumHave you ever seen the movie Night at the Museum? It’s from 2006 and stars Ben Stiller. It’s a fun movie about a museum security guard who discovers the museum exhibits come alive at night.

Anyway, back to my adventure weekend. It was on Peak’s Island, Maine (a quick ferry ride from Portland, ME). I’d never heard of the island, yet it was only 2 hours from my home.

The island itself has a lot of civil war history – and at one time it was considered the Coney Island of Maine with hotels, entertainers, amusement parks, and more.

Currently on the island (among many things) are 2 military museums – the Fifth Maine Regiment Memorial Hall and the Eighth Maine Regiment House and Live-in Museum & Lodge. It’s amazing how much history is preserved on this beautiful little (4 mile) island on the Maine coast.

8th Museum and LodgeThe Boomerang group stayed at “the 8th”, and, wow! It’s really a museum! Part of what is preserved is the kitchen and dining hall (both in the basement). The main floor has an enormous fireplace and is open space – it’s where the civil war soldiers gathered (and slept) when they met at the lodge for reunions. Descendants still come and stay at the 8th.

I signed my name in the visitor’s log that dates back to 1924. How cool is that? The building is only open during the warm months, and the log book shows the influx of visitors – when the reunions happened, and now that the museum is open for reservations, it was fun to read the dates people have visited and where they’ve visited from.

8th Dining Hall Thankfully, the museum didn’t come alive at night, but I felt the history and saw it at every turn. Eating is a community event – visitors are assigned refrigerators (modern) and cupboards (original) for their food and tables so they can meet new people. Everyone chooses their own dishware (vintage and old) and silverware from the kitchen, and, most important, everyone does their own dishes! It’s how the soldiers did it, so it’s how current visitors do it.

There is still so much I’m absorbing from the trip. So much I’m writing down so I can remember. So much I plan to write about. So many people whose essence lingers and whose stories I would love to learn!

Peak's Island landingToday, I wanted to share how rejuvenating a totally different type of getaway can be. It wasn’t a writing-related getaway, I’m not a history ‘buff’. The trip was unique – and that attracted me.

New experiences – and sharing it with new friends – can rejuvenate and recharge you in ways you can’t imagine.

If you have a chance to try something new, go somewhere nearby you’ve never explored before – even for a few hours – I hope you’ll do it. An open mind is a great asset for any writer.

And if you can get to Peak’s Island and even stay at the 8th for a night or two – it’ll be a unique experience!

(I’m not a paid sponsor for any of the places mentioned. I just personally recommend them. And I do think the 8th Maine would make for a great unique writing retreat location – as there are lots of places to sit — inside and out — and large spaces to gather and share writing projects as a group.)

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She highly recommends getting a change of scenery now and then as a way to rejuvenate – and if you can turn it into an adventure, so much the better! You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook,  Google+, and LinkedIn.

The Art of Life

I’m on vacation (in Seattle) and I’m not getting much writing done.

Every time I plan a family vacation, I tell myself I’ll get a lot of writing done. My husband will be around, I think, to entertain our son so I picture myself sitting in a café writing while they are off doing something totally fun together.

And I plan to write every evening: My son goes to bed early and we’re all in a hotel room together so I imagine myself writing into the night by the light of my computer screen.

But the reality is we’re up before dawn every morning (due to the alarm clock that is my son, who has never met a morning he didn’t like) and we’re busy all day and by the time my son is asleep I’m very nearly ready to go to sleep, too.

Plus we are visiting family and I don’t want to miss out on this precious time with loved ones we don’t often see.

It all adds up to a lot less writing than I ever imagined.

My expectations were totally unrealistic. I can see that now, halfway through the week. My first priority here in Seattle is not to write—it’s to drink great coffee! Just kidding, although the coffee here really is amazing. (Seattle’s Best Coffee is my favorite so far.) No, my first priority is to spend time with my family.

When I visited the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. I saw the work of someone whose life is primarily about his art: Dale Chihuly. I am inspired by his art, his words, and his life.

Dale Chihuly has spent his life (so far) creating art, mostly in glass, and teaching his art and his techniques to others. Here’s what he had to say about the art of blowing glass:

The technology really hasn’t changed. We use the same tools today they used 2,000 years ago. The difference is that when I started, everyone wanted to control the blowing process. I just went with it. The natural elements of fire, movement, gravity and centrifugal force were always there, and are always with us. The difference was that I worked in this abstract way and could let the forces of nature have a bigger role in the ultimate shape.”

–Dale Chihuly

I love how he talks about the way he allowed the glass to flow. It sounds so natural, so organic.

When I think about my life as my art, I realize I’m letting my life flow in a natural way. I used to try to control the process of living, every little thing, but now I practice control by controlling my mind and reminding myself that I am the only one I can control. The result is more joy, more peace, and (at least most of the time) more writing.

I’m living my life, a life that includes writing, and letting it flow. It’s much more organic than it used to be when I tried to muscle everything into it’s proper place.

When my expectations don’t match my reality, I adjust my expectations. I don’t beat myself up, or try to cram everything in to the point of exhaustion, but I also don’t avoid writing because “I don’t have enough time.”

And now I have the image of Dale Chihuly in my mind, reminding me with his gorgeous glass art how beautiful life can be when we go with the flow.

Is your writing part of the flow of your life?

News from Diane MacKinnon: I‘ve planned a writing retreat for the fall. It’s a one-day event, September 20, and I’m so excited about it! If you are local, I hope you’ll join me. You can find out more about my one day writing retreat by clicking here.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, circle practitioner, mother, stepmother, and family physician. I’m so grateful for  the long summer days to enjoy with my family and friends, including my books and my journal.