January came and went quickly, but the days felt slow.
I’m still healing from a sprained ankle. The weather has been bitterly cold. My emotions have been all over the place after the sweet-but-strange little Christmas my immediate family had, feeling glued to the national news in the worst possible way, and the strange new beginnings that 2021 and my 34th birthday offered.
But it did make for a month of wonderful reading, especially Wintering by Katherine May, which I would like to gift to just about everyone in my life.
So here’s to leaning into the slowness and into winter.
No matter how prolific a writer you are, writer’s block is an inevitability we all face from time to time. If you’re like me, you find yourself sitting at your computer, fingers poised over the keyboard, and . . . nothing.
Maybe you don’t know how to start. Or you get stuck and can’t get going again. Or a few words trickle out, but it’s just not quite what you had in mind.
Whatever block you’re facing, I’ve found that these five tricks help me and my writing find our way again almost every single time.
1. Walking Away—or Just Walking
Taking a walk is my go-to solution for writer’s block because it’s the one that works the best the most often. Sometimes I’ve got too many different things floating around in my head—multiple client projects, maybe, or a long list of miscellaneous to-dos to tackle—and my thoughts can’t settle on the writing at hand.
Getting away from my desk helps because I can actually do the thing I’m thinking about (move the laundry, check the mailbox). And sometimes taking my mind off forcing the writing helps me return to the keyboard with fresh eyes and fresh ideas.
Still, I try not to give in to the temptation to walk away too quickly. If I notice that I’m struggling, I’ll make a note of the time. If 15 minutes or more pass and I haven’t managed to get anything down that I feel good about, that’s when I’ll call it quits for a bit.
For a bonus tip, take a page out of Ernest Hemingway’s book and stop in the middle of a sentence when you take a break. It often helps you pick up the momentum a little easier when you come back to your work.
2. Clearing Out the Cobwebs
On Mad Men, Don Draper goes to the movies because he says it “clears out the cobwebs.” He goes to the theater in the middle of the afternoon instead of staying stuck at his desk (was he ever stuck at his desk?).
Like taking a walk, allowing yourself to get lost in a book, movie, or piece of music does wonders for getting your conscious mind off your writing. It can also let your subconscious get to work instead. But, unlike going for a stroll, choosing an immersive creative experience has the added bonus of stoking your creative fires. Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest sources—and visiting other worlds through fiction or excellent filmmaking is often just the ticket.
If you’re not sold, take a lesson from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, and think of it as an artist’s date. Julia says we all need, from time to time, to refill our creative wells—lest it dry up. So once a week, prioritize taking your inner artist on a date. She calls it “assigned play” and says it doesn’t need to be “artistic,” just something festive or whimsical or out of the ordinary.
Go outside, browse an interesting shop, make a vision board, build a playlist, take a drive. Come back inspired.
3. Starting at the End
A blank page can feel straight-up threatening, and the pressure of needing to start off with a solid beginning can quickly overwhelm. That’s why I often like to start at the end. Whether it’s writing the end-of-page call-to-action for marketing copy or the witty close to an essay—even the final line in an email I’ve been putting off—sometimes it’s just easier to work backward.
If I’m writing digitally (and I almost always am) I’ll often insert several returns or even a whole page break to visually remind myself that I’m merely skipping ahead a little bit and will come back later to fill it in. You’d be surprised how much of a difference this little mental trick can make!
Working this way can also be a nice reminder that writing is almost never a linear process. It’s okay to skip around and put it together like a puzzle as all the pieces come together. There’s no need to force yourself to write anything in the order it will be read, a common hang-up when fighting writer’s block.
4. Streaming Your Consciousness
Let’s take another cue from Julia Cameron with her beloved morning pages process, the practice of writing three pages (long-hand) first thing in the morning. The idea is, like going to the movies or taking a drive, to clear out the cobwebs of your mind. With stream-of-consciousness writing, you build up the habit of writing without editing or censoring along the way.
That’s the same trick you use if you’ve ever found yourself writing your way in to a piece. Often what we really want to say is buried under all the everyday stuff that clutters up our minds, those to-do lists and reminders and conversations with friends or colleagues. It’s once we get through all that junk that we can arrive at the good stuff.
Try it! Just start writing as though you’re narrating your thoughts. “Narrating your thoughts? Or should it be ‘narrating your mind’? Is that something I can Google? I CANNOT forget to buy dishwasher detergent. Maybe this is the year I actually write a book. I should go ahead and sign up for that painting workshop.” See?
You may have to scrap the first 10% (or even the first 90%) of your efforts before you find the words worth saving. But they’ll be there.
5. Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of where you’re sitting (or standing or laying down). Changing my environment is most helpful when I’m dealing with one of two situations. First, I might have been sitting in the same spot for way too long and I feel restless about the setting. Or the scenery around me may be much too distracting (whether because I’ve chosen to sit in the living room and Law & Order reruns are playing on a loop or because I’m somewhere new and I feel overly stimulated by the novelty around me.)
Simply turning the position of my chair and laptop 90 degrees can feel refreshing. So can adjusting ambient sounds—whether that’s turning off something distracting or putting on some white noise to fill the silence.
There have been times when I feel like I need to completely overhaul my surroundings or state of mind to feel like I can get into the flow, but most of the time it’s making a small tweak that reignites the process.
Were any of these strategies familiar to you? Do you have another helpful hint for getting through your writer’s block? I’d love to hear from you!
Last year was the first time I attempted the #30BooksIn30Days challenge and I made it to 22; this time I got to 26!
Books that had been on my nightstand for longer than I care to admit, brand-new books straight from the publisher, books that I’d been eagerly awaiting from the library. Rereads, audio books, book club selections. Fiction, nonfiction, how-tos, and even a screenplay.
I always enjoy a reading challenge and I’m delighted with the way this one went. And, of course, there’s always next year to get to 30!
Another month, another round of book reviews! I finished ten books in August and am getting caught up with my 2020 reading goal (120 books).
I read lots of really great books this month—and admit that I’m also getting better about abandoning books I’m not really into using the 50-page rule (don’t give up on a book until you’re at least 50 pages in . . . until you’re 50 years old, and then you can lower that number by a page a year).
August brought lots of data-heavy titles and some heavy big life stuff (acknowledging privilege, breaking away from overwork, saying yes more, reexamining this country’s beginnings), but this year seems like a good time to dig into those things.
This was such an interesting and delightful read about the subjectivity and trickiness of math on a large scale. I admit I didn’t really grasp all the logic—“I’m an English major; you do the math!”—but I loved it anyway.
I started this pre-COVID and then lost the thread while I watched the world start to fall apart, but I came back to it in August and zoomed through it. A really fascinating exploration of language and how it’s changed rapidly over the last couple of decades in an internet world.
My church recently held a white privilege discussion group that was guided by this book. It was a much-needed perspective on American Christianity, and the ELCA church in particular, and an important read for white congregations.
I love reading books that encourage a break from our hyperconnected worlds—this year especially. A much-needed reminder that work is not the end-all be-all when it comes to how we measure self-worth, happiness, and even success.
What if you said yes to every question or suggestion presented to you? This was a fun read about turning your routines on their head, leaning into a personal experiment, and staying open to new and unexpected opportunities.
This book shook. me. up. It was no surprise, of course, to learn that there are data gaps when it comes to women. But it was stunning to read about the breadth and depth of those gaps; women have been willfully ignored (or carelessly forgotten) when it comes to anything from seatbelt design and pharmaceutical studies to city planning and how we expect people to work.
I strongly recommend this read to anyone who is convinced women have achieved equality with men and to anyone working in planning and leadership roles.
I’ve never read a Washington biography because a 700-page love letter to a founding father has never really piqued my interest. But I loved this short and conversational look at his life—and the myths that we’ve accepted about the first president.
It’s been over a decade since the last time I was a full-time student, but this time of year still gives me the warm fuzzy feelings of back-to-school excitement. New school (or office) supplies, fresh notebooks, a renewed sense of routine . . . okay, maybe that last one is a long shot this year.
Still, even in the midst of a global pandemic and ongoing anxiety about time, September feels like a great time to hit the reset button on the year. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be taking stock of 2020 so far, preparing to make the most of the last quarter, and starting to look ahead to 2021.
Gathering the Supplies
I may not need any #2 pencils or a new set of watercolors, but I did do some online supplies shopping to restock my go-to pens, the 2-by-1 sticky notes I use to mark my favorite lines in books, and even a disco ball (because why the fuck not).
I’ve also been following a recommendation from my favorite feng shui consultant and cleaning my desk each week: When I shut down for the weekend, I pull everything off, wipe it down with lavender-scented cleaning spray, and then put everything (or rather, everything I want to keep) back with intention.
Setting a Curriculum
Like day planners and cookie recipes, when it comes to goal-setting programs I have no brand loyalty and I’m keen on trying them all. I’ve written SMART goals and intuition-led intentions, and I’ve focused on quarterly objectives and on “the one thing” each day.
But this year, I’m really digging the Chalkboard Method. My summer “chalkboard”—it’s actually poster board because chalk gives me the creeps—is part to-do list, part goal tracking, and part manifestation tool. And it’s been working out marvelously, helping me stay on track with everything from networking to paying off a credit card and to seek out dreamy new clients.
Getting Good Grades
Two years ago, my business bestie and I started a new tradition of getting together around this time of year for a couple Get-Shit-Done Days. We hang out in Denver, where we drink coffee and eat cupcakes and admire the mountains and set our laptops up to tackle the big picture things we’ve putting off.
Like everything else this year, our 2020 business retreat is going to look a little different—but we’ll still make the time to dig in and care for ourselves and our businesses and each other. And it’ll make all the difference in preparing for Q4 and beyond!
Are you a grownup who still gets excited for back-to-school season?
What are you doing to take advantage of the rest of this year?
Did I post about time flying by and feeling untethered last time?
That has only gotten worse, of course, with continued physical distancing requirements and recommendations to stay home as much as possible . . . and then my unexpected positive test result for the COVID-19 virus itself in late July. (I’m doing OK, just more tired than usual and now extra diligent about my mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing efforts.)
Anxiety and fatigue have made for a roller coaster of emotions, not to mention the effect they have on keeping track of time. Which is why my monthly reading blog post went unwritten in May . . . and in June . . . and in July. You don’t mind too much, do you?
“Present, Centered, and Available for Life” seems like an excellent aspiration, particularly this year. I very much appreciated Felder’s stress-management practices, which are rooted in both spirituality and psychology.
I’ve never really been drawn to video games, but this was a fun and fascinating look at the typography used by popular and niche games alike (and how limited it was by the pixels available in early game design).
Irby’s essays have delighted me before and this collection was no different. Awkward, relatable, and hilarious. I read this one in paperback, but her audiobooks (narrated by the author herself) are a great choice too.
My husband gave this to me as an anniversary gift and I quickly read it cover to cover! The strips are irreverent and witty, and there’s also an adorable children’s book (Nancy’s Genius Plan)by the same writer/illustrator that we gifted to our nieces and nephew.
I was introduced to Toll’s work at a (virtual) conference in the spring and I am smitten with her beautiful books on paying attention to the natural world around us—and how certain herbs, fruits, and flowers can help us access our intuition. Also includes oracle cards!
I distinctly remember a copy of this book floating around our childhood home—and that it was one of my sister’s very favorites. I don’t think I ever read it myself and was glad to check out this Cinderella tale.
I loved this one just as much as the Herbiary. Toll profiles 36 powerful animals and shares rituals, readings, and reflections to access their special energies. I cannot wait for her third installation, The Illustrated Crystallary,to come out next month!
I joined the Fantastic Strangelings Book Club (out of Jenny Lawson’s Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio) a couple months back and this has been one of my favorites. It’s sort of a Gen X retelling of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s classic mystery.
Before the pandemic lockdown, I’d read another book—that I’ve since forgotten—that mentioned these incredible quilts and I quickly requested it from my library. Once the libraries opened back up, this one became available and it was a great little surprise to read.
I was surprised to find that Lane is actually from St. Louis, not far from my own home in Kansas City, and shares many of his backpacking experiences in the Ozark and Mark Twain National Forest wilderness.
A clever novel styled as a catalog for an Ikea-like furniture store, Horrorstör tells the story of three employees working a special night shift to investigate strange goings-on before management finds out.
One of my new hobbies is trying to keep some plants alive. (I confess that I’ve managed to kill several basil plants and more than one aloe plant.) This was a great place to start and gave me the confidence to actually go to a local nursery and pick out a few new friends!
Watching any facet of American politics today feels terribly, terribly depressing. This look at Millennials in political office certainly doesn’t portray a Utopian future, but it does make me feel a little more hopeful about the years ahead.
To say that this year has been tough is not new or unique, but it sure is true.
I know I’m not alone in struggling with the fear of the pandemic, with the heartbreak of racism, with the weight of work, with the deterioration of mental health. The last time I posted something here, it was tips on maintaining productivity and a little sanity while working from home. It felt like an upbeat cheer for finding success in the midst of a strange time.
But, Reader, that already seems like a very long time ago. Today, I’m just trying to take it day by day without losing my ever-loving mind.
One day at a time
During a recent Zoom call with a business mastermind group, I confessed that I’m still learning—two years after leaving corporate life—to let routines go when they’re no longer serving me. There are days when a checklist from “make coffee” all the way through to “evening gratitude journal” is what I need to feel grounded and productive. But there are also days that seem to require both a long morning hike and an afternoon nap to keep me feeling like a competent human being.
I’m realizing they can both be right. Today can be whatever I need it to be.
With unending uncertainty about the future and so many of my pre-pandemic self-care tricks (impromptu lunch with my sister, book club in a friend’s living room, dinner and drinks with my parents, a weeknight movie) off the table . . . It’s okay to take each day as it comes, doing what I need to feel like the best possible version of myself before I see another headline that makes me want to punch a wall or find another canceled vacation that’s still showing up on my calendar.
Protecting what’s most valuable
That means some days I log nine or ten hours at my desk, and some days I only check my email to make sure I haven’t missed anything urgent and then take myself for a long walk.
And—maybe most importantly—I’m learning to count both those days as wins. I’m trying not to worry about the things I’ve left undone while I’m on a trail or enjoying a novel. My mental health is just as valuable as any item on my to-do list, and not just because it’s a means to staying productive the rest of the time.
What good is it to make it through 2020 if I end the year feeling completely burned out or hollowed out?
I’d love to hear from you! How are you holding up? What is helping you survive (or thrive!) during this strange and difficult year?