On Space

 IMG_4048My preferred summer writing spot

Have you thought about WHERE you write recently?

As writers, we often obsess over our tools. Getting just the right notebook, just the right pen. Evangelizing over the perfect word processing program that will ensure our New York Times Number 1 Bestseller (I’m looking at you, Scrivener enthusiasts…).

And while tools are important (I myself am on a lifelong quest for the perfect notebook), an often-neglected conversation is where we write.

It’s a question I ask my coaching clients frequently: where do you write? What does your writing space feel like? Is your current set up working for you?

So often we resort to the stereotype of what we THINK a writing set up OUGHT to look like. I spent many wasted hours in the library getting nothing done, in Starbucks coffee shops getting even less done and spending too much money on peach tea, and a hell of a lot of time trying to make my desk at home into my writing space. I was so hung up on what my writing space “should” look like that I never even considered thinking about what I actually wanted.

It turns out, desks and tables really don’t do it for me when I’m writing. In the winter, I curl up on my couch or in bed with a notebook. In the summer, I improvise a couch on my balcony using patio chairs. I like cushions, and tea, and blankets, and zero attachment to my technology. I don’t actually like being surrounded by lots of other people. I like to work alone, most of the time.

What about you? Do you know where you love to write?

If you’ve never really thought about this before – here’s a challenge for you. Spend the next few weeks experimenting with your writing space. Try coffee shops, and libraries, and parks, and desks, and benches, and the couch. Try busy places, and quiet places, and being completely alone. Mix it up. And at the end of each writing session, take a few brief notes dissecting the experience. How did you feel during this writing session? Was the environment inspiring and creatively nourishing? Or did you feel drained? You may need to try some spaces more than once to get a really good feel for whether they work for you or not, or whether there’s a particular time you prefer.

If you decide to take this challenge on, I’d love to hear what you learn. Let me know in the comments.

The Deep Work Experiment: Week 3

It’s week three of the deep work experiment and I’m doing a flying accountability check in. Here’s the numbers for the week:

June 13 1024
June 14 221
June 15 363
June 16 1793
June 17 689
June 18 147
June 19 350

Even though I have some low production days in there, I actually hit my highest word count of the experiment so far – north of 4,500! I also spent a considerable amount of time this weekend working on transcribing some of my handwritten sections (I always write my first drafts by hand) on to the computer – so really, it’s been a fantastically productive week.

At this point I feel two, somewhat contradictory, things:

  1. I feel deeply embedded in my project. I am living and breathing this project in a way that feels deeply, deeply satisfying.
  2. I am starting to get worried about “what to write next.” This is somewhat linked to my research problem but also partly just a side effect of having worked through all my “easy to write” scenes.

So mostly, this week is about feeling that good momentum, but also seeing the potential roadblocks ahead. Let’s see what unfolds in week 4.

My biggest block: Research

jordan-whitt-83955.jpg
Photo Credit: Jordan Whitt.

I’ve recently become a fan of DIY MFA: this is a site chock-full of resources and interesting articles – and as someone who has always “kind of sort of” wanted to go get an MFA but who really lacks the money to do so, I’m attracted to the idea of building my own MFA-like experience through my own discipline.

In a recent DIY MFA newsletter, the following prompt was offered as inspiration:

Is there a wall, a block, an obstacle that is getting in the way of your creative work? Name it, then consider whether there is some piece of it that you can responsibility for. When we blame external blocks for our lack of creative progress, we give away all control. But if take responsibility for the block (or even just a small piece of it), it opens the door for us to reclaim our power and break through that obstacle.

love this. Identifying blocks is the easy part – almost every writer I know could list off 1000 reasons why they’re not writing right now. Taking responsibility for moving through a block is far more difficult. After all, the very nature of a block is that it seems insurmountable. When I think about blocks with my coaching clients it is often in terms of breaking down the block – either into smaller pieces, or by trying to see what’s the fear that is lurking underneath the block, so we can tackle the root causes together. Of course, it’s always much easier to help someone else in this process; I’m a lot more myopic when it comes to my own writing practice.

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Who Needs a Writing Coach?

notebooksWhen I tell people what my job is, there is (in some circles) a reasonable amount of confusion. “So… you just talk to people about their writing?” people will ask.

It sounds so simple, but writing coaching is so much more than “just talking” about writing. Since I started training for this role back in September of 2016, I have come to understand that writing coaching is both a science and an art, and a process that almost any writer can benefit from.

What is a writing coach?

One of my greatest fears when I started working as a coach was imposter syndrome – if I haven’t got my shit together as a writer, why would anyone come to me for writing coaching?

But the thing is, my job really isn’t about being an “expert” or an “authority…” There’s this fundamental belief all of the coaches at Firefly share, which is the writer is the expert of their story. They are the person who best knows what their story is and what it needs. My role as a coach is to help them in discovering this expertise in themselves.

When a client walks into a coaching session to me, I’m there to travel this journey alongside them. What do we talk about? That’s driven by each individual writer. Maybe writing hasn’t been feeling as joyful as it used to. Maybe they just need to vent their frustration at building a coherent plot structure (a need that I can strongly identify with!) Or perhaps they’re just looking someone to walk with them, witness their journey, and to be there to celebrate their successes.

Being a writing coach is really the best job in the world – I get to spend my days working with writers who are committed and passionate about their work, and I get to nerd out about all those little details of theory and process and whatever else my clients might find useful. There’s also homemade vegan and gluten-free cookies, which believe me, is a pretty significant perk.

Who needs a writing coach?

The answer to this question is probably as varied as the writers who come through our door. Maybe they’re a writer stuck in a project. Maybe they’re not sure where to start. Maybe they don’t have anyone in their life to talk to about writing, or maybe they have too many people, and it’s difficult to separate the signal from the noise.

Writing coaching is for all kinds of writers: seasoned experts, to people just dipping their toes into creativity. It’s for poets, novelists, memoirists… even bloggers!

Having been a coaching client myself, I can say when I showed up to writing coaching what I wanted was accountability. Someone to help me stay on track and finish my novel. I got that through my coaching package, but I also got so much more. I began to think about my own process in a much deeper way, to explore how I wanted to share my work, to question the advice I had taken as sacrosanct but wasn’t necessarily working for me.

The process of coaching is about going deep; really, the only pre-requisite is that a writer is willing to show up and be open to this magical process.

How do I start working with a writing coach?

Does this pique your interest? If you’re at all curious about writing coaching, or if you’re interested in working with either myself or one of my amazing colleagues at Firefly Creative Writing – the best place to start is here. On our website you can learn a ton more about us, our approach to coaching, and what you can expect if you sign up for a package with us)

(NB: We’re based in Toronto, but due to the magic of the internet and Skype, we’re able to work with you remotely, wherever you may be!)

Or maybe you want to cast your net wider, see what other options there are out there for you? As you begin to consider whether coaching and whether now is the right time for you, these are some of the questions you might want to consider:

  • What exactly are you looking for from the coaching process?
  • Are you looking for advice geared towards publication? (There are coaches who focus more on this side of the equation)
  • Are you looking for a coach who is especially strong in your genre?
  • Are you looking for rigorous editing of your work? (Manuscript review or editing services might be a better fit for you)
  • Are you ready to go deep into your writing process?

Knowing what you want will be a huge help in picking a writing coach – as with any relationship finding the right fit can have a huge impact on the success of the work you will do.

And if you’re curious but still not clear on what exactly writing coaching is all about, please ask a question in the comments! I’m here, and listening, and eager to do my best at answering your questions. I’m also planning to start a series of blogs on the lessons I’ve learned as a writing coach, so if there’s any topics you’d love to see my cover, send them my way!

The Deep Work Experiment: Week Two

What is the Deep Work Experiment? Click here to catch up.

I’ve been thinking about this experiment a little bit like starting a diet, or a new exercise regime. The first couple of days you are fuelled by excitement – you fill your cupboard with unexpected ingredients (quinoa! bulgar wheat!) and schedule an ambitious schedule of hitting the gym 5 days a week.

In the initial phase of any lifestyle change you are fuelled by motivation: the seductive vision of what your life will be like once you have reaped the benefits of these changes drives you forward, sustains you through dinners that are not pizza, and encourages you to keep going to the gym even when you are tired.

But once that initial stage of excited fizz has faded, once you settle into a new routine that at times feels boring, or tough – well, that’s when things get more interesting. This is where your capacity for discipline comes in: your ability to get yourself to do things that might seem boring, or difficult because your rational brain is convinced of their benefit. It’s the reason we floss – no-one likes flossing (do they?) – but we understand the health benefits of doing so, and so we floss (with greater or lesser regularity depending on your own personal oral hygiene routine!).

There are elements of the deep work experiment that I’ve been having more difficulty continue implementing. Here’s a summary:

  • Keeping a daily journal and account of my deep work practice completely fell off the rails this week. I’m debating whether this is something I want to continue or abandon as it wasn’t particularly drawn from the book – in theory it seems like a good accountability tool, but if it doesn’t work for me, I’m not sure how far I want to push it.
  • Scheduling emailing time, blocking out my schedule for different types of task… I love this in concept and yet I got a bit lax in putting into action this past week. I think partly because I’ve been using email as a substitute distraction for social media (whoops). I want to be more aware of my tendencies here and make a conscious effort to avoid task-switching and dipping in and out of emails as a way to distract myself.
  • Making time for boredom hasn’t really happened. I think I’ve uncovered what is actually a deep-seated discomfort with being quiet and alone with my thoughts. Which probably bears further examination.

One thing that struck me as I began to feel bad about my “failures” from this week was another analogy from my experience of changing my eating and exercise habits: it’s really easy to do too much at once. In our initial enthusiasm, we swear off everything that even has a passing resemblance to a carb, and schedule every spare minute to be spent in the gym. We forget to be kind to ourselves, and that this isn’t a race. Real change, lasting change, takes time, and effort. And that’s ok.

And then I looked at my scoreboard (number of words of my novel written this week) and to my surprise I’d done much better than I’d given myself credit for:

June 07 898
June 08 733
June 09 915
June 10 0
June 11 749
June 12 666

Another week where I chalked up just under 4,000 words. Through simply trying and being committed to this process, I am already seeing results.

Now, onto Week Three!

The Deep Work Experiment: Week One

Week one of the Deep Work Experiment is complete! That means – seven days with no social media, seven days of trying to build in dedicated “deep work” sessions, and seven days of recommitting to my novel.

Part of this process is accountability and keeping score. Although I’m hoping to see improvements in lots of areas of my life, including my work as a writing coach, what I’ll be focusing on in this blog is  the impact my experiment is having on my progress towards finishing a novel by the end of September 2017.

I’ve been keeping a deep work journal for the past week. So far I have been managing 1-2 hours of deep work on my novel a day. (Deep work is defined as distraction free chunks of time, where I’m doing real cognitive work on my novel – figuring out the mechanics of a scene, writing a chapter, doing research – not just dabbling with formatting or what have you).

This has translated into the following word counts over the past week:

May 31 503
June 01 1017
June 02 268
June 03 178
June 05 899
June 06 1063

That’s just under 4,000 words for the week! I’m pretty astonished at my leap in productivity, especially as I was away with the Firefly Creative Writing team for a retreat this weekend. So far, so good.

As well as recording hours worked and words written, I’ve also been recording my thoughts on implementing the Deep Work Experiment so far:

  • Turning off social media is surprisingly easy – I actually don’t feel as though I am missing that much, although I did feel a pang of needed to be connected when the terrorist events unfolded in London over the course of the weekend. I’m certainly noticing that it’s pushing me to reach out to people more directly, and to make more of an effort to check in.
  • The focused approach to scheduling time is really helpful. I bought a desk planner and have been dividing up my day – an hour for administrative tasks, a substantial block of time for a more demanding tasks, scheduled gym time, clients fitting in… It feels like I’m managing to do more in less time.
  • I started off really gung ho and thinking I would get up at 5.30 and work on my novel. It turns out that even though I’m a morning person, even I can’t manage this. I was just half asleep and unable to produce.
  • Deep work is tiring. The brain ache is real. So far I have found a quick walk outside to be the best way to reset.
  • My brain is really good at looking for distractions – take away social media and I’ll focus on texts, emails, composing emails in my head, listening to podcasts, etc etc. I’ll really go to a lot of lengths to avoid being bored for any length of time. This feels like one of the biggest areas I need to work on.

The Deep Work Experiment

I have wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember. I have been somewhat seriously working towards this goal for at least the majority of my twenties. My desktop and dropbox folders are graveyards for projects that almostquite but never did get there. The magical moment of completion.

It’s not because this isn’t important to me – it’s one of my deepest held wishes to finish a book. Of course, I’d love to publish and make millions off said book, but even more than that (perhaps unrealistic) dream right now what I want is the deep satisfaction of completion. Of striving to do something, of putting my mind to it, and accomplishing my goal.

One of my problems, especially of late, is distraction. There’s always something else – something more entertaining, something easier, something that is not writing my novel – to do. Perhaps it sounds like a ridiculous failure of self-control and willpower, but I have genuinely come to believe that my fractured mindset has been inhibiting my ability to make the kind of progress I crave.

A change is called for.

Enter my recent exposure to the thoughts of Cal Newport and his book Deep Work. I first encountered Newport in an interview he did with Ezra Klein (here) and his ideas, although not exactly revolutionary, resonated with me. It’s not that you’ve never heard these ideas before (in fact a lot of them just feel like common sense) – it’s more that he offered a permission and a path towards implementing deep work in your life in a way that I immediately felt drawn to. Having read his book, I now feel ready to take the dive. To implement a deep work strategy in my life, with the goal of having an 80,000 word first draft of novel done by the end of August.

Ambitious? Sure, but no more implausible than the millions of people who complete Nanowrimo each year (in fact, this goal is significantly more gentle on me!) Important? Absolutely. This is something I desperately want to do, and ideally I’d love to have a polished draft of said novel before my 30th birthday in May 2018. The idea of using this life milestone as a deadline has a certain appeal to me, so I’ve decided just to run with it. Hey, if it works, right?

So, how am I going to do it, and what role is this blog going to play?

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Mother: Short Story Publication

My short story “Mother” recently appeared in Issue 10 of the amazing Minola Review. You can check it out here.

Minola is a women and women identifying online lit mag, and features some really amazing work. I’m honoured to be featured there. Oh, and they’re also putting together an anthology which I can’t wait to get my hands on. Seriously, check them out (and maybe donate to this wonderful project?)

2016: A Year in Books

At the beginning of 2016, I decided I wanted to be more intentional about my reading habits. I wanted to be able to look back and remember what I’d read over the course of a year; I wanted to gain greater insight into the types of books I read (as part of trying to make a conscious effort to become more diverse in my reading habits… I figured I needed to know the extent of my reading biases at the very least, so that I can strive to address them)

I took a two pronged approach to this project:

  1. I created a spreadsheet. On this spreadsheet I attempted to track various pieces of data, including: Author (gender, nationality, person of colour); Date Published; Length of time to complete; Format of book; Genre; Publishing House, etc.
  2. I tried to be more active on my Goodreads, writing reviews of almost all the books I read this year.

Overall, this has been one of my most successful resolutions ever. I kept my log throughout the year, and tracked the 44 books I finished (as well as the five I did not…).

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My Worrier and Me

I think we bring up little girls with the understanding that they should strive towards perfection.

Boys will be boys, but little girls should have brushed hair and good manners and neat handwriting. If we can only strive hard enough, work hard enough, we could be perfect: and then, someone might love us.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: partly in relation to my writing (because I struggle really hard to write a messy first draft, and end up constantly obsessing and editing over stuff that should be left well alone) and partly in relation to my life (because I struggle really hard to cope with the idea that my life like my manuscript might be hopelessly messy, and often out of my control).

That being perfect is the goal is probably a message I absorbed particularly well, because my lifelong hobby has been worrying. I worry almost constantly, about everything. Anything can send me into a spiral of fretful reverie, really. And if the goal is self-perfection what a wealth of material for my Inner Worrier to munch on! (I think of my Inner Worrier as looking like a small grey goblin, with a wizened little beard. This goblin is probably male, but I am unclear on the gender norms amongst goblin folk, so I don’t want to assume.) I can always be worried that I should be working harder, that people don’t think I’m trying hard enough, that I’m not thin enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough.

Sometimes my Worrier has been good to me. My little goblin friend is probably the reason I have a first class degree, why I am extraordinarily organized, why I am complimented for my competence. My Worrier gets recognized on my resume and in performance reviews in phrases like “detail oriented” and “highly conscientious.” I think my Worrier is also responsible for some of what makes me function as a writer: my hyper-attention to the world around me, my desire to know and understand the ins and outs of a situation… All part of a toolkit that shape how I write.

But on a practical level, what I’m actually saying is that my Worrier and I will obsess about every minor point and consider all possible eventualities of a given situation (and prepare for them) because I am petrified of letting people down or being seen as having failed. When I make a mistake, no matter how minor, I often end up shaking, panicked, crying, and texting my mum. Because a mistake means perfection has not been achieved.

This is the less great side of living with a Worrier inside, the part that sometimes leads to panic attacks and missing out on stuff I want to do because some days it is just too much to face other people and having trouble sleeping and then being exhausted because worrying is a really tiring extra-curricular activity, to be honest, and then getting into the cycle of being mad at myself for being so bad at not worrying because, as we all know, worrying is not one of those attractive qualities people are meant to have.

Just chill out, yeah?

Because worrying is not perfection.

It’s only perfection if it’s effortless, right?

Right now I’m trying to work on the premise that I probably can’t worry myself out of worrying. It’s a really hard process to undertake because I sometimes so desperately wish I was one of those cool calm totally chilled out people who are just so #blessed, who seem to exist almost entirely on Instagram.

I’m trying to accept that me and my Worrier are, in fact, one and the same and that is ok. That working on coping strategies for when worrying gets out of hand is a good idea, but that it’s also ok for me to defend and be proud of the ways in which my personality (the personality of a worrier) make me a good or kind or competent person. That not only do I not need to apologize for the imperfection of worrying, but that I don’t have to see it as an imperfection at all.

And maybe once I’ve conquered that I’ll start reframing all those other “imperfections” as just part of the inevitable me-ness of me, too.

I’m writing this post because it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day here in Canada and, however you feel about corporate social citizenship, I think we can all agree the aims of breaking down stigma and broadening the conversation around mental health are laudable.

What I wanted to achieve by talking about my experience of lifelong worrying, is that the discussion around mental wellness shouldn’t just be about serious mental health disorders (although talking about how we treat and respond to those who do have acute or chronic diagnoses is a really important task). My firm belief is that in the same way that we all consider ourselves to have physical health that should be considered, nurtured and treated when something isn’t quite right, we all have mental health – some of us are in great mental health, fit as a fiddle, and some of us are really not doing great right now and need some professional interventions and the emotional equivalent of a hot water bottle and a mug of soup from our loved ones. What I’m saying is: mental health is a continuum that we’re all on, and part of destigmatizing mental health is acknowledging that.

I’ve spent the last few months feeling less ok than usual. One of the hardest things about not being ok is this relentless insistence on permanent happiness in our culture that positions a lack of happiness as failure. I love seeing photos and statuses and hearing stories from my friends about everything that is awesome and cool in their lives. But it is also ok (and should be ok) if they want to moan about how their boss sucks, or share that they’ve been really down and missing a loved one recently, or that they’re really super scared about the world right now. Because sadness, grief, boredom, frustration, and fear are natural, necessary, and human responses to the world around us, and it should be ok for us to talk about it all.