How to Measure Your 2013 Successes so as to have a Happier, More Productive 2014 (Part I)

As you evaluate your progress over the past year--or as your family attempts to evaluates it for you--one thing to keep in mind is that perfectionism often confuses success with failure. It basically recognizes just one kind of success, where you: (a) finish a monumental project, (b) do a spectacular job at it, and (c) win abundant praise and material rewards for it. Everything else is either (at best) not worth noting, or (at worst) a heinous failure. However, there are many more types of success, including: When you start a new project When you restart a lapsed project When you make progress on a project Most of our successes are, in fact, these kinds of "process successes." They can seem small or even trivial, especially when compared with the monumental successes we all hope for: that's okay, because when you look at your work through a process lens it becomes clear that there really is no such thing as a big success: only strings of tiny ones. Tolstoy didn't write War and Peace: he … [Read more...]

Why, in Writing, Process Trumps Product, And Why You Shouldn’t Worry About The Quality of Your Work

Everyone's obsessed with quality, but the way to achieve it is not to focus on it. That's because: 1) Quality is an Emergent Property An emergent property is one that's intrinsic to a system, and that arises organically as that system operates. Think of relationships: if you try to force them, they wither and die. The best relationships are not forced, but arise naturally as the yield of many interactions. Quality in writing and other work similarly occurs organically via an effective process, through your numerous interactions with your subject matter. It's the result of your years or decades of preparation--your reading, writing, training, life lessons, etc. In other words, your ability to write well is "part of your DNA." You don't have to force it. And, in fact, you shouldn't force it because... 2) Striving for Quality is Inimical to the Creative Process If you focus on achieving a quality outcome, you'll likely either: (a) Succumb to perfectionist terror and get stuck midway through; or (b) … [Read more...]

Are You Waiting for Ideal Conditions to Start Your Project?

Recently, someone mentioned she was waiting to clear “a big chunk of time” before starting a project. Other things people wait for are: The kids to be in school (or out of the house entirely). A better work space (either at home or elsewhere). More money. Retirement. ”To do more research.” While there is often some logic to waiting, it's usually better just to get started. For one thing, the impulse to wait is usually partly a response to perfectionist fears of failure, success, and showing the work. (And, often, no matter how well rationalized, it's entirely a response to perfectionism.) So don't wait: do your work in short intervals — even five or ten minutes at a time, if that's all you have. (Here's the technique.) You'll not only vanquish any perfectionist fears, but transform your work from a cold theoretical endeavor into a warm, living project that you'll be inspired to continue working on. In fact, people who do this often discover that, while they might like the extra time, … [Read more...]

I Bought the World’s Best Coffee Mug at Goodwill Recently, and The Best Part is…

              no matter what J says to me, I can respond simply by pointing at it. … [Read more...]

Want to Get More Work Done? Then Show it Early and Often

There are many techniques that will help you boost your writing output, but one of the best is to show your work early and often: Show drafts. Show chunks (paragraphs and pages). And even show individual sentences and clauses. ("Hey, what do you think of this metaphor..." Or, "Super proud of how I framed this...") Show them to: colleagues, bosses, and subordinates. Also, critique buddies, workshoppers, editors, and agents. Also, friends and family members who get what you're doing. And, of course, your audience. Perfectionist writers are terrified of having their work seen and judged, so they keep it private--and, in doing so, create a "wall" between themselves and potential readers and critics. They hide behind that wall, endlessly writing and revising, but never finishing or submitting or publishing. (Sometimes they don't write at all, since that's an even better technique for remaining unseen and unjudged!) The problem is: the more a writer hides, the more terrifying showing his work … [Read more...]

Don’t Forget to Check Out My September Online Classes!

Online courses are convenient, cheap, and fun--and you can be located anywhere! My SavvyAuthors class for graduate students, faculty, and other academic writers starts Monday September 16. I'm offering a discounted class/coaching bundle via famed writing community The Loft. All writers, including creative, business, nonprofit writers, welcome. Take a class now and have a productive fall! … [Read more...]

Why the Middles of Projects are Tough (Part 3): Middles Have Middles!

I previously wrote about how the middles of projects are tough: *They're the place where the work seems to get much tougher right at the same moment that your enthusiasm starts to ebb. *They're a much bigger part of the project than most people realize. (Around 80%!) However, there's another problem with middles: they have middles! Yes, you can have a middle-of-a-middle. Here's how it works: Many endeavors begin with a “honeymoon period” where the work is fresh and new, the possibilities seem endless, and you're filled with energy and enthusiasm. That's the beginning of the project. Alas, like all honeymoons, it too soon comes to an end. Reality sets in, and inevitably disappoints. The work doesn't come together as easily as you had at first imagined, and you become aware that what you write may never live up to your pristine early vision. Your motivation wanes, but you resolve to soldier on. And then, you hit a point where everything seems particularly bleak. I call that the “anti-honeymoon,” … [Read more...]

I’m Offering a Powerful and Economical Online Class/TeleCoaching Bundle at The Loft

Super-thrilled to be teaching an online class at The Loft, one of the world's premier community writing programs, starting September 30. Even more thrilled to be offering a class/coaching bundle. The class will set you up for greater productivity; the 40 minutes of individualized telephone coaching will personalize the class information and help you amplify the result. All students also get a free e-book of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. More info. For more classes (online, Boston, and Hyannis) check out my Events Page. … [Read more...]

Why the Middles of Projects are Tough (Part 2): Plus, How to Have Fun Revising!

Middles are Tough. Last time I wrote about how the middles of writing and other projects can be difficult, citing Dante's Inferno, which begins “midway upon the journey of our life," and John Bunyan's classic The Pilgrim's Progress, in which the protagonist, Christian, literally bogs down midway, in the infamous “Slough of Despond.” Middles are where your enthusiasm ebbs often at the exact moment when the project itself seems most chaotic, disorganized, and daunting. They're a double whammy, in other words. But that's not all... Middles are massive. Anne Lamott famously said, in Bird by Bird, that every piece of writing begins with a “shitty first draft,” but it's probably more like ten, twenty, or thirty shitty drafts. Make sure you understand what a “draft” is, though: *It's a single, quick run-through of your piece (or chapter or other section), during which you correct its obvious and easy problems, and partially correct its hard ones. *You move quickly and lightly through the piece, making … [Read more...]

Last Call: New England

If you've wanted to take my Grub Street Writers class NOW is the time. I am moving to Michigan in September (more on this later!), and August's class will be the last for a while. It will be held August 12-15 (Monday-Thursday), 10:30am-1:30pm at 162 Boylston Street (2 mins from Boylston Street T; discounted parking available). All writers welcome, including creative, business, nonprofit, and academic writers. Sign up now! … [Read more...]

What To Do If You Are Stuck in the Middle of a Project

Middles are tough. It's no accident that Dante began The Inferno, his allegorical journey through Hell, thusly: Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost. Or that Christian, the pilgrim in John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, encounters the bog called the “Slough of Despond” midway along his journey. At Grub Street Writers, where I teach, many writers refer to the “Murky Middles” of writing projects. Dark forests, bogs, murk: you might get the idea that a lot of people find middles not just difficult, but confusing and downright scary. Here's the problem with middles: The piece (or project) is no longer fresh and new and shiny. Your early energy and enthusiasm are waning. At the same time, the piece is at maximum entropy: meaning, what you've done up till now is super chaotic and disorganized. You've also become more aware of the piece's problems. It's not living up to the pristine, Platonic vision that … [Read more...]

Ira Glass on Developing Your Creative Skill: Go for Quantity, Not Quality

The below 2 minute video of Ira Glass explaining how the secret to artistic quality is to do a lot of art is well worth your time. Bayles and Orland make the same point in their terrific book Art & Fear. They tell a (true, I believe) story of two pottery classes: One class was told to create one fabulous pot by the end of the semester. The other was told to create as many pots as possible. In the end, it was the students who created many pots who also tended to create the best ones. This is for at least three reasons: As Glass notes, it takes a lot of time and practice to develop a skill. The "quantity" students were being nonperfectionist - i.e., focusing on process, not product. (It is likely that some of the "quality" ones didn't finish even a single pot.) Quality is not something you can force, and when you try to force it you sabotage the creative process, which demands freedom and flexibility. Rather, quality is something you work towards and hope for. As Flaubert said, "Success … [Read more...]

Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, and Garry Kasparov, on Failure

Meditations on failure, from some leading writers. I like this quote from Margaret Atwood: Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud? Who told us we had to succeed at any cost? And Anne Enright nails it: You must recognise that failure is 90% emotion, 10% self-fulfilling reality, and the fact that we are haunted by it is neither here nor there.The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life and your sleep and the way you speak to the people you love.The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or … [Read more...]

Good Apps for Distraction-Free Writing

Here are ten apps that let you write on a "clean" screen without distracting menus or other junk.   … [Read more...]

Seth Godin and Jennifer Crusie on Artistic Legitimacy

Following onto the post about Amanda Palmer's exhortation to legitimize yourself as an artist, instead of waiting for gatekeepers to do so, here are marketing guru Seth Godin and best-selling romance author Jennifer Crusie on the same topic. First, Godin: No knight, no shining armor "Sure, Seth can do that, because he has a popular blog." Some people responded to my decision to forgo traditional publishers (not traditional books, btw) by pointing out that I can do that because I have a way of reaching readers electronically. What they missed is that this asset is a choice, not an accident. Does your project depend on a miracle, a bolt of lightning, on being chosen by some arbiter of who will succeed? I think your work is too important for you to depend on a lottery ticket. In some ways, this is the work of the Resistance, an insurance policy that gives you deniability if the project doesn't succeed. "Oh, it didn't work because we didn't get featured on that blog, didn't get distribution in … [Read more...]