Category Archives: the creative life

the ‘how to write a creative manifesto’ manifesto

1. Writing a manifesto is ideal for our creative work and promotional use of social media because it’s about defining the path and the way.

When we are on the path, when we commit to the path, we win.
The fun is to win everyday.

Creative work is a practice.

Social media is a practice.

We must design our path so that we love the practice. Many roads may lead to the same place, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally effective or enjoyable for me or for you.

(And if it’s not enjoyable, it won’t be effective for very long, because you’ll be sitting in a corner somewhere poking your eyes out.)

2. Our manifesto is our way of announcing not only where we are going (your open-space, ultimate horizon dream) but how we are going to get there (the small, measurable actions you take on a near-daily basis) and also why we want to get there: the beliefs and principles that connect intellect to emotion.

Intellect and emotion: the one-two punch that powers motivation and keeps us going.

We take ideas and inspiration from wherever and whomever we find it, but in the end must build out our own unique road that plays to our individual strengths and neutralizes our weaknesses.

3. Social media is an ongoing conversation. Conversation is how we riff off of each other. It sends out sparks of electricity and magic. It is the grand arena in which ideas meet and mingle, cross-fertilize and combine; where people deposit bits and fragments of knowledge that build and open out into new dimensions of insight.
Social media embraces those who bring something to the conversation. Nobody wants to keep talking to some dude who is constantly promoting only himself. It is much more interesting when we promote others. It is much more interesting when we promote a cause.

Promote only yourself, and you are hitting the same note over and over again. When we promote other worthy people, when we link ourselves and our work to a larger social framework, our conversation becomes much more inclusive, relevant, wide-ranging and multidimensional – while still unified by the message, the vision, at core.

4. The challenge in building an ‘online platform’ for our creative work is finding a way to promote that doesn’t just flash things at people but engages them

intrigues and draws them in

and makes them part of an ongoing conversation that is relevant to our work, but also rich and deep and flexible enough to keep a lot of people engaged over a sustained period of time. Our creative work offers value, but so does our conversation. Which is why our conversation has to be passionate, sincere, and, yes, authentic enough so that people know we’re for real — and this they can trust us with their attention, their time, their love and their cash.

We build out our art through the art of conversation. Our creative work and our social media become two halves of the same larger whole. Suddenly we’re no longer marketing…

we are unmarketing, which is way way cooler.

(Find the cause in your creative work, the message you want to give the world, whether it’s to end genocide or celebrate family and relationships or be a career renegade or sacredly self-actualize or whatever.

Your manifesto is your vision, but it’s also your point of view.)

5. There is no place for spam in our practice. If it doesn’t offer value, it is spam.

6. If it is spam, then it must get the hose.

7. In our creative work, and our use of social media to promote said creative work, we must be passionate. We don’t always start from passion: we start out with glimmerings, hints and hunches. Through trial and error and study and hard work, we build upon those glimmerings. We become better and better at whatever it is we do, and through our own growing mastery find our way to passion. So those glimmerings are our guide.

(Pay attention to yours. Organize yourself and your work around them.)

8. We must be sincere, in that we do what we do because we want to do it and not because it’s what we think we should do (and then do in a half-assed way…or decide to poke our eyes out instead. Or watch The Bachelor.). We must seek the sweet spot where our beliefs and talents and the needs of our audience overlap. We must give the people what they want and need whether or not they know they want and need it. Chances are that if you need it, someone else will need it too. We may each and every one of us be a unique and individual snowflake – but, in the end, we’re all freaking snowflakes, and tumble down from the same freaking sky.

9. We must think big. We must be gloriously delusional. People want to be inspired, and they are not inspired by small and modest aims whose sole function is to stave off disappointment.

(Create a vision for yourself and your work, and turn that vision into a cause that other people can participate in and find meaning and value in.)

Social media gives us the tools to reach and teach, enable and empower.

Make the most of it to make the world a better place. This earns us trust and influence, the most powerful forms of self-promotion – which can be neither purchased nor faked.

10. We must have (or work to develop) the substance to back up our style, the steak to flesh out our sizzle. If people are going to pay for content, it must be Damn Good. The content we give away for free is how they learn to trust that what they buy will be Damn Good.

11. If it is half-assed content, then it must get the hose.

12. Know yourself. Investigate yourself. Search through your soul and your work and your interests and your role models and your personal heroes to find the themes and obsessions that inspire and compel your creative work. Look to what inspires you. Follow your strengths: those moments and activities that make you feel strong, energized and most like yourself. Brainstorm. Journal. Think up 100 questions to ask yourself about yourself and answer every single one of them. Carry a memo pad around with you and jot down every article or news story that catches your interest. Examine your bookshelves. Ask your parents what you were like as a child, the subjects you couldn’t stop talking about at the dinner table.

Investigate the magic and the mystery of You.

Then gather this information and sift through it for clues, for glimmerings. What is that you are here to do, and make, and give the world? What do you want to accomplish as a creative? Give your work a voice: what does it want to accomplish in the world?

13. Give your work some goals, some big hairy goals, some open space goals that have no real ‘trophy’ or end point — there’s a difference between “lose twenty pounds” and “be fit and energized for life”. Break those open space goals into process goals, the small incremental measurable things that when done everyday will move you and your work toward the stunning horizon of your ultimate dream. The point isn’t the destination. The point is the journey, the process, the practice, what you do on a day-to-day basis that fulfils you, that demands the best and fullest use of your soul, your talents, your self. Remember – when you’re on the path, when you practice the practice, you already win.

14. No creative person, no creative work, exists in a vacuum. Link those goals to your community, society, the world at large. Why does the world (or at least some part of it) need you to do this work? Why should we care? Find the reasons. The difference between art and simple self-expression is that art takes the raw materials of your life, your mind and personality, and weaves meaning from them in a way that has relevance for others as well as yourself. It doesn’t have to have meaning for everybody. But it has to mean something to somebody other than your mother.

15. Originality happens when we take familiar elements and combine them in new ways. Take these elements – your goals, your ambition, your self-knowledge – and combine them into an overarching vision about who you are and what you’re here to do. This doesn’t have to happen overnight. Mull it all over for a while. Put it out of your mind for a while. Give things time to gel. Let your vision come to you in flashes of insight. This is your cause, your mission, your point of view, the rallying cry for your tribe. Remember that you will continue to develop and refine it over time. It will evolve as you evolve.

16. Who do you want to reach with your message, your work? Who do you want to include and participate in your vision? Where do you think they are online – where do they live, what spaces and niches and communities? Where do they visit and hang out? What are the best ways to reach them? How can you best use social media to do that? What are the social media tools that will best serve them, and thus you? Play around with these questions. Play around with your answers. Whenever you feel a glimmering – an inner surge of excitement, a mental yawp, a Yes – see if you can weave that into your manifesto.

17. Your manifesto, remember, is a declaration of your principles, beliefs and your intentions.

Write in strong dramatic declarative language.

Write in present tense.

Write out a blend of vision, dream, philosophy, and the best practices and habitual next actions that move you in the direction of your dream. You can mix these ingredients in whatever proportions you want. After all, it’s your manifesto. The important thing is the heat the manifesto generates in your heart, gut and soul. If you don’t feel that primal, visceral, emotional connection – then stop. Play with the ingredients again. Toss stuff out and bring in something new. Mess around. Have fun. This should be fun.

18. Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe you want to use images instead. Or music. Or video. Or cartoons. Or all of the above. Go ahead. Go wild. Do what you need to do. You are master and authority. This is the universe according to You.

Declare.

Be.

There are no rules except the rules you set. Or break.

20. A manifesto is a public declaration – so, if you’re ready, when you’re ready, make it public! Post on your blog or your website or your Facebook page. Post it here, in the comments.

Not everybody has to agree with you. Not everybody has to ‘get’ whatever it is that you’re doing.

Besides, you don’t want everybody. You want people who will love and adore your work – and you. You are communicating your manifesto to them. Everybody else can go stuff themselves. (Or watch The Bachelor.)

Remember — when we are on the path

when we commit to the path

we win.

The fun is to win everyday.

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why ‘write what you know’ can be very bad advice

Write what you know.

This has always been problematic advice for me. I started writing fiction when I was very young – I wrote my first novel when I was 14 and it almost, almost, got published several years later – and I could sense from my obsessive reading that writers were supposed to know a lot more than I did.

I was a sheltered, smalltown girl, and the only thing I thought I knew was that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I embarked on a quest to become Worldly and Experienced…at least partly so that I would have cool stuff to write about.

Except now I’m 37, and my life has been as interesting and surprising as my teenage self could have wanted, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I don’t know whatever it is I should know in order to write what I want.

Write what you want to know.

We forget that there are different ways of knowing. We know things in our head and our heart and our gut. And I mean literally: scientists have discovered brain in our gut (over a hundred million specialized nerve cells that allow it to act independently, learn, remember and influence perception and behavior) and our heart (over forty thousand neurons and an intricate network of neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells).

We know things through intellectual reasoning, but we also know through intuition and emotion. Knowledge comes packaged in nonverbal as well as verbal forms. There’s the knowledge of the mind, but also the body and the soul. Sometimes it’s the mind that we need to kick out of the way.

And often we don’t even know what we do know. The subconscious part of our brain takes in everything, records and remembers everything. It processes our lives in its own mysterious ways, to rise up through the dreams of creative work.

So when we’re compelled toward a particular subject matter, a certain kind of story, maybe it’s that shadowy underground knowledge that’s driving us. It’s not knowledge, necessarily, in the way we understand it. There are gaps and holes. We need to do research. But that want to know is a kind of knowing in itself: what we need to explore in our own writing in order to move toward wholeness.

Write what you don’t know…but will discover in the telling.

Steven Heighton said this, and it might be my favorite piece of writing advice ever.

Writing is a skill, and an art, and sometimes a dark art: you’re never quite sure where it comes from. You write to discover the story as much as tell it. When you step outside your comfort zone, push at the limits of what it is you think you know, you go down into the darkness of your underground self to mine the vein of gold that you find there. You write a murder mystery and discover that it’s really about your relationship with your father. You write a dark fantasy about magic and demons and discover that it’s really about your disintegrating marriage.

So I think, in the end, you need to write what you’re driven to write, whether you “know” it or not. Writing “what you know” is one step away from writing the book that you “should” write, which is a trick and a lie of the mind. You need to follow the whispers of your obsessions, and that ache in your gut you can’t verbalize because it goes beyond words, into a kind of inchoate longing. That’s where you’ll find the book that needs to get written, the sense and the feel of it.

Sometimes, to write what we know, we have to go into the unknown.

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the thing every artist needs to do

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In his book MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN Scott Belsky (founder and CEO of Behance) makes the point that a successful creative life isn’t about (or just about) being genius or having genius ideas. For all the emphasis we put on the ‘creative’ part of ‘being creative’, an artist needs to execute and ship.

Often it’s the discipline of shipping that separates the creatives from the wannabes.

Seth Godin talks about the importance of shipping in his book LINCHPIN. He quotes poet Bruce Ario: “Creativity is an instinct to produce.” If you’re a writer, you need to be someone who actually sits down and writes. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to get done. (And the more you sit down and do it, the better you’re likely to get.)

And then you need to show it to people.

Reading and writing are two halves of the same whole: to get good at the latter you have to do a lot of the former. Same with listening and communicating (it’s hard to have something powerful and worthwhile to say if you’re clueless to the conversation that’s going on around, behind and before you). With creative work, one half is the making of it…and the other half is the showing of it.

The shipping.

Shipping is the connecting point between your work and the world. Shipping starts to create the space where your art will find an audience. For all the time an artist spends inside her head, she needs to stay tethered to the reality outside it.

Seth writes:

Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against…

Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done. That’s where the audience is, that’s where the means of production are available, and that’s where you can make an impact.

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Seth Rose (founder of Digg) advises young dot.com entrepreneurs to build cool stuff and get it out there soon as possible. You need to see what your audience is actually going to do with it…or if they’re going to bother with it at all…and go from there. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Jason Calacanis, who introduced me to Twitter when most people had no idea what it was. Twitter, Jason told me, would evolve in ways that even its creators wouldn’t expect; people take these new technologies and find their own uses for them, so that technology both shapes and is shaped by its connection with its audience.

When you show your creative work to people, when you get stuff out there – when you are disciplined and productive enough to ship on a regular basis – you’re engaging in a relationship with your audience that helps you evolve as an artist. You see the message that you’re communicating (as opposed to what you intended or thought you were communicating). You develop a sense for what works and what doesn’t. Your audience becomes a kind of mirror reflecting back your strengths and weaknesses, and you can use this self-knowledge to create more powerful projects. You also start to discover who your audience actually is…which might surprise you.

In short, you get feedback. And honest and timely feedback is one of the requirements for the deliberate practice necessary to achieve greatness in anything.

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I like the term shipping because it is so mundane and banal. It grounds the idea of “being creative” within everyday routine. It orients the dreamy, creative mind toward what Belsky calls an action bias that translates ideas into reality, creating value and meaning for others.

When you ship, you’re forced to accept your work as it is…and then let it go, and move on to the next thing. You’re forced to trust that there will be a next thing, that your pool of creativity isn’t some finite source soon dried up, that there’s always something in the box. You learn that your job as an artist isn’t to wait until the Muse strikes you with inspiration, but to show up at your work, day after day, so that the Muse has the opportunity to come find you and move through you.

(Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED talk on the creative genius in all of us. )

Seth writes:

Sometimes, shipping feels like a compromise. You set out to make a huge difference, to create art that matters and to do your best work. Then a deadline arrives and you have to cut it short. Is shipping that important?

…I think it is. While some artists manage to work for years or decades and actually ship something important, far more often we find the dreams of art shattered by the resistance*. We give in to the fear and our art ends up lying in a box somewhere, unseen.

…Not shipping on behalf of your goal of changing the world is often a symptom of the resistance. Call its bluff, ship always, and then change the world…

The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.

Or as Steve Jobs put it: “Real artists ship.”

* Godin takes the concept from Steven Pressfield’s book THE WAR OF ART.

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fight like hell in the war of art

I was Twitter-tagged as part of a 100-people experiment involving Hugh MacLeod. I was delighted to take part.

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If you want to be a writer, or any other kind of artist, cartoonist, blogger and bestselling writer Hugh MacLeod has some advice for you.

It’s easy to tell somebody to get into The Zone. Much harder to live it. But fight like hell to get there, regardless, every friggin’ day, or else you’ll never make it.

The idea of the artist as a fighter, a warrior, permeates Steven Pressfield’s excellent book THE WAR OF ART:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

The Resistance is the enemy. The Resistance is procrastination, distraction, self-sabotage, a friend’s negativity, hurtful criticism, or anything else that keeps you from making art.

The irony is that you can never escape Resistance, because the presence of Resistance is a sign that you’re moving toward your true work:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance. […]
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.
Is he scared? Hell, yes. He’s petrified. […]
So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.

To grow as an artist is to learn how to battle the Resistance every day — and win.

Both MacLeod and Pressfield are referring to the necessity of ‘deliberate practice’ or deep practice: the kind of focused, goal-oriented practice that pushes us to the edge of our abilities and beyond. This is the kind of practice that puts us in The Zone, that relaxed, alert, highly focused state of mind in which we lose ourselves in our work. Put together 10,000 hours – and more – of this kind of practice and chances are that you will have achieved a level of mastery at whatever it is that you do.

Because the road to mastery requires so much time and effort, it’s important to love the process itself (instead of caring so much about the outcome). So when you’re fighting all the forces that would have you lead a conventional life, bog you down in mediocrity, and prevent you from entering the Zone…you’re fighting from a place of love.

Love and war: you bring together two opposites, and the strengths of one help you in the domain of the other.

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What are you fighting for?

You’re fighting for a remarkable life. You’re fighting to be remarkable, to offer the world something remarkable, because that kind of life has to be earned.

You’re fighting for your voice to rise above the fray and the clamor.

Your voice is you. It is the stripped down essence of you. It is your brand, your signature, and your art.

A fully developed voice is a distinctive voice: a fan will recognize it five miles off.

And a fresh and original voice is what people are constantly searching for. It’s what editors are hoping for every time they pick up a manuscript. They want a great story, and but more importantly they want a great voice. Story, as one editor pointed out, can be revised and reworked. But the voice is either there, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, no editor can magically summon it into being.

I recently came across the phrase “point of differentiation” as applied to relationships: your point of differentiation is your clear sense of self, the things you cannot and will not change for anyone.

Your voice, your art, is your point of differentiation. It marks you apart from everything and everyone else. It conveys an identity.

Your true voice is passionate, authentic, and original. Passionate and authentic because it is you, consistent and truthful and fighting for what you believe in; original because it is composed from your mind and personality and influences and experiences and everything else that goes into the unique creation of you.

To find your voice is to know who you are.

To succeed as an artist, then, requires mad skills earned through deliberate practice, combined with deep self-knowledge.

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To speak — truly speak your truth, your art — requires the ability to listen.

The book HALF THE SKY talks about the effort to reduce the spread of AIDS in Africa. “Four different strategies were tried in randomly chosen areas, and the results were compared to results in control areas. Success was measured by pregnancies averted (compared to the control areas) since they presumably reflected the amount of unprotected sex that could also transmit AIDS.”

Training elementary school teachers in AIDS education did not reduce pregnancies. Neither did encouraging student debates and essays on condoms and AIDS.

What did work?

Providing students with free uniforms. This encouraged (and enabled) students to stay in school longer, and the more educated the person, the less likely to become pregnant.

But “by the far the most cost-effective approach was also the simplest: warning of the perils of sugar daddies.” Schoolchildren were shown a video informing then that older men have much higher HIV infection rates than boys. Few students knew this, in a culture where teenage girls “often become the baubles of middle-aged men” in search of a better life.

This success came about through listening to the local culture and responding to it in a sincere and genuine manner. It was not the result of blundering into a new place and stamping some pre-existing opinions on it.

Before you speak, be sure to listen. And learn.

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Part of that listening needs to be to yourself: your inner, intuitive voice. You need to fight for the silence in which that can happen.

When you’re cut off from your inner voice, you get trapped in a world of surfaces, where the image is taken for the truth. You’ll believe what other people want you to believe, the masks and manipulations and distortions they present as reality. They’ll tell you what you want…which is what they want you to want. They’ll tell you who you are….which is who they want you to be.

Your inner voice, composed of hunches and dreams, gut feelings and intuitive knowledge – the communications of the subconscious – is what tethers you to the reality behind the surface, the truth behind the image. Your inner voice is also your point of differentiation: the art you need to make, the story you need to tell (instead of the one you think you should tell).

Because your inner voice, your insight and opinions, are inconvenient for them and don’t fit into their agendas, there are people in your life who would snuff that voice out. Who would replace it with their own, so that you are no longer you, but merely an extension, an echo, of them.

Fight them like hell.

Life is too short to be someone’s echo.

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You are your voice. Your voice is your art.

Through art, you make yourself a gift to the world.

And that is something worth fighting for.

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the problem with outlines and word quotas (and why they sometimes might lead to sucky writing)

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I believe in outlines. Except when I don’t.

I believe in daily word quotas. Except when I don’t.

I believe in encountering the work, which an outline can prevent you from doing.

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Last week I was struggling with a scene in my novel-in-progress (THE DECADENTS). I had it in outline and knew what was going to happen. Two of my major characters are at the start of an uneasy attraction that will take them in a dark (and supernatural) direction. The man makes a proposition to the woman. She rejects it — at least at first — because she senses on some level that this man is a big red flag. But she needs a reason to seek him out, because I want to get her to a party at his house where she discovers something that makes her change her mind (and thrusts the story in a new direction).

The scene started off well — and then stalled.

In the outline, he gives her an envelope of money, which she decides to return to him. I could have continued with the original plan, forced my way through this little onset of writer’s block and met my word quota.

But I did not. I sat down at my laptop and then I went away again. Something in me refused to write the scene as planned. There are many times when I don’t want to write — when I procrastinate. But there are other times when the reluctance to write is like a flare sent up from my undermind. Warning. Dead end. You need to figure out something better.

Here’s a thing about my female character, which I need to get across to the reader: she has fugues. And during these spaces of ‘lost time’ she doesn’t remember what she does or who she talks to; it’s entirely possible (as established in the opening twenty pages) that she becomes someone else.

According to the outline, I was going to summarize some of her personal history after her encounter with the man and suggest that he himself, for reasons still unknown and mysterious, might trigger a fugue.

I finally realized: For crying out loud, just have her experience one right there and then.

So I did. One moment she’s talking to the man and the next moment she’s in her car, with no memory of how she got there. He follows her out to make sure she’s okay and didn’t offend her in some way. I liked this, because it takes the characters from the first setting (an empty nightclub) to a second more intimate setting (her car), where his presence feels like a bit of an invasion. Hence, tension. Plus she’s worried about what she might have done or said in the fifteen minutes that disappeared from her memory. Hence, mystery.

And I realized: Later she discovers she stole something of his, something important, and she’s so mortified and ashamed that she immediately goes to his house to return it.

This works perfectly within the context I’ve established and takes the story where it needs to go.

I was not only able to write the scene, I got ‘in the zone’: time disappeared, the work swallowed me whole, I got that sense of deep settled bliss that rounds out the corners of my day and fills me with satisfaction.

And the draft is better for it. If I had gone ahead with the original outline, the story would have sagged beneath the weight of extra pages. The information I needed to convey to the reader (her attraction and resistance to this man, the connection between this man and her fugues, her secret desire to see him again plus a reason to do so) plays out in one scene, which makes the scene itself more dynamic and complex.

At some point I would have figured to do this anyway, gone back and revised — but now I don’t have to. By listening to my writer’s block, I saved myself time and effort. I’m also that much more psyched about the story (which is important, when you’re facing the long uphill slog of a first draft).

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Part of the struggle of novel-writing is dealing with the muck and murk of it. The process can feel like a swamp that is eating you alive, or a massive knot in your head that you desperately need to unfurl.

To ‘encounter the work’ means to face that ambiguity, that half-formed mass, and patiently work it through (and work it through and work it through). Sometimes this takes time — including time spent away from the manuscript. Different parts of a novel aren’t meant to proceed at the same pace: some sections come to you quickly….and others maybe not so much. Sometimes you’re forced to go slow. Otherwise you might miss a sign that marks a turn-off and come to a dead end.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in outlines. As my writing workshop observed, my book has a sense of drive and direction it lacked before, and I attribute that to the fact that it now has an outline.

And I believe in word quotas. This point can’t get repeated enough: you must show up and start, even when you’d rather stick needles in your eyes. You have to overcome that hump of struggle and procrastination, of ‘beginning’, before the fabled white horse of inspiration can appear out of nowhere to sweep you away.

But sometimes we can use outlines and word quotas to give ourselves a false sense of control, to avoid the ‘muck and murk’, the ambiguity, the not-knowing, that is a natural part of the writing process. When we’re forcing ourselves through a scene just to get it done, and ignoring our deeper sense of what the story needs, we might not be doing ourselves (or the story) any favors.

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how I discovered that a writing coach can be helpful

I’m writing a supernatural thriller called THE DECADENTS. It’s a bit different from my previously published novels. It’s a book I’ve been carrying around in my head for a long time. I’m a little afraid to write it.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I hired a writing coach.

Her name is Rachel, and she wrote a book that I admire and deals with some of the same subject matter that I’m working with, if in a different form. I first saw her years ago at a Black Clock reading at a bookstore called Dutton’s in Beverly Hills (which is now, sadly, closed — the bookstore, not Beverly Hills). I liked what she read, and I also liked her fashion sense (she was wearing white jeans and a fringed Cavalli-esque poncho).

After her new book came out, I rediscovered her.

We had our first official work meeting last night. We tried to go to a restaurant called Wilshire, which was closed, so we walked to the speakeasy next door. The waitress’s name was Sophie and she wore glitter eyeshadow. (When I found out she had just moved from Boulder, I asked her, “Do you know a restaurant called The Kitchen?” She squealed, “I love The Kitchen!” My ex-brother-in-law owns that place, and one of the things I actually do miss from my marriage are the trips we took to Boulder and free meals at The Kitchen. But I digress.)

I had written 50 pages of DECADENTS and put the book aside for a bit. “You weren’t ready to write it yet,” Rachel observed, and this was true. I had this idea of what I wanted the book to be, told from the perspective of a particular character and covering three different periods in time.

But after those first 50 pages, I got blocked. What I’ve learned is that, as one writer put it (and I wish I could remember her name but can’t), a block can be your subconscious’s way of saying, Hush, child, I’m working on a better plan.

What I eventually realized was that a lot of the stuff I thought was story is actually backstory, and although the book is told from several different perspectives (I like multiple perspectives, think they bring a depth and richness) the story belongs to a different character than I’d originally intended, the young female character.

This now seems so obvious I wonder why it took me so long to come to my muddled senses.

The bones of the thriller, which is about — and I’m still refining this — how a legacy of psychosexual damage gets handed down through a family and plays itself out in other relationships — fell into place. I went back to those first 50 pages, cut about 20 of them, tightened some of the remaining scenes, jettisoned a point-of-view experiment that wasn’t working, and showed them to Rachel.

Rachel thinks the pages are strong and was surprised to hear about my hesitancy: “The writing is fluid and has a lot of authority.” We talked about the materials of the story and although I’m writing fiction, Rachel has learned me enough to make the connection between the book and life of the writer generating it. “No wonder you’ve been resisting it,” she said, and pointed out that I’m still working through some of the issues and experiences that inspired the book in the first place.

How true. And again, so very freaking obvious. Yet I wasn’t able to realize this on my own, partly because I’m way too close to the project, and also because the mind has a fascinating capacity to sidestep and overlook whatever makes it too uncomfortable.

Rachel and I talked about accountability: a big part of her job is to make sure that I write the damn pages. I’ll give myself deadlines and weekly page quotas, draw up a contract and sign it. Quite possibly in blood. And Rachel will nag the hell out of me.

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Tyler Durden’s Rules for Writing in the Zone: Conclusion & Takeaway

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The concept of “flow” was first introduced by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In his studies on happiness and creativity, he noticed that people tend to have their most fulfilling experiences through work (instead of controlled leisure time).

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”

“It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.”

When we’re in flow – or as I’ve referred to it throughout this series, in the zone – we know it. We lose ourselves in our work (“merging of action and awareness, loss of self-consciousness”). We look up, and hours have passed (“distorted sense of time”).

But even though it may seem mystical, magical – so much so that the ancient Greeks divined it as a sign that the gods were working through you – flow doesn’t just happen. We must work and fight for it.

“To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow.”

The zone demands that we are relaxed, alert, and engaged. Otherwise it will be like a dog that never comes when you call it.

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In order to prepare yourself for flow:

Streamline what’s important. Define your goals. Make sure they are your goals, and no one else’s.

Establish a time and a place to write. Make it routine. Then show up and get to work. The zone helps those who help themselves. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You call inspiration to you through doing the actual work, instead of dreaming or waiting or talking about it.

Show your work to people. Seek out the tough love of true constructive criticism. The zone demands frequent feedback so we can learn and grow and push past the edges of our ability.

The zone has no use for ego. Ego only gets in the way.

Always be pushing at the limits of your ability. This is known as “deliberate practice”, the key components of which (listed in this article) dovetail quite nicely with flow. “Deliberate practice” is the stuff of champions, more important than innate natural talent, and entirely within your control.

Focus on the task, not the outcome. Intrinsic motivation is the best and most powerful kind (and also what leads to external rewards).

You are in control of the story of your life. Events may randomly happen to you, but it is up to you to interpret and make a narrative out of them that creates your own sense of meaning. This ongoing private story of yourself shapes your actions, your energy, your future. Don’t let anyone else, be it from your present or your past, dictate that story for you. Make it one that energizes and inspires. As Tyler says, “You created me…Take responsibility!”

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