Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in writing tips (37)


You Don't Have to Keep a Journal!

You don't have to keep a journal.

You don't have to write "morning pages."

You don't have to fill a notebook in a month.

If these things don't support your writing life, you don't have to do them.

How would it feel to let go of these things?

* * *

During a coaching call on Skype this week, a writer told me that after she finishes writing in her journal for the day, she often has little energy or interest left over to work on her fiction.

I asked her if she likes to write in her journal. I saw a look of puzzlement come over her face. "That's a good question," she said slowly. She thought about it for a moment and then admitted that no, she doesn't really love writing in her journal.

"So, what if you just stopped?" I asked her. "What if you just let that go?"

A different kind of puzzlement came over her face. This was the kind of puzzlement mixed with hope and possibility, the kind that says, Really? I could do that?!

Yes! You could do that.

When your creative practice becomes a prison, it's time to rethink your creative rhythms.

{click to Tweet}

You can let go of the "must-haves" and "should-dos" of being a writer if they don't support and nourish your writing life.

You can let go of the myth of the "real writer."

This is a theme that comes up again and again with my students and my coaching clients. Your writing life and practices don't have to look like anyone else's. Creating a vibrant writing life means figuring out what works and letting go of the rest.

Personally, writing in a journal is sometimes good for my writing life, and sometimes not. It often serves as a way for me to quiet my monkey mind, as a place to dump my fears and worries, or as a practice to check-in with myself and reconnect with what I want to create. But at other times, it ends up taking the place of the writing I really want to be doing that day, and I end up feeling just like my client does: too drained to write anything else. 

Sometimes journaling enables me to write more, and sometimes it gets in the way of my writing.

My responsibility is to figure out what I need on any given day to best support my writing life (and all the parts of my life). Maybe I need to journal. Maybe I need to work on my book. Maybe I need to blog. Maybe I need to do all of those. Or maybe I need to go for a walk and let my mind meander. 

No creative practice is necessarily good or bad on its own. There's not a right way and a wrong way to create. As writers and artists, we need to build lives that support and inspire our work.

Go ahead: Do what works. Let the rest go. Get out of jail free.

The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices
(online class, with ebook & community)
Next session: June 30 - July 25, 2014

In this online class you'll discover and embrace YOUR creative process. Find out what works for you and your writing. Unravel the misconceptions and myths of what being a "Real Writer" looks like. Figure out what it will take for you to write more. (And have a lot more fun while writing!) Registration is open.




How to be alone with your writing (#1)


How to be alone with your writing, a non-comprehensive, ever-growing list.

(I expect to post new additions to this list from time to time. Feel free to add your tips in the comments.)

Turn off distractions.

Put your cell phone on "silent." Then turn it face down so you don't see it light up with new text messages. Finally, stick the damn thing in a drawer and do your best to forget about it. It might take some practice, but eventually you'll untether yourself from that slim electronic brick of light and mayhem. You may even begin to leave the room or the building without it from time to time.

Let yourself wonder.

When the urge hits to check social media and email, or to conduct random Google searches for things you must know RIGHT THIS MINUTE, turn off you computer's WiFi. Do it. Facts and news and updates can wait. Let yourself wonder a little longer. Let your mind wander a little further on the page. Sit in the questions; they make for the best writing.

Make friends with your fear.

Afraid you won't be able to write anything good? Afraid you won't be able to write anything at all? That's okay. Shake hands with your fear, pour it a metaphorical cup of hot tea (spiked with whiskey if necessary), and tell it that you've got this. You do. Fear can chill out. You will be fine.

Acknowledge -- and then ignore -- any urges to flee the scene.

Is the laundry calling your name? Are you overwhelmed by an intense desire to weed the garden? Do your toenails need clipping or painting? Fair enough, but your dirty gutchies, the weeds, and your ten little piggies can all wait. Your job right now is to sit and write. Do your job.

Reframe to privilege and joy.

Do you have to write or do you get to write? Maybe it's both. If you can string words together in the service of art, beauty, meaning, connection, or whatever else matters to you, this is a privilege. You might not feel joyful in the moments when writing is difficult, but you can always be looking toward joy in the work. Reframe your mindset to the privilege and joy it is to make stories.

Stay seated. Stand up. Stretch. Sit back down. Write.

Repeat as necessary.


The Myth of the Real Writer Persists

[This is Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here.]

I used to think I couldn't be a real writer. I had all sorts of myths about "Real Writers" and what they do or don't do. Even after discovering that this Myth of the "Real Writer" was just that -- a myth -- I continue to fall for it from time to time.

In fact, it tripped me up again just this week.

A few days ago, while at a coffee shop talking to my husband and a local writer-friend, I lamented my lack of a regular writing schedule. My husband, ever the practical solutionist (is that  word? it should be!), said, "Maybe you could set aside 10-2 every day for writing."

I looked at him sideways and said, "I guess so...." What I was really thinking was: "There's no way I could write that early in the day!"

My husband, who knows me well enough to know exactly what I was pushing back against, said, "Now, would you choose 10am to 2pm, or 10pm to 2am?"

"10pm to 2am!" I said.

Of course! I had a choice! So why had I interpreted his suggestion to mean 10:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon?

In my version of the Myth of the Real Writer, that writer is also a Very Productive Person who is an Early Riser. I, on the other hand, work best at night. I like the quiet, the dark, the calm of nighttime. Many writers do love to work in the morning, some even in the pre-dawn hours. They like the same things I do --  the quiet, the dark, the calm; they just like them first thing in the morning instead of last thing of at night.

Our go-getter American culture looks proudly on these early risers. We think of them as Industrious and Disciplined. They're the Early Birds getting that worm! They Rise! They Shine! But what about us shady Night Owls who prefer dusk to dawn? Our cultural connotations for staying up late aren't quite so shiny and praiseworthy. The night is still associated with Wildness and Debauchery in our subconscious minds. (Though if you think about it, a certain kind of wildness is good for writing.) Plus, if you stay up late, you might also sleep late, and sleeping late is considered a sign of laziness in our broader culture (even if the nightowl in question is still getting just an average night's sleep). Hence, even I, an Unapologetic Night Owl who can also be a Very Productive Person, often find myself worrying that I'm Lazy and Stupid because I need a slow start in the late morning.

But being different doesn't mean I'm wrong. Staying up late doesn't make me lazy or stupid or crazy or any other negative adjective that might come to mind. My natural rhythms are just as valid as anyone else's. My creative process, including the time of day when I do my best work, doesn't dictate my self-worth as a writer. When I understand -- and accept -- my unique creative process, I can create a more sustainable writing practice.

Of course, there were some other issues in my husband's suggestion that I pushed back against.

Can I set aside four hours every single day to write? Probably not. For one thing, I know that I can't write every single day without a day off. (Cue the Myth that Real Writers write every day.)

For another thing, four hours is a big chunk of time. (Myth: Real Writers write for hours on end.)

 Some days I don't have that much time to write. And on the days that I do, the idea of having to write for that long overwhelms and intimidates me. (Myth: Real Writers never fear the blank page.)

And feeling overwhelmed makes me avoid writing. (Myth: Real Writers never procrastinate.)

I do much better if I commit to writing in shorter chunks of time, with the option to keep going if I want.

It doesn't matter what time of day I write or how much I write in one session. None of these things make me a "Real Writer." What matters is that I find a way to write that works for me.

What makes me a "Real Writer" is being committed to the art and craft of writing and finding ways to implement a sustainable writing practice.

It's also good to remember that this practice won't always look the same way. When I was at Vermont Studio Center in January for a month-long writing residency, my most productive time of day was actually in the late afternoon, which was surprising and new for me. Other things about my process have changed with time, too. For example, I used to be able to listen to music when I write, but now I need silence. Maybe this will change again someday. The point is that I've learned to pay attention to what I need. I've learned to work with -- instead of against -- my natural rhythms.

It's a lesson I have to keep learning again and again, but the more I pay attention, the less steep the learning curve is each time.


Want to break free from your own Myth of the Real Writer?

Join The Word Cellar Writers Guild, an online community and resource center for writers. 

We have a library of writing modules (like self-paced e-courses) that focus on elements of craft and issues of the writing life, all to help you become the writer you long to be.  


You Gotta Roller Derby That Shit! (Or, The Magic of Practice)

By the age of 36, I was used to doing things that I already knew I was fairly good at. It's not that I intentionally avoided new experiences or didn't want to learn new skills, but I had a pretty solid idea of where my natural talents and interests resided, and I tended to stick to those neighborhoods, which were populated with things like reading, writing, storytelling, teaching, and cooking.

Then I entered the world of Roller Derby and hot damn, this was a new part of town! I've written before about how I'd never played a sport, how I didn't like to sweat, and how I hadn't roller skated for two decades. Beyond the physical challenges, playing derby has meant some huge shifts in my mindset and perceptions of myself and what's possible.

One of those realizations has become my new mantra: You gotta roller derby that shit!

Let me explain.

Logic and experience tell me that the more I do something, the more I'll learn about it and the easier it will become. Although I knew this theory should apply to roller derby, I secretly doubted that it would hold. Every time I bemoaned my lack of skill and my slow progress, my husband, who grew up playing sports, told me that if I continued to go to practice and work at it, my skills would improve. My rational brain knew this made sense, but I just wasn't buying it. I worried that I was hopeless.

Still, I kept showing up. And then there was that one time near the end of last season when I finally had so much fun that I forgot to be afraid. This season started off better than I'd anticipated, and I could finally see that I was improving. Even my league mates commented on my progress. I felt proud, but I worried that it might be a fluke of some sort. But week after week I felt stronger, more in control, and more at home in this once-foreign neighborhood. Finally I had a realization...

Holy roller skates, it's true!

If you keep practicing -- even when you don't see immediate results, even after you've had to take time off for an injury, even when you have to leave practice and cry in the bathroom for a little while because your internal monologue won't shut the hell up with phrases like "You don't belong here!" -- if you keep showing up and doing the drills and trying the things you suck at until you suck less at them,  eventually you'll make progress.

We all practice. Pianists play scales. Actors rehearse lines. Writers string together a lot of words that don't end up in the final draft. Chefs perfect techniques and dishes through repetition and tweaking. And athletes do drills and go to practice.

Of course, innate talent can make the going easier. But it can also get in the way. I seem to have little innate athletic talent, so I know I have to work hard to be fair to middling. On the other hand, I know I have innate talent as a writer, which means I don't always work at it as diligently as I should. It's easy to let myself skate by on my "good enough" setting when it comes to writing, because my "good enough" comes easier than some other people's "fair to middling" setting.

But good enough isn't great. And I no longer believe that you have to be born with the most talent to become great. I think it helps, but only if you decide to keep showing up and working at it. In other words, you gotta roller derby that shit.

I don't really expect to ever be great at derby, and I'm okay with that. I just want to be as good as I can be , and if that's just "good enough," that'll be great.

But I do want to be great at writing. And in order to do that, I need to show up and put in more work more often. I need to roller derby that shit.

This means sitting down to write at set times even if I don't feel like it, just as I go to derby practice at specific times each week, whether or not I feel like it that day. This means writing the same essay again and again, the way I keep practicing my turnaround toestops over and over. This means acknowledging the inner voice that whispers "What if this is as good as you'll ever be?", and then turning away from that voice and trusting in the magic of practice.

I've worked as a freelance writer and editor for more than nine years now. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. I've seen my words in print online and on the page. And yet I know I have miles to go in deepening my craft and honing my skills. I go through serious bouts of worry that I'm as a good of a writer now as I can possibly be, even though logic and reason tell me that this isn't true. What if I'm never any better than this? What if this is as good as I get -- and it's not great?

Yeah, what if? But what else is there to do about it but to "roller derby" the hell out of it, and trust the process?


What to do When Your Own Writing Bores You

The whip-dash-sizzle of a new story idea. Don't you love it? You scribble down a note to yourself, tuck away an image or a few words to explore later. You practically buzz with the wonder and promise of this new thing you'll create, and you can't wait to get to the page to get it down in all its glory.

You write a paragraph or a page or five pages into it, and then the whip-dash-sizzle goes...fizzle.

You've lost the thread, lost the magic, lost the spark. You can't make sense of the story. The metaphor that was so poignant now seems ridiculous, or worse -- clichéd.

You reread what you wrote, hoping to find your way back to the excitement.

But the story -- your story -- feels stale. The writing is flat. Your own words bore you.

What now?

It's a good question, and one I've been thinking about it for about a month, ever since a student in the last session of Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing asked me this:

I was working on a piece and started having trouble staying engaged enough. Do you have any suggestions on finding topics that have more connection? Maybe it's just me lacking passion, or finding the best way to tell this story? It can't be a good sign: If the writer loses interest in the story, it will never make it to a reader.

This is an issue I struggle with a lot. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'll avoid writing. I hate not being able to translate the awesome story in my head into words that retain heat. It's frustrating and baffling when it happens, but it's happened often enough now that I have a list of techniques to use to face it.

(A practical note: I mostly write essays, which fall into the genre of creative nonfiction. I tend to use the terms "story" and "essay" interchangeably, even though fiction writers might want to cut out my tongue for doing so. My essays aren't always even all that narrative in form since I write a lot of meditative and lyrical stuff, which further disqualifies them for the technical term "story," but I don't care. I'm using the term in a broad sense to encompass all kinds of creative writing -- nonfiction, fiction, and poetry alike.)

Here are some things I do when my own writing is boring me to tears.

Write something else. If one story is giving me fits, and another catches my fancy, I'll follow that energy. The path of least resistance isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I truly care about the first story, I'll come back to it later. (If-you-love-something-set-it-free and all that.) There's a time for perseverece (see below). But there's also a time to jump ship for awhile.

Gorge the page with details. Sometimes when I'm writing about a personal experience, all the details of that experience clamor to be told. I can't filter out what's important and what's not. I end up getting in my own way by trying to pin every single bloody detail onto the page. I get so bogged down in details, chronology, and the facts of what happened that I can't see past all this to story's shape or meaning. A personal essay or memoir isn't a journalistic report; not all of the details belong in the narrative. But sometimes I need to get a journalistic account down on paper so the details can live somewhere outside of my head. So I gorge the page with all those details, which eventually frees me up to think artistically about what's essential to the story I want to tell.

Purge the details. If I've done the step above and gorged the page with details, it's time to purge. If I've already tried to trim the fat and the writing still feels boring and flabby, I may have kept too many (or the wrong) details. I'm always tempted to put everything into my stories. Even thought I know better, I'm convinced I can make them all work. But I often find that I have to strip out juicy bits that were fun/cool/interesting to me, because they just don't work with the core of the story on the page.

Binge on details. Three points in a row about details? Well, you know they say that the devil's in them, and it's true. Sometimes my problem isn't that my mind or the page are too cluttered with details. Sometimes my writing lacks vivacity because there are no concrete, sensuous details to hold anyone's attention. My first drafts are often full of cerebral ideas and philosophies that need to be enlivened with the physical world and the five senses. I look for places where I can incorporate colors, textures, sounds, scents, and tastes. Instead of "flowers" I need to say "purple crocus." Instead of vague statements I need to drill down to specific examples and inventive metaphors. If the writing feels sterile, I pile on descriptions and details. I can always go back and purge later. 

Write fast and sloppy. Another thing I try when I'm feeling stuck in the boring muck of an event is to write really fast and without much context. This is kind of the opposite of gorging the page with journalistic details and facts. Instead of trying to capture every last bit of "what happened," I say "explanation be damned!" and let my mind make as many weird leaps and bounds from one thing to the next as it wants. The power of essays (stories, poems, etc.) often comes from these interesting leaps and unexpected connections. My goal with doing this fast and sloppy free-writing is to bypass mental blocks  and common sense to get my pure internal experience onto the page. The initial outcome usually won't make a lot of sense to another reader, but it can help me to find the more interesting bits to explore.

Prompt yourself toward meaning. Sometimes my stories fall flat because I have no imagination or sense of mystery about what happened. The result is a shallow essay that lacks meaning. One way to go spelunking for meaning and mystery is to use the prompt "I wonder..." or "What I don't know is..." I can use those phrases as starting points and let my mind roam freely. This can help me to identify rabbit holes of potential meaning.

Accept the fact of shitty first drafts. A lot of my first drafts are painfully boring. A lot of my second drafts aren't much better. Hell, the third draft might still be fair-to-middling. That's fine. No worries! First (and second, etc.) drafts aren't meant to be finished works. They are works in progress, and even really good writers start slow and clunky a lot of the time. I remind myself to accept this as part of the process. Acknowledge, move on.

Don't despair. Persevere. It's best to combine this technique with accepting the fact of shitty first drafts. I accept it and I keep on keepin' on. Sometimes I have to write and rewrite something many times before it goes somewhere as interesting as I knew it could. Sometimes I have to start something and step away from it for a few days (or weeks, months, even years!) before I'm ready to come back and find the heart of it. I'm working on an essay right now that I've been trying to write since last year. It's giving me a really hard time, but I know that the elements are interesting, and I know there's a good story in it. I just haven't figured out how to put it together in a worthy way yet. But I keep coming back to it every few months.

Write someone a letter. Instead of thinking, "Now I'm writing an essay," sometimes I pretend I'm just writing a letter to someone, telling them this interesting story. This eases some of the pressure to be "creative" and helps to infuse some life into the words. An alternate version of this is to use the prompt "What I really want to say is...." Filling in that blank often leads me to the heart of the story.

** ** **
I've never given up completely on one of my stories, no matter how surly it's being. I figure that even if I'm not able to make it come alilve now, eventually, with practice, I'll be able to do it justice. I think sometimes we uncover story ideas that we're just not ready to write. But I believe that if we're loyal to them and diligent about pursuing our craft, they'll wait for us to catch up.