The Olympic Games Blues: 9 Ways to Juice Up Your Writing Life

Building with glass dome with gold figure on top
The local name for this building is Zitronenpresse or the “lemon juicer.” What do you do when your writing life is squeezed dry? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When my older brother and I were 8 or 10 or 12 years old, Mom would turn off the Olympic Games because we got so down in the dumps about how little we had achieved in our lives.

These days, it’s even easier to see what everyone else is achieving. Don’t misunderstand: I love to see writer friends achieve challenging milestones! It gives me hope that it can be done.

Over time, I’ve collected a lot of friends who write and publish, so there are more and more milestones to celebrate. This is wonderful! It’s thrilling to see hard work rewarded and see good work in the hands of readers who enjoy it.

The problem comes when I look at my current projects and measure them against the goalposts of all my writer friends simultaneously.

I start wondering if my pumpkins will EVER bloom into coaches and drive away to the palace. It’s a kind of ambition sickness that makes me dissatisfied with my work and leaves me hopelessly unproductive.

So, what’s to do? How do you cure the Olympic Games Blues? Here are some questions that help me. Maybe you’d like to try them:

  1. Am I writing regularly? When I see a bit of progress* in my creative work, I feel much happier about my projects. If it isn’t possible to write a LOT, make time to write a LITTLE, regularly. A bit of scribbling in a notebook scares away the imposter syndrome.
    *progress by any measure: word count, improved scene, dialogue, or understanding of character motivation etc.
  2. What creative work have I done this year? When I feel like I’m getting nowhere, it helps to widen the window. Bill Gates widens it even more: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
  3. What have I learned about writing recently? I don’t mean information about writing or publishing. I mean what have I experienced about writing or tested out in publishing. (Show Don’t Tell applies to more than the written page.)
  4. Am I taking risks in my writing and publishing? Risks can be queries, contests, workshops, whatever. Risks are scary to the lizard brain, but they fill the creative brain with hope. Something is about to happen!
  5. Whose work inspires me right now? Reading reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place. It also makes me happy and happiness makes the creativity flow. Reading books I love gives me the experience I want to give readers. That experience gives me ideas of things I want to try in my own writing.
  6. What’s the very next step? I had an advisor in graduate school who helped me so much during my dissertation research. He took time to meet with me, listened to what I was working on, and asked, “What’s next?” This question works wonders because it’s easy to get behind when you get ahead of yourself.
  7. Do something else. The elusive joy of writing sometimes shakes loose after we play hard to get for a while. Try gardening, long hikes, cooking, or whatever hits your reset button.
  8. Broaden your gaze. Put your work in perspective. Get involved in a charity auction, visit a prison and do a workshop on writing, or do an open mike with a girl scout troop. Figure out how your work can give something to others in another way. Take the pressure off the words.
  9. Lose a rule. What are you telling yourself about writing and publishing that might not be true? Try dropping a writing “rule” and see what happens.

Ambition puts the focus on an inflexible, predetermined, and probably inaccurate future. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ambition is called a “grievous fault” and is connected with greed for power. Ambition is an attempt to steal the future.

Creativity happens in the present. It solves problems playfully, without worrying about the Olympic Gold. Persistence puts the focus on the creative work and not on the uncontrollable outcome.

What helps you when the bar seems too high? Feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to know what you do to get your writing life back on track.

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The Joy of Exploring Your Writing Territory

Black peppermill like machine with sliders around the body and a crank on top
The first hand-held calculator was invented “after hours” in Buchenwald concentration camp by Curt Herzstark. If creativity kept him going there, what’s my excuse? Image: Arithmeum, Bonn.

I’ve been reading Susan Kaye Quinn‘s Indie Author Survival Guide (Second Edition) Crafting a Self-Publishing Career Book 1). In spite of the title, the book covers topics that are also interesting to traditional novelists. All writers struggle with figuring out a target audience, creative freedom, and how to keep from “stopping too soon.”

Susan Kaye Quinn highlights an especially intriguing idea about how to escape comparisonitis from Steven Pressfield:

There are many nuggets of inspiration in War of Art by Steven Pressfield (I highly recommend it), but I’m going to highlight the section where Pressfield describes dealing with writerly competition in Territory vs. Hierarchy (I’m paraphrasing):

We (as humans and writers) define our place in the world either by Hierarchy (a social pecking order) or by Territory (a turf or domain). For the artist/writer, Hierarchy is that destructive urge to compete against others, to evaluate our success by our rank within the hierarchy of writers, and to write based on the effect it produces on the hierarchy. Pressfield insists the writer must operate territorially: to do work for its own sake, inwardly focused. Territorial work provides sustenance—the writer puts work in and receives back well-being; similarly the territory of our creations can only be claimed by the work we put into it. The artist who commands their domain is satisfied by the creation itself; the work is its own reward.

This goes beyond the “work is its own reward” trope. Staying focused on working territorially keeps the debilitating effects of hierarchical thinking from beating you down.

The Arithmeum museum in Bonn has the world’s largest collection of “calculating machines” which honestly sounded a bit boring until I went on a tour there last week. Inventing a machine that could carry over to the next place (from 9 to 10 or from 999 to 1,000) is a work of the imagination.

Our mathematician and tour guide demonstrated a beautiful, grandfather clock-like calculator whose inventor, Poleni. It made a lovely ratcheting sound while it added up numbers. Unfortunately, Poleni committed suicide after a contemporary’s calculator achieved the next coveted milestone.

This second calculator apparently didn’t work reliably but was a great prestige object for the Viennese Emperor. Even in mathematics, there are many milestones and many ways to solve the same problem. To me, Poleni’s story looks like a classic case of stopping too soon.

Fiction has easily as much inventive territory to explore. We’ll never get through the possibilities of plot, narration, characterization, dialogue, structure, imagery, language, rhythm, or metaphor in our lifetimes.

There’s so much to discover. Let’s encourage each other to keep on keeping on.

Happy Writing!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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What Do You Do for Fifteen Minutes a Day?

Diagonal beams of sunlight pierce a shady deciduous forest. Germany 2016.
A few moments of light change the whole forest. Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When we’re overcome by life and can’t get to the things and the people that matter to us, we get frustrated. How often do we think it’s all or nothing?

Do you ever think. . .

. . .If we don’t have a 3-hour block, it’s not worth getting started.

. . .If I can’t get away for a weekend-long retreat, I might give up on this hobby.

. . .If we can’t go for a real hike, there’s no point.

Or my favorite nostalgic worries when my brother and I watched the Olympics as 10-/11-year-old kids:

. . .We’re too old. All the champions started much younger.

Of course, there’s value in 3-hour blocks, weekend-long retreats, hiking the Long Trail, and pursuing interests you’ve had since you were a kid.

But sometimes our dream is so overwhelming, we don’t feel like it anymore. That’s when the “give-it-fifteen-minutes” way can bring joy into our lives.

Other things we do have natural limits and use rules of thumb. (RULE OF THUMBS would be such a lovely spoof on GAME OF THRONES, but I digress.)

. . .My eldest visited us recently from Italy and taught me how much pasta to cook. “100 g per person, but I like 200g.”

. . .My husband gave a slide show last night. “200 slides is the right number.”

. . .The Centers for Disease Control recommends 5- 30 minute episodes of exercise a week. But I took a brisk walk at lunch with a Health Department colleague who was participating in a study on physical activity. She said, “10 minutes counts.” In other words, ten minutes is enough to get the metabolism going, to get the engine started.

. . .Recovering from a hospital stay a few years ago, I complained that I wouldn’t get to my vegetable garden at all that year. My husband helped me outside, put a basil plant next to me, handed me a trowel, and let me transplant it. When your hands do something, your mind believes it.

. . .It’s not hard to write 1,000 words in a week. 1,000 words a week is 52,000 words. A middle grade novel. 1,000 words a week-day is 260,000 words. Two adult novels.

Fifteen minutes a day feels amateurish, meaningless, and unimportant, but it’s how you get your life back. When you do something for fifteen minutes, your subconscious believes you mean it. The internal editor stops talking about imposters. It’s a chance to be playful, because everyone knows you can’t do anything real in that time.

What do you want more of in your life?

Do you do ever use short blocks of time for it?

How does it work for you?

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Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

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Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Exploring: 9 Ideas For Reluctant Adventurers

Canal with houses on one side and bridge coming up in Leiden, The Netherlands
View from our boat tour in Leiden, The Netherlands

Sometimes we imprison ourselves in a little bubble and no one can reach us. When we’ve made up our minds about what something will be like, there’s no more room to see what it might be like.

A few weeks ago, I went for a hike with friends. One child in our group really, really didn’t want to come on a hike, but she enjoyed the castle ruin the more than anyone else in the group.

I’ve had similar experiences with children who didn’t want to go to a garage sale or thrift store and then found the treasure of their hearts.

Why are we (or our reluctant children) rewarded when we have a change of heart?

Is it because the decision to take part requires a change in perspective, an opening up, a willingness to engage? Sometimes we are ready to do this.

When I went to Germany for a year as an exchange student, I had studied German for years and had missed a previous opportunity. I was well prepared and eager and had a wonderful year in Marburg. Later on, I went to West Africa and wasn’t prepared. I had to work much harder to arrive. Most of the year was spent trying to catch up.

Sometimes we need help with the wanting. We don’t feel ready. We resist with all our strength. What cracks things open?

9 Ideas for Overcoming Reluctance

1. Make a wish. If you don’t want to do the work, go on the journey, visit the relatives, or take the hike, you can say to yourself:

“I WISH I wanted to do the work, go on the journey, etc.”

For some reason, this tricks the brain gently down the stream from wishing to “wanting.”

I’m stealing from someone’s work here, because I remember reading this [Brainpickings? The Sparring Mind?], but I don’t know where I read it. If you know, please let me know in the comments.

2. Security blanket. Give yourself an out. If you don’t like it, you can just go home. If you get tired, you can go to bed, read a book, take a nap. If you get hungry, you can have a snack. If this draft doesn’t work, you can delete it.

3. Look after the heart. What possible rewards could you promise yourself that fit with this particular adventure? How might this adventure help you do something that matters? I’m thinking of favorite activities or personal values. Can you play trumpet with Opa or rediscover your spouse? What kind of emotional “treat” can you build in?

4. Get ready. Put your open suitcase in a convenient place and drop things in as they come to you. Hang up a sketch of your plot line in the hallway and add ideas as you walk by.

Before I went to West Africa for a year, my mom helped me sew a “floor” onto my mosquito net “tent” so I could sleep securely.

Is there a symbolic object that makes you feel ready in a hurry? Phone? Water bottle? Daypack? Special pen? Book or magazine to read?

5. Get an observation tool. Something to help you see or hear can make it easier to slow down and experience the adventure. Camera? Sketchbook? Audio/video?

6. Get a new narrative. What do you tell yourself when you set out for adventure?

“It will be interesting to see what this is like.”

“We’re going exploring.”

“I’m sketching out a story, a character, a dialogue snippet.”

“I’m a pirate.”

Or ask others an interesting question: “What is your favorite memory from your childhood?”

7. Gain a new skill. Get help from others before you go.

My daughter’s school provided a “bike whisperer” to help kids lose the training wheels before a class bike trip.

Try an Italian phrasebook or a new method for drafting a story. Relax a rule for the journey or follow a rule you have previously ignored.

8. Embrace weakness. Remember basic needs for food, water, rest, exercise, reading, bathroom breaks, quiet and social time. Give yourselves credit for being on the adventure.

9. Most of all, watch for the unexpected reward. Start enjoying now. What is good about this situation?

A bee stung my daughter’s foot the day before a family trip to Leiden in The Netherlands. She couldn’t walk far with her swollen foot, so we took a boat tour of the canals that was the highlight of our trip. The Dutch apothecary also gave us a tip for a wonderful (and hidden) place for breakfast overlooking the city.

Bonus: I find the Bible useful for understanding my life and the world we live in. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip this paragraph.

The day after our hike, this Bible verse showed up in my calendar:

“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” —Phil 2:13+14

This verse resonated with me because grumbling or disputing is inevitable when one person doesn’t want to come along. The German is closer to what I’m thinking about here:

“Gott ist’s, der in euch wirkt beides, das Wollen und das Vollbringen, nach seinem Wohlgefallen.”

In English, this means: God helps us to “want” and to do the work tied to the “want” to bring that “want” to fruition. To me this means I can call on God for help when I want to want the adventure, but can’t manage it on my own.

What works for you? How do you help yourself and other reluctant adventurers arrive? Have you ever overcome reluctance and found an unexpected reward?