Use Waiting Time for Your Writing Practice

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At my part-time job recently, I found myself sitting around for extended periods of time waiting for batches of orders to come in before I had to put them together for the customer. I hated those slow times. Even though I had my smart phone with me, I didn’t want to waste valuable battery life on reading online articles. So I did the next best thing to make the time pass. I grabbed a pen and began jotting down notes on a spare paper bag about my waiting experience, notes that I am now converting into this blog post.

Inspiration can hit you at any time so you have to be prepared. One of the best opportunities for finding that creative inspiration is while you’re waiting — whether you’re at the doctor’s office, at the airport, or  in the grocery checkout line. Taking advantage of that uninterrupted time for writing, research or revising stories is better than worrying about that job interview or your upcoming blind date.

Worrying is fruitless when you have to wait, say psychology experts. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything except make you feel worse than you already do. And worrying can be harmful to your health in the long run.

Waiting is commonplace in our society. So why do we hate it so much? Because we’re used to being on the go. We don’t want to slow down for anything. Social media and technology have made the situation worse by creating an immediacy to information and faster response times. Life got busier and faster as a result. We’re used to being on this treadmill called life, and we don’t want to get off.

We also dislike waiting because we can’t control our time. The control of our time is in the hands of someone else, like the doctor or the pilot. We worry because we aren’t in control.

Sometimes we simply have no choice but to wait. According to the Washington Post, research has found that it isn’t the wait that annoys people; it’s that people get bored while waiting. Researchers have found that unoccupied time feels longer than actual occupied time. When you have something to distract you, time passes more quickly. That’s why you see TV screens in doctors’ offices, magazines at hair salons, and mirrors and paintings outside elevator banks – to keep people preoccupied.

As awful as waiting can be, it is sometimes necessary, even helpful. It can be especially beneficial for our writing and creativity. Here’s how to make the most of those wait periods:

1. Catch up on your reading. Bring a book or magazine to read. It really does make time pass by more quickly, especially at a doctor’s office or while getting your hair done at the salon. You never know when that book can start a conversation with the person next to you in line.

2. People watch. If you’re lucky enough to have a window to look out of during your wait time, take advantage of it by watching the people go by. Reimagine their conversations. Imagine where they are coming from, what they do for a living. Create stories about them.

3. Jot down notes. I carry several small notebooks in my purse so when inspiration strikes me, I take notes before I forget them. I can refer to the notes later if I need ideas for stories. If you don’t have a notebook, look around for a spare sheet of paper to jot down notes. The note-taking keeps your hands and your mind busy so you don’t dwell on the long wait.

4. Do research. Do you need to do research for an upcoming project? Or maybe you are a news junkie who needs to stay updated on the latest news. Your smartphone (or laptop if you have it with you) are your gateways to knowledge.

5. Look around for inspiration. There are stories all around you. For example, if you’re at the airport, observe how the ticket agents handle customer issues. If you’re waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy, take note of the different products on the store shelves. What do they do? What ailments do they heal? Set aside your frustrations about waiting, and be curious.

6. Write about your waiting experience. There’s an instant story right there. Use the little notebooks from number 3 above to jot down ideas. Write about other times you’ve been forced to wait for something. Let your experience be your guide.

7. Take a walk. Stretch your legs. We do too much sitting around, so it’s important for our health to keep moving. Walk around for a change of scenery. It might also improve your mood.

8. Stop looking at the clock. In fact, put away your clock or watch altogether. The more you look at the time, the more it will seem to crawl, which will only frustrate you even more. When it’s out of sight, it’s out of your mind, and you won’t think about all the time you’re losing by waiting.

9. Learn to be patient. That’s what waiting ultimately does – help us become more patient.

Waiting doesn’t have to be a chore or a bore. With a little preparation, you can turn your enforced waiting into an opportunity. Make the most of it.

Six Ways Yoga Can Unblock Your Creativity

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I’ve practiced yoga for nearly 15 years. I’m certainly not advanced in my practice, but I certainly appreciate the nuances of a weekly vinyasa class. But I can tell you how yoga has helped me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

As I pursue my writing passion, I continue to include yoga in my regular self-care. That got me to thinking about possible connections between yoga and creativity. Is it possible that practicing yoga regularly can boost creativity? Many yoga practitioners, many of whom are writers and artists, say yes.

Here are six ways practicing yoga can help unlock your artistic side.

1. Yoga cultivates stillness to quiet the mind. We all lead active, busy lives. Between deadlines, social activities and social media, we are bombarded each day with information that can make us feel overwhelmed. Yoga gives us a chance to quiet the mind so we can hear our inner voice. Further, according to the Yoga International blog, when we work on our craft, the right word or color choices often come from deep within us. They’re intuitive choices. The best way to access this intuition is to quiet the mind. Yoga can help you achieve that.

2. Practice non-attachment to outcomes. As artists and writers, we can become so focused on the final product that we can become stressed about it. It’s important, say some yoga instructors, to detach yourself from the outcome. We need to bypass the internal critic whose negative commentary can stop us in our tracks. When we release those negative emotions, we open up a pathway to creativity without stressing about the result.

3. Increase energy. The energy body is the source of creativity, writes Anne Cushman, a yoga instructor and author on the Yoga International blog. A regular yoga practice not only increases physical energy, it releases internal energy blocks that we may be experiencing. With the increased energy flow, ideas can flow more freely and organically.

4. Reduce physical pain and suffering. Creative work can be very demanding, both physically and mentally. It’s hard to work when you’re in pain. It’s important to maintain our physical and mental health so we can produce our best work. But when we suffer, either physically or mentally, even emotionally, our creative process also suffers. Yoga helps release that pain, slowly and gradually. As we regain our strength, we gain stamina to endure the long, often intense creative process.

5. Break free of self-limiting thoughts. In the creative process, we can often become stuck in old self-defeating thought patterns. According to the Yoga Journal, yoga gives us the ability to see situations in a new light. It can help us break free of relentless, counterproductive thought loops. Once we release those patterns, we can approach the world with a more open and expansive mindset. That’s where the most innovative ideas thrive.

6. Learn to trust yourself. One of the toughest aspects of the creative life is accessing deep emotional feelings and releasing them through work. To do that, we have to conquer our fears, which can easily kill creativity. A regular yoga practice gradually releases self-doubt and fear and moves us to act and create without self-judgment and without the need to seek approval.

As creative workers, it’s easy to get lost in our own head. Yoga is a great way to get outside of ourselves. Yoga allows you to bring your problems to the mat. Yoga as part of a self-care program is critical to good health and improved creativity.

Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Creativity?

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This post was published originally in 2016. I’ve updated and revised for today’s posting.

How many hours of sleep do you typically get in one night? How much do you think you need to be at your best creatively?

Medical experts say most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to function properly. Getting only five or six hours of quality sleep can affect us adversely. The National Sleep Foundation cites several ways that sleep — or the lack thereof — affects us:

* When you lose sleep, it’s harder to focus and pay attention to details, affecting things like school projects and job productivity. You more prone to making mistakes.

* Sleep slows reaction time, which can impact activities like driving and sports.

* Sleep feeds creativity, synthesizes new ideas, helps you solve problems and enhances innovative thinking.

* Sleep reactivates memories and strengthens connections between brain cells. Your brain simply works more efficiently.

According to the foundation, researchers suggest that sleeping shortly after learning new information will help you retain and recall that information later.

Lack of sleep can affect you in other ways. Emotionally, you may feel easily irritated and impatient which can put a strain on relationships. Physically, lack of sleep can affect your mood, cause weight gain, high blood pressure and other ailments.

We all lead busy lives, and as we take on more responsibilities, unfortunately, sleep becomes less of a priority.  How can you possibly think clearly, make critical decisions, remain calm under pressure and perform at your best without adequate sleep? The truth is, you don’t realize how valuable sleep is until you begin to lose it.

If your performance on the job can improve with better quality sleep, it makes sense that it can also sharpen your creativity.  If a lack of sleep is preventing you from producing your best creative work, here are a few tips to help you when sleep eludes you:

1. Keep a notebook by your bed. If your brain is racing with ideas or overthinking a problem, grab a notebook and pen and start writing them all down. Getting these ideas down on paper before sleep helps declutter your brain so you can sleep better.

2. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed time. The lighting from your smart phone, TV and laptop can interfere with the chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep. Avoid watching TV or listening to music before bed time. (I find that this actually works.) It’s important to quiet the mind before sleep.

3. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. If after 20 minutes you can’t fall asleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then try again.

4. Read before hitting the sack. This may seem counter-intuitive if you’re reading an engrossing page-turner, but reading for a few minutes each night before bedtime can also help you relax. Try reading something dull and boring, like a textbook.

5. Take a warm shower or bath. The warm water eases muscle tension and makes you sleepy.

6. Drink a glass of warm milk before heading off to bed. If you drink cow’s milk, try warming a mug of almond or cashew milk. You can also try chamomile tea, but it might make you go to the bathroom more often during the night, which only disrupts your sleep more. Wine and other alcoholic beverages might help you get to sleep, but you may have difficulty staying asleep.

7. Avoid sleeping pills. Some can be addictive, while others are ineffective. Other products on the market, like melatonin and Nyquil Zzzzs have had mixed results.

8. Go to bed at the same time every night. It’s important, experts say, to maintain a nighttime routine, regardless of how well you sleep. The better the routine, the better your chances are of having a regular sleep schedule.

Whether you are an artist, writer or business owner, you want to be at your creative and productive best. Getting a decent night’s sleep is the most valuable commodity you’ll ever need.

Seven Signs That You’re Sabotaging Your Writing Practice

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A writing practice is only as successful as your level of commitment to it. The more committed you are to a regular writing practice, the more consistent your output. Makes sense, right?

But what happens when you get oh-so-close to finishing your manuscript, but never seem to get around to finishing it? What happens when you do finish a story, but never seem to get around to submitting it to editors for possible publication? What if, instead of finishing your manuscript, you suddenly find other more pressing things to do, like clean the garage or spend more time with your mother-in-law? Is it really a matter of changing priorities? Or is something else going on?

I’m certainly guilty of these behaviors as I’m sure many other writers are. Psychology experts suggest that these patterns of behavior – procrastination and self-sabotage – are inbred in us. No one is immune to them. Even the most successful published authors have admitted that they have utilized these sabotage tactics.

It’s tempting to blame your tendency for self-sabotage on external factors, such as a demanding family life or a faulty computer. But unfortunately, blaming outside factors is a waste of time and energy. The only thing that is standing in the way of your own success is you. It’s time to get out of your own way.

From my experience, I’ve noted seven signs that you may be sabotaging your writing practice.

1. You stop writing indefinitely. You could be coasting along with your writing practice, meeting your daily writing goals and making steady progress on your story. You feel confident about your accomplishment. But then you stop writing. Why? What went wrong?

Maybe you got a negative review of your latest work that stops you in your tracks. Maybe you look at your life and question whether anyone else would find stories of your childhood interesting. Maybe you’ve read so much about writing that you feel overwhelmed and feel unsure how to begin your next project.

Giving up on your craft is not the answer. Letting your ideas fade into the distant past and collect dust isn’t the answer either. If you stop writing, but you still want to write, you need to figure out why. Give yourself a deadline of, say three days, to regroup and contemplate why you have stopped writing. Maybe it is a need for a mental break. If so, then when you are sufficiently rested, get back to work. The important thing is to keep writing. Ironically, it may be the very act of writing that breaks you out of your malaise.

2. You focus on the negative. You overanalyze your own writing and decide it’s simply not good enough – You’re not good enough. You constantly look for what’s wrong with your technique than with what’s right. All this focus on the negative qualities of your writing can undermine your confidence. Too much analysis can freeze you in place. The next time this happens, have one or two people review your work and give you positive feedback – something to keep you motivated so you keep writing.

3. You take criticism too personally. It can be disheartening to hear negative feedback about a piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Don’t let it paralyze you. Some critique is necessary. See the feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. Most important, don’t take it personally.

4. You constantly compare your work with others. So what if other writers have more experience than you do or they’ve had more stories published. You need to remember that they started at the beginning at some point. Stop comparing yourself at the beginning of your career to someone else who is further along. That’s like comparing apples to bananas. You will never get ahead that way. If possible, try to stay in your own lane.

In this situation, you might also need to re-evaluate your goals and expectations. Have you set them too high? Are they unrealistic? It may be time for a rethink of your expectations to make them more manageable.

5. You don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to write about. Everyone has stories to share. Just because you think you don’t have anything interesting to write about doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting to write about. It’s all perception. When you feel your work is not worth reading, it can be tempting to stop writing. Again, keep writing until you find a story worth telling others. If needed, ask someone to read your work.

Every experience in life counts for something. Every experience is worth writing about. The story is your perception of events as they unfolded and how they impacted your life. Believe that there’s a story everywhere you look. Believe that you do have something worthwhile to share – then start writing about it.

6. You focus too much on the past. We’ve all suffered failures in our lives. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had situations that did not work out. Understandably, we don’t want to repeat those mistakes. Learn from those mistakes, then move on. Just because you made them once before does not mean you will make them again. Stop focusing on the past and stay focused on the present.

7. You focus too much on the future. Perhaps you dream of earning your own byline in a high-profile magazine or you are determined to get your manuscript published. But those goals are meaningless if you haven’t written a single word. It’s easy to get way ahead of ourselves, but just as in point #6 above, it’s imperative to stay in the present moment.

You can’t change the past and you can’t control the future. So you might as well stay in the present and make the most of it – by writing.

Celebrating the Freedom to Write

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America is about to celebrate its independence on July 4th. It seems only fitting that I examine one of life’s greatest freedoms: the freedom to write. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Writing and reading are basic human rights. From my volunteer work with Chicago Books to Women in Prison, I’ve come to realize that not everyone has easy access to books. That fact saddens me. I believe every human being, no matter where they live or where they grew up, is entitled to reading and writing and all the benefits and joys those activities bring. I could not imagine a world without having the ability to read and write or without access to books and pens and paper. Every person should have access to these things. Reading and writing bring peace of mind even through our darkest moments. They’re like security blankets for the soul.

2. Writing and reading are gateways to higher learning. Without the ability to read and write, individuals are limited in what they can learn and what they can achieve and how much they can grow. Without reading and writing, how would we ever learn about history, science or world cultures, or any other subject that tickles our imagination? Reading and writing are the stepping stones to knowledge and wisdom. They open our minds to different expressions of thought and conversation.

3. Writing is self-expression. It enables us to find the right words and phrases to speak our minds, share family stories, tell our truths, divulge long-held secrets, reveal our emotions, express opinions and bare our souls to the world. Writing is the pathway to healing from tragedy and turmoil. Just as important, writing allows us to celebrate the joys and triumphs of life too.

4. Writing is the ultimate form of communication. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate in writing than by speaking. Whether we choose to use a pen, pencil or laptop, writing lets us form connections with others. We don’t live as islands, secluded and alone. Writing helps us to reach out to others when speaking may be difficult.

5. Writing is self-discovery. It’s a way of connecting with ourselves. It’s how we gain access to the ideas in our head before transmitting them into words on a page. Writing allows us to explore the inner workings of our hearts and souls. How can we possibly understand who we are, how we feel and what we stand for if we don’t put those thoughts down on paper (or the screen)?

6. Writing is finding your voice. As I mentioned earlier, writing is a form of self-expression. But before you get to that point, you must find your voice. I believe we have two types of voices – the one we hear inside our head and the one we express through words, either written or verbally. In a world where conflicting voices clamor to be heard, it can be difficult, sometimes even impossible, to know which voice is yours and which belongs to someone else. It can be too easy to follow the voice that is louder, more authoritative and insistent, especially when we’re struggling to find our voice. Writing allows us to gain access to our internal voice so it can become stronger and louder. The more you write, the more confident your voice becomes.

7. Writing is independent thinking. As your inner voice becomes more confident, stronger, and louder, you may realize that your voice stands alone in the world. Others may not agree with you or support you. That’s okay because how you think and what you believe makes you stand out from the crowd. That is why so many writers live solitary lives. That solitary thought process is a path to better, more independent thinking. That’s what sets you apart from everyone else. Would you rather follow the crowd with your voice drowned out by others? Or would you prefer to set your own path, even though you may walk it alone? Writing guides you on the path that is truly your own.

8. Writing is exercising your right to freedom of speech. Last I checked, the U.S. is still a free country. It protects our right for freedom of speech. We may not always like what someone says or writes about in the press, and we may not agree with someone’s point of view. But it’s imperative that we allow them the right to free speech just as we would want them to allow us to have our say. Even more important, it’s important to protect those freedoms. They belong to every American. It’s okay to disagree. In fact, it’s vital to have differences of opinion if we are to understand one another better. It’s just not okay to shut someone down or drown out their voice.

The beautiful thing about writing is that it means different things to different people. Writing is as individual as you and me. It’s what helps us understand ourselves and each other. It’s what helps us makes sense of the world around us and within us. It’s what helps us be human. Writing is life.

Thank you for reading. This is my only post this week. Happy 4th of July, and celebrate safely.