Race to the finish

On Finishing (and Perfectionism!): A Review of Jon Acuff’s Finish

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of DoneI’ve just finished reading Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done* by Jon Acuff. It’s a delightfully irreverent book packed with useful insights — sometimes counterintuitive — about how and why we stop ourselves from finishing (hint: perfectionism is the root cause).

It’s been a particularly fun read right now for three reasons.

First, I’ve been reading it alongside several of my Circle members and we’ve been discussing it on our online site. I have a feeling we’ll be doing this again. It’s a mini online book club. Yay!

Second, I’m just about to lead the goal setting call for the Deep Dive Writing Intensive I’m running (we start writing next week!) so I’m looking forward to incorporating some of Acuff’s principles into our goal setting work. And since the Deep Dive Writing Intensive is designed to help people finish (or make major progress in that direction), it’s particularly apropos.

Third, I know I’m a recovering perfectionist. Or at least a perfectionist who’s trying to recover. (The first step is admitting you have a problem!) So this book was useful on both professional and personal fronts.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  1. The “day after perfect” is the make-or-break day. Acuff says the “day after perfect” often turns up as soon as day two of pursuing a goal. I see this happening with writers who put in a big burst of enthusiastic writing for their first day out (sometimes later), then crash and burn the next day by going into massive writing aversion and avoidance the next day… which can lead to despair and giving up. I much prefer to see writers pacing themselves for the long haul. Acuff makes the point that we have to focus on “moving forward imperfectly” and “trying again… today, tomorrow, or next week.” I’ve always been a fan of “starting over tomorrow,” whenever I get off track with my goals so I’m right there with him.
  2. There’s a difference between commitments and distractions. Acuff makes a useful distinction between the things we’re committed to doing, like our day jobs and our kids, as our commitments, and things like Netflix — and those side projects you turn to when it’s time to write — as distractions. See how simple that is? I found this useful for reinforcing what I do when I write out my Three Big Rocks list, which is to focus on the key things I want to accomplish for my goals that day. I don’t include my standing commitments (taking care of my kids and exercising, for example), because I think of them as “givens,” but prioritize the three major commitments I’m making for the day.
  3. You can look for your own sweet spot with rewards or penalties (or both) when it comes to goal setting. Acuff says, “make it fun if you want it done,” and recommends establishing a reward or a penalty for your goal. I’m more motivated by rewards than punishment, but his writing had me think more about deciding on really fun rewards, and deciding on them in advance. I’m particularly thinking about how I can do this on the daily and weekly scale (one example he gave was how author Sammy Rhoades would reward himself with a Friday afternoon movie for meeting his writing goals, which sounds right up my alley).
  4. Pay attention to where you “hide” from your goals. Acuff describes both “hiding places” — where we go to avoid our goals — and “noble obstacles” — the clever schemes we design to make it so we can’t possibly focus on our goals because we’re serving some higher purpose. I’ve seen so many writers over the years come up with the most fascinating and suddenly highly important non-writing or OTHER writing projects than they originally come into our programs with. This is really worth paying attention to and short-circuiting.
  5. Put your new idea at the finish line for your current one. If you tend to come up with a new idea that’s much more appealing than your current project the minute you start (in the coaching world, we call these Bright Shiny Objects), Acuff recommends making the new idea the project you “get to” work on when you finish your current one. With writing, I recommend what I call a “Project Queue” (tips on how to do this with writing projects are in my free guide, “How to Choose Your (Next) Book“). The core idea is to promise to work on the new idea next. In a sense it even becomes a reward for getting to the end of the current one. Yay!
  6. Aim a little lower with your goal setting. Acuff recommends cutting our goals in half, either by cutting the quantity or output in two, or by doubling the amount of time we give ourselves. This is because most of us are entirely unrealistic about how we set our goals. I’ve personally been setting fewer and fewer goals over the last few years, after seeing myself being unable to attain the multiple, too-fast-paced goals I was aiming for, and I can see right now from checking my 2018 goals list that I may have a bit more tweaking to do after reading Finish, especially after the hard start to the year I’ve had. 
  7. The “day before done” is another place many of us go astray. I’ve witnessed this in my own writing, suddenly becoming apathetic toward a screenplay, telling myself I’ve just lost interest in the story. Acuff identifies three primary fears triggered by a looming finish, including a fear of what happens next (Amazon reviews!), a fear it won’t be perfect, and a fear of “what now?” The key, he says, is addressing these fears with a combination of trusting yourself to figure it out and being open to seeing what happens.

More my favorites in this book are the “secret rules” we use to sabotage ourselves (“If I lose all this weight, then I’ll have to go dancing/be looked at/feel more vulnerable”), choosing what to “bomb” (where you’re strategically choosing to suck at something in order to prioritize your goal), using data to track your goals and “celebrate your imperfect progress,” and many more.

While there were times I wasn’t 100% sure if I thought Acuff was actually writing about resistance and not so much about perfectionism (which I consider to be a subcategory of resistance), I loved what he shared and he has stirred some useful thinking and insight for all of us who have read it. 

Highly recommended. 

* This is an Amazon affiliate link, which means Called to Write will earn a small commission if you purchase the book after clicking on this link, for which we are greatly appreciative!
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Getting Out of Writing Overwhelm and Into Action

Let’s talk about writing. And overwhelm.

First, a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on high Sierra backpacking trips. They were hard. We’re talking about high-altitude, have to hit 10,000 feet before you get to the lake kind of hard. With backpacks. On super steep trails. In the blazing sun. I was also prone to altitude sickness, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go higher, other than the incredible beauty of the alpine lakes and the satisfaction we had once we reached our destination. 

Which was actually a hell of an incentive. 

Every summer my sister and I would slog up the steep trails, managing the weight of our packs on our sore shoulders, the blisters forming on our feet, the headaches creeping in, the tiredness, and the whininess that would sneak into our voices. My dad always brought up the rear, even though he was the fastest and strongest hiker. 

In every trip, there were always points along the way where I begged to stop. I’d despair that we’d ever get there. My dad was my coach at those times. Giving up wasn’t an option. He was always patient, calm, and quiet. He’d just wait with me until I was ready to get up and keep going. 

He’d say, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about how far it is to the top. Just look at the trail right in front of you, and focus on getting to the next bend in the trail. Then the next, and the next.”

And bit by bit, we’d get there.

Overwhelm In Writing

As writers, we often hear the line from E.L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Usually this quote is used to describe the process of figuring out a story and how we find our way through it, bit by bit. But we can also use it to describe and understand the entire process of writing, from first draft, to rewrite(s), to publication, and to marketing, including dealing with any and all overwhelm at each of those stages. 

When we’re writing, the big gap between here (where you are right now) and there (where want to end up — done! finished! published!) can feel pretty darned overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you might be wondering if you’re even capable of making it. 

Underlying Causes & Solutions for Addressing Overwhelm  

Let’s dig a little deeper into where you might be feeling overwhelmed, and then look at some solutions to help you find your way through.

6 Underlying Causes of  Writing Overwhelm

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, no matter what stage of writing you’re in, here’s what might really be going on:

  1. There’s so much left to do, and it really is overwhelming. Writing a book is a long haul project. So is a screenplay, when you consider the many drafts a script often goes through before it’s produceable and marketable. There’s a ton of work left to do, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when staring up the face of the enormous mountain you’re attempting to scale. (Hint: You’re looking at the mountain, not the trail.) 
  2. You’re scared to put yourself out there. Writing a book can trigger self-doubts, fears, procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance. When you’re conscious of it, you can feel overwhelmed by the enormity and responsibility of it all. When you’re less conscious of it, you can get stuck in writing overwhelm as a kind of “safe haven.” It can feel easier to go around in circles than to take the risk of fulfilling your big dream. 
  3. You’re doubting that you’re up to the challenge. Hand-in-hand with #1, above, you might not even feel sure you have what it takes to write at the level required to succeed. You might be losing confidence in yourself, your book, and your ability to write. If you’re in this place you may be so overwhelmed that you’re considering giving up on your book, or worse, giving up on writing altogether. This is the kind of overwhelm that comes from a crisis of confidence. 
  4. You’ve lost your way. Sometimes you can end up feeling lost, like you’re not sure how to solve the story problems you’re facing (or even to figure out what the problems truly are), or you’re overwhelmed with a sheer quantity of content and disorganization, and you can end up going around in circles, feeling paralyzed, dazed, and confused. The fear here is that you’ll never find your way.
  5. It feels like you’re running out of time. Many of us have this ticking clock inside our heads about when it’s okay and when it’s too late to “arrive” on the scene with our finished books. The fear here is that it’s too late for you, which creates a sense of overwhelm around trying to fit way too much into too little time.
  6. You’re feeling overwhelmed by life, too. We’re busy. All of us. Our culture, our world, and our lifestyles seem to be busier than ever and only getting worse. Finding time to write seems darned near impossible when you’re juggling a job, kids, friends, pets, family, spouses, and more. The fear here is that you don’t have the time and space in your life to actually pull off making time to write, which again leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

6 Solutions for Moving Past Overwhelm and Into Action

Here are six solutions to help you overcome the overwhelm and move into action with your writing.

  1. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, just like my dad taught me. The most basic antidote for overwhelm is to take the smallest possible steps, one by one, to move through it. This means making a plan for how you’ll approach your writing (or rewriting), and working on it in the smallest possible pieces until it’s done. In fact, the more resistance, fear, or doubt, you’re feeling, the smaller the chunk you’ll want to work on (even if you spend all day working on small pieces). If you keep your focus on the next step right in front of you, you can get through to the end.
  2. Get mad. Resistance is a smothering force. It paralyzes you and bogs you down, until you begin to feel hopeless and like you’ll never succeed. Anger, on the other hand, holds the powerful energy of action. When resistance gets you down, get mad. Use the energy of being a little (or a lot!) pissed off that resistance is trying to beat you to get fired up and get back to work. When I feel discouraged, my fighting spirit rises up in me and says, “No way! I’m not letting resistance win.”
  3. Use a map, aka, remember your Big Why. When you’re lost and overwhelmed, remind yourself of your Big Why. Think about (and write down, for next time) WHY you’re writing this book. What do you love about it? What are your deepest reasons for wanting to write this book? Reconnect with your passion and love and energy for the book. Pair that with the energy of anger to light a fire inside yourself.
  4. Get help for the climb. Sometimes, you need help to reach the top of the summit. This could look like working with a coach, joining a writing group, or partnering up with a buddy. Someone who will be patient, supportive, kind, and compassionate without giving up on you for a single second. 
  5. Make a push of progress on your book. A nifty trick for dealing with overwhelm is making a focused, concerted burst of progress on your story. Writing solidly, with focus, helps you regain your sense of identity and your confidence in yourself as a writer. This is what Tony Robbins calls “massive action.” And though I generally advocate for regular daily writing as the primary antidote for resistance, sometimes we need to take powerful action to restore our confidence, energy, and momentum. You can do your own focused writing intensive or join mine to help you make that happen.
  6. Remember your ultimate destination. Not only are you writing this book or screenplay right now, you’re also working to fulfill your overall writing career goals. This project, right now, is part of the map you’re using to get there. While this might sound like contradictory advice, holding the big view of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it can help with taking the small steps along the trail.

The reward?

Reaching that ultimate destination. Seeing the world you want to see, from the great heights you’ve earned, step by step.

 

Join the next Deep Dive Writing Intensive.

Find out more and register here: https://calledtowrite.com/deep-dive

 

 

 
 
1. Featured image by AJ Yorio on Unsplash
2. Unsplash

The Many Faces of Procrastination, Part II

Last week I shared Part I of this post about the many faces of procrastination, and the underlying reasons it shows up. It’s not necessarily “just” writer’s block or laziness, which are the common explanations I hear.

There are actually a number of variations on the theme of procrastination, and it’s usually driven by something deeper, like feeling stuck, being overwhelmed, being hooked by perfectionism, or wrestling with past creative wounds that need addressing — some of the examples I wrote about last week.

Let’s look at a few more of these writing-stoppers that show up as procrastination.

You’re creatively confused.

Creative confusion is one of the most fascinating causes for procrastination I’ve come across (perhaps because it’s one of my personal “favorites”). Creative confusion will have you spinning in circles, not sure which direction to go with your story, considering multiple ideas and perspectives, and feeling unable to decide among them. It’s as if everything suddenly has equal value and there’s no differentiating them. 

Part of the issue here is empowerment. When you forget that you’re the architect of your story and that there’s not necessarily a “right” way to write it, it’s easy to get confused. Confusion can also be a smokescreen for the fear that you’ll get it “wrong.”

Antidotes: Make the shift into action by being willing to do the work of sorting through your ideas by putting them on paper and evaluating them as objectively as you can. One of the ways creative confusion keeps you stuck is that it all happens very quickly in your head. Get it down, and figure it out. And remember that you’re the one in charge. It can also be helpful to talk it through with a trusted coach or writing pal who has your story’s best interests at heart (not her ideas for what you “should” do).

You’re feeling apathetic about your book (or script).

Creative boredom or apathy is another one of these super tricksters that can keep you locked into procrastination. You don’t write because it feels like you’ve “just lost interest” in your story. Interestingly, this usually happens when you’ve just hit (or are about to hit) a major milestone with your story, or you’re about to tackle the next stage. What’s happening here is that a new level of fear is cropping up and putting the brakes on to minimize your risks of failure.

In other words, it ain’t about the story. 

Antidotes: Keep on keeping on. The only way out is through. While there may be passages in your book that are need work, that’s a storytelling problem, not “time to give up on the whole project” problem. This is the place to commit to finishing, no matter what.

This is also a great time to remind yourself of your Why for the project — why you started writing it in the first place. Sometimes just tracking back to the Why will be enough to get you in action again.

You’re having trouble deciding which book to write.

This kind of procrastination turns up when you know you want to write or feel ready to write but you can’t decide which story to work on, or you decide on one, only to change your mind in short order, usually telling yourself it’s not good enough in some way, then look around for something else to work on, only to dismiss that one too. And the next one after that.

This kind of procrastination can also look like coming up with a bazillion ideas to work with but not being able to choose among them. 

Antidotes: Check out my free downloadable guide about how to choose your next book (or script) using decision criteria and intuitive decision making skills. You can also try one of my favorite bits of Steven Pressfield’s wisdom, which is to “figure out what scares you the most, and do that first.”

(If, on the other hand, you’re totally drawing a blank for any ideas at all, try Elizabeth Gilbert’s approach of paying attention to your faintest whispers of curiosity and see where they lead you.)

You’ve fallen out of the habit of writing and each day that goes by, it gets harder to restart.

If your writing practice has fallen apart — for whatever reason — procrastination has taken hold and it’s just not getting any better. Each day you tell yourself you’re going to write, but find endless distractions around the house, get caught up in work (or TV or candy crush!), tasks to take care of, or toilets to clean. This is “garden variety” procrastination in my book, but it’s still a doozy.

Antidotes: Set a very small writing goal and meet it. Then do it again the next day. And the next. Keep going until you have the practice in place. Troubleshoot any obstacles that come up — like falling into reading email or getting sucked into other tasks — and find ways to streamline your path to your writing desk each day. If you set a goal, and you’re still procrastinating, make the goal smaller until you actually do it. Get accountability to help you with this if you need it. (Work with me 1:1 or join the Circle, for example.)

You’re dealing with big personal changes.

Look, sometimes big life events happen and the idea of tackling writing at the same time feels (and may even be) impossible. Major illnesses, weddings, new romances, births, deaths, break ups, divorces, moves, and job changes are life changes that can get in the way of writing and then morph into “regular” procrastination even once the dust has settled. It’s okay. It happens. But it’s helpful to know how to deal with it when a big part of your identity is tied into being a writer and you start losing your sense of self while it’s all happening, and then wonder who you are when it’s done.

Antidotes: Be patient with yourself during the upheaval, and give yourself a little time for re-entry. You may want to have a “maintenance practice” of writing morning pages in place during these times, even as a placeholder until you can get back to your book or script writing efforts. Have a plan in place for how and when you’ll reboot your writing once you’ve made it through the thick of the experience. If you find yourself still struggling with your identity after the fact, do some journaling or coaching work to help get you back in touch with yourself as a writer.

You’re an adrenaline addict.

One of the most fascinating parlor tricks I see writers engaging in is creating an endless series of non-writing emergencies, deadlines, and disasters that make it impossible to write. This is procrastination at its peak form, because it becomes inarguable. Whatever “it” is, has become such an emergency, that it has to be done right now. At this point, it actually does. But when a writer lives this way, chasing from disaster to disaster, writing always gets to stay (safely) at the bottom of the pile.

The trickiest trick of all is that the purveyor of these hijinks deep down revels in the sense of excitement and in being the rescuer of the situation from certain doom. It turns out, writers who do this to themselves are addicted to the rush of it all, and they’ll even design it so they “get” to write this way too (at the last minute, in a mad panicked rush).

This strategy does two things. It’s a brilliant way of getting off the hook for doing your best work, because you simply can’t, not with all those emergencies to take care of. It’s also very clever way of getting an adrenaline boost of energy to face the terror of writing. 

Antidotes: Admit the addiction. Make a conscious choice to stop this behavior. Learn to pace yourself — with everything, including your writing — and get ruthless about cutting out anything and everything you don’t have to do. You don’t have to do everything and you don’t have to do it all perfectly. Cut some corners! 

You’re just plain tired.

Maybe you’re not exhausted, but “just” tired. Maybe you haven’t reached the point of creative burnout, like I mentioned last week, but maybe you have other non-writing commitments that tax you. Some of these are avoidable (volunteering for committees) and some are not (having little kids or an aging parent), but either way you’re tired. This tiredness becomes an excellent excuse for procrastinating. “I’m tired,” you say. “I just don’t have it in me today to write. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Antidotes: I’ve always loved the quote from David Whyte on this subject, “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? … The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” When it comes to the daily sort of tiredness that can leave us feeling run down (as opposed to massively burned out), writing regularly — even just in small amounts — is often the cure. Also, take a look at how you’re investing your precious life energy and see where there might be energy leaks you can shore up. Look for where you’re not feeling a “Hell, yes!” about the things you’ve committed to and think about letting them go. Work with a friend or coach to inventory your commitments and see what you can release for someone else to handle.

 

So… what did I leave out? What other ways have you seen procrastination show up?

Tell me in the comments section below. 

 

 

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

The Many Faces of Procrastination, Part I

When I work with writers to help them stop procrastinating, usually they don’t quite know why they’re doing it. They often end up labeling it as laziness or writer’s block. I can tell you that I’ve never met a truly lazy writer, and while I certainly have met some who are blocked, sometimes a little delving is required to uncover the deeper issues that are stopping them from writing.

Let’s talk about the spectrum of writing-stoppers that show up as procrastination.

You’re stuck.

You might find yourself procrastinating when you’re stuck. Maybe you’ve hit a section you aren’t sure how to deal with, or you need to rewrite some or all of your draft but you’re not sure where to start, so you just… don’t. This stuckness doesn’t take long to turn into procrastination, and soon, to full on avoidance.

Antidotes: Sometimes when you’re stuck, you need help to get going again. A plot coach or a writing friend often comes in handy here. Alternatively, you might want to write about the writing — this is a great time for some journaling and brainstorming to unlock your writing energy and ideas.

You’re overwhelmed.

Sometimes the sheer volume of work facing you will cause you to procrastinate. When you’re looking at a mountain, it’s hard not to feel the weight of it bearing down on you. 

Antidotes: The antidote for overwhelm is to find one small step to take. In other words, what’s the first thing you can think of, no matter how small, that you know you can do now? Then do the next thing. This is a great time to pick easy things to do too, because when you’re feeling overwhelmed, easy makes it doable. Sometimes I’ll just work on formatting for a bit to get myself back into the project, no matter how fiddly it is. No step forward is too small.

You’ve been hooked by perfectionism.

When you get stuck in believing that you must make your writing perfect or get caught up in visions of this being your biggest hit ever, you’ll be triggering procrastination faster than you might believe. Perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis work together to create a vicious cycle that keeps you from writing, ever. Perfectionism is funny way of staying safe too, because if you don’t write it, you don’t have to see it being flawed and imperfect, nor can you be ridiculed for it.

Antidotes: Make peace with being an imperfect human being who values writing and finishing more than telling yourself whoppers about incredible success or massive failure that hold you back. Embrace the notion that only the divine is perfect, and decide that messy and done is so much better than not writing.

Your inner critic is freaking out.

When the voice of your inner critic starts getting loud and scary, it’s hard to keep writing, especially if you listen to it as if it’s the voice of truth and reason, rather than simply a terrified guard dog it trying to keep you safe. Also note that this voice will get louder and scarier the closer you are to the precipice of taking action, finishing a draft, or moving into a new level of your career. If those aren’t reasons to procrastinate, I don’t know what is!

Antidotes: First, pat your inner critic on the head and tell him/her that you’re going to take care of everything, you got this, and you don’t need any help protecting yourself. Then, one by one, rewrite the negative self-messages that swirl through your mind while you’re writing into positive, believable statements. Having a coach or witness for this work helps it land more deeply and take root in your psyche in a positive way. 

You’ve gotten feedback on your work and it’s affecting you.

Good feedback, bad feedback. Feedback period. All feedback affects us. It’s an energetic shock to the system that’s hard to absorb. We’ve been tenderly entwined with our beloved writing only to have it held at arm’s length by a stranger who cooly evaluates it. The stun from this can send you into a tailspin. And good feedback? Glowing feedback on your early chapters? That can be a recipe for triggering perfectionism and the anti-creativity cycle too, because suddenly you have to measure up to your existing work and you might not believe you can.

Antidotes: After giving yourself some time to recover from getting the feedback, take a deep, deep breath. Remind yourself who is in charge. (That would be you.) Evaluate the feedback as cooly as it evaluates your book. What do you agree with? Use that. What do you disagree with? Throw it out or save it for later re-evaluation.

You’re deeply exhausted and you’re self-protecting.

Sometimes you may procrastinate because you’re actually deeply tired or burned out, and reflexively protecting yourself from overextending. This may be the result of binge writing, pushing to meet deadline after deadline, or from being exhausted by a non-writing life circumstance.

Antidotes: Rest. Write for the love of it, if you’re called to do so, but make it easy, like journaling, and give yourself some time to recover. You will feel the call to write again. Trust me. 

You’re dealing with a creative wound that needs addressing.

When you’re not writing… and not writing… and not writing… and it’s just going on forever, sometimes there are deeper creative wounds that have gotten triggered and need addressing. Like that time you were ridiculed for daring to make art and express yourself creatively. Or how you were raised in a family culture that taught you that writing would never pay your bills and you were a fool if you pursued it. Or the scathing feedback you received from someone you deeply loved. Events like these leave open wounds in our psyches, like ghosts in the machine.

Antidotes: Revisit the events in a safe way (such as through visualization or journaling) so you can find the truth in the experience from a broader spiritual perspective. From there, you’ll be able to begin to find forgiveness for yourself and peace with the experience. Often these experiences happen to us when we are young, and having our more mature perspective helps us begin to shift how we feel about it now. While you can do this work on your own, working with a coach or witness who can hold a safe space while you’re processing what happened can accelerate your growth and ability to move past the pain.

And there’s more…

There are many more underlying reasons for procrastination, including creative apathy, confusion, adrenaline addictions, and more. Read Part II, here

When has procrastination most reared its head for you, and how have you dealt with it?

Share your stories and experiences in the comments section below.

 
 
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Scared of Being Ungrounded by Success?

When you imagine yourself into your own future writing success, how does it feel? Is it exciting but terrifying, all at once? Do you imagine yourself changed irrevocably by your fame and fortune? Do you sense yourself being overwhelmed by attention, energy, and even money? Will you still be a good person?

Will success change you?

A Sneaky Kind of Resistance

I’ve seen in myself and others this terror of success manifesting as a very sneaky kind of resistance. We self-sabotage because we’re afraid we can’t handle the success. Another way to think of this is as an “upper limit problem,” where you thwart your future success by imploding in the here and now, even in the smallest of ways.

Does “I just don’t feel like writing today” ring any bells?

Under the terror is a fear of losing your very sense of self as a result of being successful. As if you’ll be so overloaded with the intensity of success that you’ll transform into chaotic energy that floats you away into nothingness.

Sometimes we stop ourselves from writing because we’re afraid to fail.

And sometimes we stop ourselves because we’re afraid to succeed.

Symptoms of a Fear of Success

It could be as simple as procrastinating or being a perfectionist, but it might also look like taking on so many tasks that you can’t write, failing to do your best work, stopping just short of finishing project after project, fearing that you’ll betray your loved ones if you succeed or are happy, or even allowing emergencies to erupt and backlogged work to accumulate so you can’t write (or write well) because you have too many demands on your time, space, and energy.

Interesting how those symptoms match both a fear of failure and a fear of success, isn’t it?

Addressing a Fear of Success

But the solution for moving past the fear lies in understanding which fear it is.

Having a fear of failure means needing to adjust your mindset about what failure means.  

If you’re struggling with a fear of success, though, the solution lies in bringing yourself into the here and now, into this moment, right now, reading this piece with me, and remembering that you get to decide how to handle your life. You’re the author of your present, and your future. You get to practice being grounded, centered, present, and calm, right now, right here. You get to make decisions and plans for your money, time, and energy now, so that when success arrives you’re well prepared for it.

So just breathe with me, right now. Notice the air, the light, the sounds around you. Take a deep inhale, and then let it go. You don’t have to worry about the future right now, because you’re getting ready to be your future self, one step at a time.

Your job, right now, is to calm and soothe yourself. To bring your attention back to the work you’re doing right now. The learning you’re having right now. One step at a time.

Enjoy it.

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Perfectionism Is Lying to You

Writers don’t always recognize the grip of perfectionism when caught in its vise. But perfectionism is a wicked master that keeps us from achieving our true potential.

I should know. I struggle with perfectionism too.

Perfectionism is a Coping Mechanism

I learned to be a perfectionist as a way to keep myself safe. If I did something correctly (as evaluated by my family), I was praised and validated. If I did something incorrectly, I was critiqued. That critiquing resulted in a lot of shame for me. Shame that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t measuring up. There was an implication I’d embarrassed my family with my error (even if it was something as simple as arranging crackers inartistically). If ever I objected to taking part in something aesthetic, I was told, “but you’re so creative.” So I would comply out of sense of obligation and guilt. And then when if or when my creativity didn’t measure up, I would go deeper and deeper into hiding and shame. And yet at the same time, I loved (and love) being creative. Such a trap!

So many writers have similarly intricate sets of creative wounds, and perfectionism as a coping strategy is the result.

Perfectionism Endangers Excellence

Either do it perfectly, or don’t do it at all.

Perfectionism tells us there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. To do anything. Perfectionism doesn’t allow for mistakes or failure. But those so-called “failures” and “mistakes” are where the greatest breakthroughs and innovations happen. We’ve seen this through history, science, and technology. The path to success is rarely a straight line.

When we court perfection, we endanger our own brilliance, excellence, discovery, and evolution.

Perfectionism Lies to You

Interestingly, writers who are perfectionists will often self-describe as being “lazy.”

Perfectionism says you aren’t good enough, you aren’t trying hard enough, and concludes that you must be lazy or you would be working harder. And in fact, when you procrastinate on taking creative action, you might even look lazy. But that is a lie. 

The real reason you are procrastinating is that you are afraid you will not be able to do your work perfectly, so it’s safer not to do it at all.

You are not lazy, you are terrified.

These “lazy” writers are also often the same writers with intense fantasies of landing on bestseller lists and high achievement.

Perfectionism also lures you into daydreams of massive success. Awards, recognition, fame. But rather than being motivating, these visions are also paralyzing, because just as before, you are afraid you will not be able to achieve this high level of success, so it’s safer not to try at all.

Perfectionism likes black and white extremes. In perfectionism’s eyes, you’re either a massive failure or a massive success.

Perfectionism is lying to you.

Write Because You Love It

What if you were just you? Being your excellent, awesome self? Showing up, doing your work, writing because you love it, because you’re called to it, not out of fear of blowing it or the hope of making it big? 

Instead of striving for perfection, strive for excellence through action. Allow yourself to fall, and get back up, over and over again.

Keep writing.

You can watch me chatting about perfectionism and productivity with Deborah Hurwitz in my upcoming interview for her free Productivity for Perfectionist’s Virtual Summit coming up April 4 to 23. Find out more and register here.*

 

* This is a referral link, which lets Deborah know I sent you. I won’t receive a commission for your participation in this free event.
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How to Write Morning Pages In 3 Easy Steps (and 5 Inspiring Reasons You’ll Want To!)

Morning pages are something I mention fairly often here at Called to Write, but haven’t ever defined. Many writers are unfamiliar with the concept.

Morning pages are a writing tool created by Julia Cameron and described in her book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity*.

The core idea is to write three long-hand, stream of consciousness pages every day, first thing in the morning upon awakening, no matter what, even if you only write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again. 

If you have a comment or question about writing morning pages, make sure you leave a comment by Friday, March 10th at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time because one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of The Artist’s Way, as my gift. (And if you already have the book, I’ll send it to someone you want to share it with!)

How to Write Morning Pages in 3 Easy Steps

Here are three easy steps to help you get started writing morning pages:

Step 1: Get yourself a notebook to write in (and put it somewhere you’ll find it quickly and easily in the morning).

I like something with half-size sheets so that it doesn’t take me all day to fill the pages. My favorite is this steno notebook*, because I love the paper weight and the size of the pages. I prefer using something a little more disposable like this than a fancy journal since I don’t want to feel attached to them. Though I’ve kept all of my many notebooks so far, I expect to eventually have a bonfire with them and I don’t want gorgeous leather-bound books energetically stopping me from letting go. I keep my notebook with my favorite pen tucked into my nightstand for easy retrieval upon awakening.

Step 2: Write three pages — about ANYTHING — when you wake up.

I love to write morning pages before I do anything else other than make a quick trip to the bathroom and put in my contact lenses. Then I hop back in bed and write. My pages tend to take me about 20 minutes. Some writers prefer to get up and make coffee or tea, and sit in a cozy spot to write their pages. If you’re tempted to stop short of three pages, I highly recommend pushing through. There’s so much insight that happens once you get deeper in (usually about the 2.5 page mark) — don’t miss it. Don’t worry about what you’re writing — just write whatever is swirling around in your brain, even if it’s boring, whiny, ridiculous, or pointless. It doesn’t matter.

Step 3: Repeat the next day… and don’t look back. 

Write the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Morning pages are one of those tools for life that are worth holding onto. Especially in the early days of writing morning pages, don’t re-read your pages. Julia Cameron even recommends stapling the pages together when you first start so you aren’t tempted to go back. Just put the words on the page, and move on. It’s a tool, not a record.

5 Reasons You’ll Want to Write Morning Pages

Some pretty amazing and miraculous things start happening once you’ve been writing morning pages for a while. Here are five reasons you’ll want to make them part of your regular writing routine:

1. Morning Pages Lead to Creative Recovery

Morning pages are a powerful tool for creative recovery. Many writers and artists experience creative burnout at some point and struggle to regain their creative footing and orientation. Writing morning pages helps us find our way back to our creative selves.

Morning pages also are a way to “rest” on the page — a way to keep the words flowing even if you’re feeling blocked with writing your book or what to write next, and can be a “bridge” to keep you writing between finishing a draft and tackling your next revision when you don’t want to lose your writing habit and momentum.

Writing pages this way also helps free us from perfectionism. Since we’re writing without editing or for publication or even for sentence structure, it gives us great practice at letting the words flow freely without judgement or internal censorship.

2. Morning Pages Prepare Your Mind for Creative Insight and Discovery

Writing morning pages will help you clear away any angst, fear, worry, and doubt — in any area of your life. Morning pages are not journal pages — you aren’t (necessarily) going to be recording your life experiences through your morning pages. Instead, use them to purge the voices of negativity that hold you back. Get them out onto the page and out of your head, so you can move to your writing with a lighter heart and fresher spirit. So go ahead and vent and complain. Get it all out and leave it behind you.

What’s so cool about this is that it helps you quiet your mind. And a quieter mind is one better prepared for creative insight and discovery. 

3. Morning Pages Foster Self-Trust and Honesty

Morning pages require honesty. Writing every day about what bothers you and what’s going on has a way of surfacing truths for your attention and recognition. You just can’t get away with complaining about the same thing over and over again without feeling called to make a change. You’ll notice what’s working and what’s not working in your life. And as you listen to yourself, you’ll build trust with yourself and your inner wisdom because you’ll be noticing over and over again where your inner voice is giving you information about what’s going on — and you’ll see the evidence of it.

4. Morning Pages Are an Antidote to Self-Forgetting 

Morning pages are a powerful antidote to self-forgetting. When you write morning pages, you’ll reconnect with yourself. In my experience, it can be challenging to “come back to yourself,” especially in a world where busyness and materialism abound (and especially as a sensitive, intuitive, introverted writer). All the noise around us can make us feel lost and disconnected from ourselves, and morning pages bring us back to who we are.

A writer who knows herself is better able to deliver her highest quality work.

5. Morning Pages Are a Pathway to Self-Acceptance

Once you’ve stepped into this place of consciousness, it’s hard to go back. Fundamentally, morning pages give you permission to be who you are. They are a pathway to a radical form of self-acceptance. By being true to yourself and fully expressing all of yourself without judgment, you honor the truth of who you are.

Personally, I have found morning pages invaluable, from plain-old venting to accessing powerful insights. I use my pages to whine, moan, and complain. I unload my greatest fears and my deepest desires. And I ask for guidance from my inner self. It’s an incredible way to clear your mind and listen to your heart.

Answers to Common Questions About Morning Pages

  • Do I have to write morning pages in the morning? Yes. :) Though you get to make your own rules for yourself, and of course no one can tell you there’s anything you HAVE to do with your writing. At the same time, this is such an incredible writing tool it’s worth experimenting with as prescribed.  
  • Do I have to write morning pages long-hand? Julia Cameron (and I) both recommend writing morning pages long-hand. There’s something incredibly transformative about writing your pages out by hand. And… there’s a pretty nifty site called 750words.com as an option for writing pages online. You could certainly use ByWord or Scrivener as well (two of my favorite writing tools).
  • What’s the different between morning pages and journaling? The main difference between morning pages and journaling is that morning pages are about ANYTHING. It’s about clearing out, writing stream of consciousness style, about whatever is circling your brain. Journaling can be the same, of course, but it tends to more “about” something, such as recording your day, or exploring a particular issue. And while that happens sometimes in morning pages, it’s just as often as not complaining about errands we have to run or other things we’re processing. 
  • If your writing time is limited, is it better to just focus on your book than on doing morning pages? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’ve made the choice for the last couple of years since baby #2 to focus on my primary writing projects rather than doing pages because time (and sleep!) has been at such a premium. And… I’ve dearly missed them. I’ve gone to doing a morning journal check-in lately instead, but I’m going back to morning pages too.
  • Can I share my pages with other people? I don’t recommend sharing your morning pages with anyone else, ever. Part of the magic and what’s makes them so powerful is that they are completely private and sacred. We can’t fully reveal ourselves on the page when we’re holding back for fear of what someone else might think. So keep them just for you, and protect yourself that way. This is great practice for learning to more fully reveal yourself when writing stories and books as well.
  • Can I write evening pages instead? If you want to, though really, they ARE quite different animals. You might find that you want to do both. My colleague Jill Winski just wrote a post about writing evening pages in addition to her morning pages. Similarly, The Ultimate Writer’s Toolkit includes a set of morning and evening journal prompts, but focused on writing only. The Circle also somewhat fulfills the end of day writing “check-in” role that evening pages can play, but again, only around that day’s writing. My take: write morning pages to write morning pages, and use your other tools to fulfill their unique purpose rather than making substitutions.

Do you write morning pages? Do you have other questions about writing morning pages? Tell me in the comments by Friday, March 10th at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time … and one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of The Artist’s Way, as my gift. (And if you already have the book, I’ll send it to someone you want to share it with! I’ll send the ebook version if our winner is overseas.)

I’ll happily answer questions you have about writing morning pages here on the blog, too.

 

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Get Clear on Your Characters with GMC (Plus a Free Character Profile Template!)

Something I tackled in my most recent screenwriting assignment was getting clear on who the characters are and what motivates them, especially since they weren’t my original characters. This project was a rewrite of a writer-producer’s script so the characters were his, though they now feel like “ours.”

Part of the process of getting there was working through the characters’ GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict) to understand them more deeply.

Cathy Yardley first introduced me to GMC. I’ve done some plot work with her on other projects, and loved her book series where she describes the concept of GMC. The book series is offered collectively in print as Rock Your Writing, also available in a six-part Kindle series, including Rock Your Plot and Rock Your Revisions. She recommends another book called GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, The Building Blocks of Good Fiction that I found helpful as well. (Amazon links for all of these books are in the References section, below.)

What I find most useful about GMC is that it gives me a way into my character’s head.

The jury is still out on whether or not I’m more of an intuitive writer (one who excels in character and dialogue but has a hard time with plot and structure) or a conceptual writer (one who does well with plot and structure but struggles with the character and dialogue). So far, my take is that I’m more of a conceptual writer.

In any case, it helps me to have a character profile for each character I’m working with, and adding GMC to my character profiles has been exceedingly helpful, so I’m sharing it with you. (This would be a useful tool for creative non-fiction writers too!)

Note: If you’re interested in seeing my entire character profile template, you can download a copy of it at the end of this post. 

How GMC Works

We break goals, motivation, and conflict down into both external and internal GMC. This helps us understand both what’s driving the character externally and internally. This syncs up nicely with Shawn Coyne’s External Content Genre and his Internal Content Genre, though they are different tools (I’ll write about this more in a future post — The Story Grid* methodology has completely rewired my brain for story in an incredibly useful way).

Here’s an explanation of External and Internal GMC.

External GMC

  • The character’s EXTERNAL GOAL is the WHAT they are trying to achieve or accomplish by the story’s end. This cannot be vague in any way. Cathy Yardley once told me that an external goal has to be something that you can easily check off in a box when it’s done. For example, disable the bomb, check. Or, catch the bad guy, check. It can’t be something like “get my mom to approve of me,” because it can be too unclear about whether or not that has actually occurred (although I suppose it could be verbally said, “I approve of you” but there’s still room for interpretation — does she actually mean it, etc.).
  • The character’s EXTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they are trying to achieve that goal. What reason do they have for trying to reach their goal? What’s at stake, what are the consequences if they don’t make whatever it is happen? That’s their why. For example, everyone in the building will die (if the protag doesn’t disable the bomb). Or, the bad guy may kill again. This can be considered the “Because” clause.
  • The character’s EXTERNAL CONFLICT is the OPPOSITION to achieving the goal. What or who gets in the way? Usually this is the antagonist but it could also be the establishment, the environment, etc., if it’s a human against the state or human against the world kind of story. This could also be considered the “But” clause if you think of these as a sentence.

For example: Carly wants to disable the bomb because otherwise hundreds of people will die, but the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it. 

Internal GMC

  • The character’s INTERNAL GOAL is about HOW the character is trying to feel or hoping to feel. It may or may not be tied to the external goal. And it probably isn’t something that can be ticked off in a check box. It’s more of a feeling state, such as happiness or independence, or vengeance. It can also be a spiritual goal. The internal and external goals CAN be in alignment but they can also not match up — which can create excellent internal conflict for your character. (Don’t forget, we want them to suffer — our readers and viewers want to worry about our characters, that’s why they’re there!)
  • The character’s INTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they want to feel that way. Often this is tied to their backstory, or personal goals outside the story. The internal motivation is the emotion that drives the character. For example, a character may have been overly controlled for her entire life by her parents, so she’s trying to create an independent life for herself.
  • The character’s INTERNAL CONFLICT is WHAT might be stopping her from reaching that state of being. This could be caused by the character themselves, but it can also be tied to the external GMC and cause problems for in achieving it. With our example, our character might suffer from insecurity, and keep turning back to her parents for help.

I like to put these together in a chart, like the one below (spreadsheets are handy here), though I also just make bullet point lists when I’m writing in Scrivener since it doesn’t play that well with tables.

Here’s an example:

  External Internal
Goal Carly’s external goal is to disable the bomb… Carly’s internal goal is to forge out on her own…
Motivation Because otherwise hundreds of people will die… Because her psychologist parents have been holding her back for years with their oppressive personalities…
Conflict But the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it.  But she struggles with insecurity so keeps turning to her parents for support and encouragement, and even worse, now needs their help her track down the bomber.

 

It’s useful to see how the internal and external can work together here. 

I often rework these multiple times until I feel that I’ve landed on something that works. And then I’ll often rework it again, once I’ve finished a script, because I tend to pick up more nuance and information as I interact with the character over the course of the story.

It’s an ever-evolving process.

Want to Check Out My Character Profile Template?

It includes the GMC points I outlined above along with a handful of other useful and streamlined items I assemble for each character. It comes in a PDF and RTF format, along with a Quick Start Guide. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener for easy customization and editing.

Click below to subscribe to my mailing list and download my Character Profile Template (and other guidebooks for writers) now.


 

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References

* All book links are Amazon affiliate links:

 

Free teleclass: Setting Motivating Writing Goals & Intentions

The fourth and final class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and the recording is now available! 

If you missed the series, you can still sign up to get the recordings, which will only be available for another week, through Friday, April 8. You’ll get instant access to the recording archives when you register.

Here’s what we’ve covered in the class series:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Part III: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

  • The trick to managing the emotional ups and downs of a long-form writing project.
  • Simple but important ways to take care of your physical body AND your creative mind.
  • 3 energy boosting strategies.
  • 3 nifty techniques to balance and recharge your energy.
  • 5 creative recovery skills for whenever (or if ever!) you get off track.

Part IV: Setting Motivating Writing Goals & Intentions

  • 5 ways to set yourself up for success with your goals in advance.
  • Smart goal setting that works.
  • Reverse engineering your writing timelines.
  • The power of a plan for revisions.
  • Using intentions to supercharge your writing sessions.
  • How to set motivating rewards and celebrations.
  • BONUS: Managing distractions.

I’ve been getting terrific feedback from the writers who have participated and I’d love to have you take advantage of this opportunity too. You’ll find that the series is packed with practical tools and strategies you can put into place right away to help you boost your productivity as a writer.

 

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Free Teleclass: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

The third class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and the recording is now available! We had some technical line challenges so I rerecorded the call and the fresh, much better quality recording is now available. It’s super exciting to see our list of registered participants continue to grow — we’re up to almost 120 now.

In case you’ve missed the first three classes, you can still sign up for the four-part series (we’re continuing tomorrow with Part IV on Tuesday, March 24 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time). The important thing to know is that each class stands on its own, so it’s perfectly okay to jump in at any point in the series.

You’ll get instant access to the recording archives when you register and you’ll also get the call-in information for the next class. 

Here’s what we’ve covered in the classes so far:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Part III: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

  • The trick to managing the emotional ups and downs of a long-form writing project
  • Simple but important ways to take care of your physical body AND your creative mind
  • 3 energy boosting strategies
  • 3 nifty techniques to balance and recharge your energy
  • 5 creative recovery skills for whenever (or if ever!) you get off track.

Each of the first two recordings are 60 minutes each and include 15 minutes of Q&A time at the end of the classes. The recording for the third class does not include the Q&A time since it’s a do-over recording.

TOMORROW, Thursday, March 24, for Part IV, we’ll be covering Setting Motivating Writing Goals and Intentions, plus I’m adding a bonus section on managing distractions.

Join us!

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And don’t miss our New Member Special!

New Member Special