I’m so tired of all the glorification of suffering that seems to go hand-in-hand with writing. The idea that one must suffer for her art has been ingrained in us. It doesn’t help that some of our literary icons have told us its true.
“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.” E.B. White
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Perhaps it’s good to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he is happy?” Aldous Huxley
Even if you’re not familiar with these quotes, it’s likely the notions that writing = hard and that suffering = better writing are some of your core beliefs because they’ve been repeated so often.
The truth is, as writers, we all hit creative blocks or need solutions to a craft problem. And, yes, writing takes effort. But we don’t have to suffer.
I did it, anyway, because I didn’t know better. After 10 years as a journalist, columnist and poet, I just couldn’t handle the suffering my writing life caused me. My writing depleted me. My failures, whether perceived or real, demoralized me.
Even though I’d made deep sacrifices for my art, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I quit my column. I stopped performing. I stopped publishing. I knew I either had to quit forever or I had to find a new way of doing things.
In a commitment to this new life, I moved across the country to California, and I began cultivating a yoga practice that changed everything.
The teachings of yoga philosophy helped me with my relationship with writing. (I published a paper on this in a book on innovations in teaching writing. Read it here.) Soon, I saw that my yoga practice was a magical tool, too. And as I continued my quest for a relationship with my writing that felt supported, purposeful, and nourishing, I recognized the principles that I now teach in Practical Magic for Writers workshops.
Imagine a writing life…
that allows you to feel connected, rather than isolated.
that fills you with purpose, inspiration and joy.
that nourishes you, instead of depleting you.
that contributes to the well-being of you and others.
that helps you realize your best and highest self.
I published the story of how before I became a national poetry slam chick, I used to be a cringing poetry chicken. It’s all about using magic to move past what we are afraid of and how to claim what we really want.
I cringed inside every time he said it.
“This is Marya. She’s a poet.”
I was ashamed. His introduction made me feel like an imposter.
Even though I’d been writing poetry since I was young.
Even though I’d taken poetry workshop classes in college.
Even though I’d published literary magazines.
Even though I’d read and performed poems publicly.
Even though my poems had been published.
Other writers will understand. Something about calling myself a poet felt self-important. Pretentious. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be called a poet because I wasn’t a Great American Poet.
I tried to explain, “Poet, author, artist, musician… one does not just bandy these terms about.”
You can read the rest of it here at my Wholly Creative blog where I discuss some of the Hermetic principles of magic that helped me manifest what my heart really desired.
The other day procrastination loomed. It cast its dark shadow over my newest creative project in the form of my black, three-legged cat Oliver; then it plopped down and took the pen out of my hand, purring while it chewed on the pen. This was certainly a lot cuddlier and cuter than what I was doing. But dammit, I was finally starting to get somewhere!
When I was a columnist with a weekly deadline, I hardly ever had a problem with churning work out, even when I wasn’t particularly “feeling it.” I knew the drill: investigate/research on the weekend, write Mondays, revise Tuesdays, wake up at the crack of dawn Wednesday and make final revisions and edits. Some columns were more inspired than others, true, but my column was popular, and I met my deadlines.
Back then, if a cat sat in the middle of my copy, I just pushed it out of the way. There was, after all, an illustrator who needed the copy so that he could do his work before the layout people could do their work and the issue could go to press, and everyone could get paid. A lot of people were counting on me, including my daughter, Oliver and his four-legged counterpart, Sappho, all of whom had gotten used to living indoors and eating food.
After a couple of years, I’d burnt out. I’d pushed a lot of things out of the way to get the column done, including a desire to express myself authentically in a way that was meaningful to me, which editors kept striking from my copy. At first I resigned myself to the constraints, then exhausted and uninspired, I resigned the position. After I was on my own, however, my writing foundered. I had a bunch of half-written projects lying around and no real sense of urgency to get anything finished. Clearly I knew how to get things done; that wasn’t the problem. I worked, but at a slow pace. Some months I got nothing done at all.
Deadlines, accountability, and incentives: yeah, but…
These helped some. I wrote deadlines down, joined writers groups, and offered motivators like telling myself I could redecorate my bedroom after making my first $1,000. But those weren’t entirely effective. My brain isn’t dumb. It knew these were artificial motivators. Technically, no one needed the writing, my writers group might have thought I was a slacker, but they weren’t harmed when I showed up with unfinished writing, and if I really wanted to redecorate my bedroom, I already had the funds to do so.
A mentor suggested writing a check to a cause I loathed and then giving it to a friend and telling her to mail it if I had not accomplished my goal by the deadline I set. This could work, but it is coercive rather than motivational, and it’s not the relationship I want to have with my creativity.
Instead, I got busy looking at the investment I’d made already in my project (that is, the money in education, the sacrifices, and the time I’d put in). Clearly, the project was important to me, or I wouldn’t keep coming back to it. Then, I connected with the value of what I was creating. This included a monetary value of a completed project, but more importantly, the social value of how my project would help others. The latter had always been an incentive that inspired me. Inspiration, rather than coercion, was how I finally got myself going and what keeps me going.
Procrastination: It’s ALIVE!
No one likes to be told “No.” or yelled at to “Stop it!” I’ve watched people dig their heels in when what they want or what they are doing is negated. Children will throw outright tantrums. So will cats – this is where the term “hissy fit” comes from, after all.
I like to think my creative process is no different. When I get hung up in procrastination and I start resisting it, it acts out. Procrastination, like everything, WANTS TO SURVIVE. When it feels threatened, it gets defensive. Like a cat, it puffs up and creates drama. And I get even less done.
The secret is to overcoming procrastination is not to try to overcome it. Don’t make it a power struggle, which will only drain your energy. It sounds counterintuitive, but embrace the procrastination!
Instead of thinking of procrastination as not getting started, I think of it as Step #1. When I teach writing, I have my students put it on their “To Do” lists. No sense in ignoring it – procrastination wants to be a part of things. So include it, and then cross it off when you are ready to move on to Step #2. It’s win-win: Procrastination is happy because it’s gotten some attention, and you are happy because you’ve gotten something accomplished, ironically, by not doing anything. (You’ll learn in my classes and workshops how this sort of re-framing of ideas will change your whole world.)
Saying “hello” to my little friend and making space
As Oliver chewed on my pen in the middle of my project, I stopped my work for a minute and stroked his soft fur and said hello. Then I took out a few pieces of blank paper and put them next to those I was working on. I slid the furry distraction over on top of them. “Here,” I told him. “This is your project.” He sat on his pile of empty pages, batted at pen and bit it a couple more times, and then curled up and dozed off. While he napped contentedly, I got another pen and got back to work.
I’ve been trying to write about sacrifice for days now. I realized it was important part of Fire element (I’m writing a book, Practical Magic for Writers, where I look at writing through the lens of the four classical elements), that we need sacrifice in order to keep us committed. I know this firsthand; I’ve sacrificed big time.
I have a clear purpose, a clear audience, but there is something in me so adverse, so resistant to writing about it that I haven’t been able to get myself to sit down to write for three days. When I try, my aversion has me open Facebook or email or compose something else. I’m a professional writer, for fucksake. And a writing coach. “Heal thyself!” I scream at myself in my head. Disgusted.
Lighting a candle got me to sit down and open my lap top and start writing. I made it to 800ish words in a herky-jerky, stop-start process that felt a lot more like learning to drive a stick-shift than sitting down to write.
It’s a huge relief when I realize I am crying. I’m opening a huge can of worms. Fucking huge. Because to me sacrifice means leaving my then-2-year-old daughter with her father so that I could write. And it’s difficult to explain how I could do that and not be a monster; or if I am, how I got to be that monster. Or how my now-26-year-old daughter has both benefitted and been hurt by my choices. How we both say I did the best I could, given the circumstances, but both of us feel like we deserved better. We’re both still hurting and angry.
It’s difficult to explain the subtleties of what happened – how I didn’t “give her up,” for instance, or how much my difficult relationship – including emotional, physical and sexual abuse – with my own parents influenced my choices. It’s too much. And my cat, which has been relegated to the porch for shitting and pissing all over the house, is howling. Other than the over-eating, she’s a healthy cat. But she’s an emotional wreck.
Anxiety has me by the shoulders and is shaking me hard. And I want to punch the cat and shake her hard. I want her howling to stop so that my pain will stop its howling. Who can write in these conditions?
I decide not to be thwarted by writer’s block. Not to succumb to the urge to punch the cat. To write, even if it is crap. Just write it anyway. Because if I don’t write, not only do I feel the pain of the past but I also feel the pain of my present – my past and current powerlessness. And if I punch the cat, then I really am a monster.
I have rationalized my choices, but I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m pretty sure that’s holding me back. I’ve been punished enough. I am ready to be forgiven, to be washed clean. I want all the experience, all of the wisdom, none of the pain, none of the guilt.
The cat is still howling.
Too much of the time, I have felt like a hostage of circumstance. But I’ve decided my victim days are over. So, fuck you, anxiety and pain and shame and fear. Fuck you. You don’t get to control my life anymore.
I’m writing you off, out of my life. I will squeeze you out, shake you off. You will dangle at the end of my sentence, howling.
You’re a smart and practical person. You see the problem: You’re not writing enough. Or not publishing enough.
The solution is simple, right? Write more. Publish more. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s self-evident: like the solution to being 20 pounds overweight. Lose 20 pounds. Duh.
At first, the need for a solution is a constant-yet-quiet thought in the back of your mind. Then it gets louder and more urgent, and that makes you feel a little panicky. Eventually you’re checking out — watching TV, eating, distracting yourself with other things — to try to keep that panicky feeling at bay. Eventually, you creatively shut down in generalized anxiety and creative desperation. Until one day, you’ve had enough. You’re like, “This has gotta stop! Today is the day I take action!”
And then you’re off. Like gang busters. Hitting it daily: the writing, that is, as if you are power-lifting at the gym. Except you’re at the writer’s bench, pressing words. Showing up. Showing off. Yeah, you’re a rock star. You’re a little high on your awesomeness. It’s like a crash diet, except you’re getting leaner and meaner on the page. Some days you’re feeling like a writing super model.
Then some time goes by and you notice you’re back in a slump. You’ve put all that weight back on in the form of unexpended words. You’re a literary slob … again. And you’re disgusted with yourself. Again. And you enter the serious funk of “WTF is wrong with me?!?!”
The problem is, the problem isn’t actually what you think.
Not writing and not publishing aren’t the problems. These are symptoms. But they sure look like problems, because we can point to them and go, “This is why I’m miserable.” It’s not as easy to identify the sources of our problems because they lurk in the subconscious as writing goblins while we blame ourselves for the symptoms.
The emotional and psychological challenges that we face when they write are much like those people face when they diet. Issues of self-esteem, of acceptance and belonging, of motivation, of safety: these need to be addressed to get lasting results. Otherwise like dieters who never change their relationship to food, you’ll keep yo-yo-ing in your writing habits.
Sound familiar? Join me for a FREE webinar on how to get rid of those writing goblins that you’ve got going on in your life. If you can’t watch the webinar live, sign-up and you’ll be sent a link to replay to watch whenever it suits you. Attending live lets me help vanquish your goblins. You can also email me for help..
So many times I’ve heard the “essay in my head” or the “poem in my head,” the words effortless and organically stringing themselves together, the ideas and the cadences apt. Perfectly so. The ideas and words just flow in my mind, a perfect spontaneous composition.
Then I grab a pen to capture the stream of word-tumble feeling-thought, so I can claim, publish, own this exquisite expression. But the ideas just sort of land on the page without the same life in them, without the same depth or beauty.
I remember pulling a fish from the Atlantic ocean — the fish’s other-worldly iridescence, the powerful aliveness of muscular swish-jerk from its center. And then, later, how it just lay there — limp, cold, and grey.
That’s how it feels so often after trying to get down the composition in my head and put it on the page. So often, it feels like that fish that does not want to be pulled from its boundless, buoyant element.
The imagination is an ocean — all potential. When we conceive a creation in our minds, it is limitless, lovely and perfect. But when we manifest it, we bring it down from the realm of the mind (thought) into the world of the body (senses). As the abstract becomes concrete, the infinite becomes finite. Embodying, grounding, manifesting: these mean limitation.
I have to come back to this principle time and again. To remember that my willingness to create must co-exist with an acceptance of imperfection. That my desire to have and to hold what I have imagined may come at the cost. But, oh, how delicious those inspirations can be when they are lovingly prepared.
Get my FREE GUIDE to overcoming obstacles so that you get moving and get your writing project done.
She was attractive and affluent woman who lived in the Caribbean. Diamonds gleamed on her ring finger. Her blond hair was sunny, her style was carefree, but her expression was grim. (But I’ll call her “Sunny” here anyway.)
“I feel like I lost my mojo,” Sunny said on the mic at the creativity conference we were both attending. “I don’t even know what I want to do anymore.”
Sunny identified as a writer, a life coach, and public speaker. She had degrees in nursing and writing.
“The themes ‘faith’ and ‘boundaries’ keep coming up for me,” she told the leader of the conference, “but I don’t know what to do with them.”
The conference leader asked her what sort of work would make her feel better.
Sunny replied, “I just want people to come in and spend time with me and leave feeling happy and good.”
“That sounds like a show,” the leader responded.
And that’s when Sunny became, well, sunny. Her face lit up.
“Would you like to do a show about faith and boundaries?” the leader asked, with a smile that indicted she and everyone else in the room already knew the answer just looking at the change in Sunny.
“I don’t even know what that would look like,” Sunny stammered, but her inner light sparkled. She was clearly excited about the possibility of this new prospect. It was clear she’d found her mojo.
That’s when I started thinking about mojo. “Lost my mojo” was how Sunny described an emotional state of powerlessness and depression that created a downward spiral. Disconnection from her potential and from the possibilities manifested as shut down. She found her power by reconnecting, not in action but in feelings. She didn’t know what she wanted exactly, but she knew what feeling state she wanted to create for others and she’d been paying attention to the words that kept presenting themselves as she’d talked. Together, the words and the feelings had power; therein lay the mojo – the magic.
Dialogue, like the one Sunny had with conference leader, creates a sort of stream. Its movement of language and emotion carries us through our blocks and helps us identify solutions that will make us feel better and identify solutions. If you are feeling a little lost, try writing down what you are feeling and what you feel like you need. Pay attention to the themes that emerge or the words that repeat themselves. You can highlight or underline key words or start a new page and write them down as a mind map to guide you to the solution.
I feel pregnant: abundant, full of life, physically crowded, moody, hopeful, expectant, and a little exhausted. I’m incubating ideas for my writing, my teaching, and my coaching business. All this from my bedroom…my bed, actually, since the 120 square feet is not enough to include a separate workspace. Some women get bed rest when they have difficult pregnancies. Not me, I’ve got bed work…and my baby is the work itself.
I’ve got notepads, pens, a lap top, books, and a coffee cup on a queen-sized pillow top. I’m propped against pillows with a cat curled up beside me as I write. My former office – my 200 square foot living room — is occupied by former baby, now my adult daughter, who has moved across the country and is living, working, sleeping on my couch. I’m thrilled as always by her arrival and take pleasure in her company, even though the apartment is a tiny place meant for one person with a day job, not two people, two cats, and a small business.
I know this is why literal pregnancies have limits — conception and growth are followed by delivery. We can only contain so much.
I know this is why I must sit down and write, too. The ideas, the words, and the emotions want to come. They are ready. They crowd me. If I do not make room for them, anxiety comes like labor pains.
The fullness is not always comfortable, but I remember not to complain. I learn to make space. This is what abundance looks like. My craft, my calling, my daughter and animals. My life full of warmth, tenderness, and purpose in this tiny, sunlit haven on the coast of Southern California.
All this is full. All that is full. From fullness, fullness comes. When fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains. So say the Upanishads.
The nature of life: fullness — what flows in, how we expand and accommodate, what flows out and into the world.
Get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.
Early in the year, I signed up for Sam’s 6-week Get It Done online workshop because I’d stalled out in my vision for Wholly Creative. I had an idea of what I wanted to do — teach people how to integrate mind, body, and spirit in their creative lives — but I didn’t know how to clarify my vision and implement a plan. Over the months, I’ve heard Sam tell those of us that get creatively stuck or are dealing with a problem to “Make some art about it.”
She says it so often, it finally sunk in.
Only, this time it was personal: a friend with whom I’d had a close but difficult relationship re-appeared after a long (and peaceful) absence. My ambivalence about his return manifested as intrusive thoughts. Whether working or playing, I kept thinking about him, and I was losing both focus and peace of mind.
I took out some paper and a pen, and rather than write, I start to draw. When I was done half-an-hour or so later, I had grade-school art to show for my efforts, but I felt like I’d gone through top-notch psychotherapy. My divided feelings had become a firm resolve to maintain my distance from this dear, but toxic, friend. My feelings of hurt turned to empathy as I analyzed my drawing. I could see his pain and fear disguised as toughness and cool detachment, and I could see the power in my transparency and vulnerability. He was walled in; I was levitating.
Something in me was healed, and I didn’t even need any artistic skill to do it.
Skill, in fact, may have gotten in the way. If I’d tried to write about the problem, chances are my ego would’ve stepped in and start editing and offering opinions before the words made it to the page. But in a medium where I’ve got zero talent? My ego didn’t even think to speak up. It was out to lunch while it thought I was goofing around with kid stuff.
I wondered what it was like for Sam’s other clients who followed her advice.
Roxana Ramos, a client of Sam who lives in Peru and works in the visual arts — including paper and bookbinding — made some art with India ink markers and paper after she and her boyfriend had an big argument. Unlike my metaphoric rendering, Ramos expressed her feelings abstractly.
“Once my feelings had form, I was able to analyze them,” Ramos said.
She understood from the colorful loopy doodles that she’d had an imbalance that contributed to the argument: “I was too analytical, concentrated on my practical side, so when it was time to feel, I got overwhelmed and exploded.”
For her, another up side to this therapy is that it also contributes to her oeuvre and provides a source of income. (This blog’s featured image at the top is Ramos’s “Us”).
The simple creative practice has helped Ramos overcome overwhelm, the problem that brought her to Sam in the first place. Artists, especially those who are in full-time jobs while pursuing their art “on the side,” often face overwhelm. Other times, the problem stems from too many options. Whatever the cause, overwhelm shuts artists down.
MK Piatkowski, a Canadian singer, dancer, playwright and director, also conquered overwhelm. She quit her full-time job and set out on her own thanks to Sam’s advice to “make some art about it.”
“The practice reminded me that I needed to be an artist again,” Piatkowski explained. “So I’d work and then think, ‘Ok, dance break!’ or “Ok, now let’s do some writing.’”
Piatkowski also used the art of writing to remove a “grief block” that was keeping her from moving forward after the death of a friend, and she incorporated the work into her one-woman cabaret show-in-the-making. She also makes art to clarify her vision for One Big Umbrella, her business that serves theater professionals and creative entrepreneurs.
And it’s not just artists. Even cowgirls get the blues and can benefit from art-making.
Jane Sisam, a veterinary scientist in New Zealand working “to improve animal health and productivity through on-farm workshops, teaching and demonstrations” was having trouble naming her business. Her indecision, she said, “was just like being in a whirlpool, just going round and round, and not getting anywhere.” Sisam wrote and drew pictures about the problem, and finally settled on the name The Pink Cow Company, which satisfied her desire for a right-brained name that would help her business stand out and a feminine name that would represent the “ladies”– both the cattlewomen and the cows – that she works with.
Sam’s explanation for her directive is that art explains our feelings to us. “The other part, I think,” she says, “is explained by the immortal words of my friend Bill Baren [a coach who teaches The Art & Science of Conscious Success]: ‘Feelings just want to be felt.’ And once they know they’ve been felt, that energy can be released and resolved.”
For some, that resolution creates a domino effect. Unblocking in one area leads to movement in other areas. Says Piatowski,“I didn’t move forward in the business until I started writing the play.”
I know that for many years I underestimated the power of my emotions, trying to bulldoze through blocks with sheer will power rather than addressing their causes, which was both exhausting and unreliable. I’ve developed a deep respect for what I once saw as frivolous. Integrating mind, body, and spirit, also means integrating work and play, business and art.
Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.
It was a perfect day for a beachside BBQ. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific. The sun was shining full and warm. I’d awakened with the sun at about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than my alarm, and made pancakes and eggs. I had enough time that I’d even considered going to a 10 am yoga class before meeting with a new friend to go to her co-worker’s BBQ party.
Then I reconsidered. I was overcome by an urge to stay in, to gather myself. Not understanding the urge, I started to gather things. I began putting what I would need for the day in a pile on the corner of the couch: towel, sunblock, a change of clothes, phone charger, a cooler full of sodas, snacks. Then I remembered: I was taking my bike, so I started to rethink, unpack, and regroup.
The closer it got to “go time,” the more I felt like I should stay. Something wasn’t quite right. I tidied the bathroom. I put away some clothes in the bedroom. I organized the files on my desk. I started double checking things. Was there enough food and water in the cats’ bowls? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? I was now officially late.
“Go,” I told myself aloud. “Stop fucking around and go!”
But my resistance was strong. I considered texting my apologies and staying home and watching movies.
“What are you doing?” I said again out loud. “You’ve been looking forward to this!”
I stopped for a moment and took a breath. I paid attention as the inhale expanded my body — my neck, shoulders, and chest were tight. And that’s when it hit me… I was afraid! I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, or if I’d be physically comfortable there (too hot, too cold, too hungry, etc.), and that was enough to create unconscious fear. (When this happens chronically, it’s called anxiety.)
What’s weird is, I’m constantly told how brave I am. People say to me “I wish I had your courage” because I travel alone, because I play my guitar and perform in public, because I’m willing to try new things – improv comedy, spoken word, sailing, sky diving, entrepreneurship.
People assume that because I do these things that I’m not afraid to do these things. They are wrong.
I’m afraid a lot. But the fear involved in the “big stuff” like jumping out of planes and into new things is easier to deal with than the everyday fears of the “little stuff” like the beach party. The big stuff is easier because I know I’m afraid so I can face the fear, but with the little stuff it’s easy to overlook the fear. When I don’t see it, I’m not able to challenge it; then, I’m unconsciously controlled by fear.
Writer’s block is just like this. Like the beach & BBQ outing, writing is something I want to do. But deep inside, I’ve also been afraid. I dawdle and procrastinate when I am afraid “to go there.” For years, I was unaware of this fear, so I was really hard on myself for not writing more. I’d tell myself I was never going to amount to much (even when I was working as a weekly columnist) and I’d feel like a fraud around writers and artists who were prolific. In essence, I compounded my yucky feelings (fear) with more yucky feelings (shame).
And I wondered why I just couldn’t be more creative!?!
Does anyone create well when they are afraid and ashamed? Self-actualization and self-expression are high on the pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and safety and acceptance are at the base. It’s difficult to deal with the needs at the top if we haven’t met those at the bottom. In fear and shame, I couldn’t build a happy, productive creative life.
My point is, “Just do it!” (or as my friend put it the other day “Just sit down and fucking write”) is not the answer for someone who is deeply and unconsciously afraid. I had to build a healthier relationship with my feelings and creativity. Awareness of the fear lets me begin to negotiate my way through it. Then writing is like sky diving: I face the fear, lean into the resistance, and take the plunge.
In case you were wondering, I also made it to the party. And I had a great time.
Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.