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laurensapala

How Meditation Can Help Your Writing Career

SAMSUNGI’m a neurotic writer.

Well, I’m basically neurotic overall, but my anxieties tend to come out most strongly in the areas of my life that I feel most passionately about…like writing.

A week or so ago I posted Secrets Your Inner Critic Would Kill to Keep and received such an incredible response from other writers. Many commented that they, too, worried about not being good enough, or struggled with the editing process, or questioned their writing choices. I realized that there are a lot of other writers out there like me. And I thought about the tools I’ve discovered in recent years to help me quiet my mind and dissolve fear.

The number-one, most powerful skill I’ve learned is meditation.

I didn’t start my meditation practice to help my writing. In fact, I had no idea it would impact me creatively at all. I sought out meditation because I used to frequently wake up at 3am with racing thoughts about the state of the universe and everything in it, and needless to say, it was not really conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. I was also attracted to Buddhism because it seemed so quiet, and for most of the past 15 years my life has been very loud and busy.

I started going to Zen meditation sessions at the San Francisco Zen Center, and then when I felt comfortable, I started meditating on my own. At first I tried to meditate for an hour, and when that didn’t work I aimed for 30 minutes. Now, I do 15 minute chunks in the morning and evening. I also skip some days. I am not strict with my meditation practice at all, and yet I still notice significant changes in my thinking patterns.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Meditation cleans out the brain clutter. It gives your mind space and energy to encompass a wider field of consciousness. And writers—as modern-day artists in an online world—need the most spacious field of consciousness they can possibly command.

Practicing meditation can…

Focus Your Creative Eye
Writers are never short on ideas. The difficulty is in picking one and sticking with it. An experienced writer knows that one little idea can stretch into months and years of writing, editing and promoting a book. It’s essential to pick the few solid ideas that you really want to work with long-term, out of the million crowding for attention inside your head.

Meditation trains your mind to let your heart speak up once in a while too. By strengthening your connection to your heart, your intuition will kick in more powerfully than ever before. You’ll get solid gut feelings about which creative ideas you should pursue, and the inner bedrock of spiritual confidence to support the follow-up work on them.

Clear the Path Ahead
Writers these days are constantly questioning. Self-publish or get an agent? Start with short stories or launch a novel? Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or all of them? Asking for advice from other writers is sometimes helpful, but can also add to the confusion. Each person has an individual process that works for them. Part of discovering yourself as a writer in this modern world is figuring out your own unique process.

Meditation teaches you how to slow your mind down. Devoting more time to your thought processes results in more thoughtful choices. The rapid, and often frantic, pace of our online world can pressure us into making choices based on what we think of others in some idealized reality we’ve found somewhere on the internet. But you don’t have to make impulsive decisions stimulated by information overload. By thinking things through slowly and clearly, you take back your power to be a unique human being and find your own way.

Open Your Life to New Opportunities
Every successful writer has one thing in common: They can point to good opportunities in their past that they jumped on, and recognize how those opportunities shaped and fueled their career. Where are your good opportunities and how will you know them when they show up?

By slowing your mind and listening to your heart, you open the door for other little gifts to arrive. Like the re-framing of old perspectives. Regularly practicing meditation enhances your inner vision, and after a while you can “see” the opportunities to be found in new people, relationships, and situations, that you might have missed before.

Meditation practice teaches us about “taking the one seat” as Jack Kornfield calls it in A Path With Heart. This means you imagine yourself sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty room. People come in and out of the room, conversations happen, maybe someone opens the window, maybe someone crawls through it. Many things happen and catch our attention, but we remain seated, watching and observing and true to ourselves. If we apply this clear thoughtful energy to our writing life and our writing career the whole process becomes less overwhelming, more interesting, and a lot more fun.

You can look into going to practice sessions if you have a nearby Zen Center in your area, or you can Google “Zen Meditation” or “Zazen” to learn how to do it on your own at home. You don’t have to know what you’re doing, you don’t have to be religious in any way, and you don’t have to do it perfectly to start practicing and seeing results.

Take your one seat, open your heart, and grow your writing life.

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The New Generation of Poets

SAMSUNGLately, I’ve been reading a LOT of poetry. I recently discovered that I can search for specific topics on my WordPress Reader and so I’ve been gorging on poetry every day. Back when I was studying for my English degree in the late 90s, the general idea was that modern day poets didn’t have much of a future. People told me there was “no money in poetry” and “not enough space” for all the aspiring poets out there.

At that time, I don’t think anyone counted on how drastically the internet would change the world.

The last decade has changed everything about the way we see books and authors, the way we think about publishing and having a writing career. It’s been kind of scary at times, with many writers questioning if novels and poetry will even have a place at all in our digital future. But what the internet has really done is expand the amount of space for creative effort to stretch and flex itself. It’s removed the limits that we previously took for granted, so much so that they seemed like a law of the universe.

We now live in a world where you can write a poem and instantly share it with billions of other people across the globe. No one has to approve it for you. No one has to distribute it for you. You get to be in charge of your creative life. For the first time in history, the poets have no more need of the gatekeepers.

How brilliant is that?

I’ve always felt that it’s an incredibly life-affirming act to write poetry. Although a lot of the time we come to writing poetry as a way to express the intense emotions of sorrow and loss, rejection or anger, what is born out of our creative effort is this beautiful life energy wrapped up in just a few words. And because the form of a poem manifests primarily in symbolic language and imagery, it’s like a straight-shot arrow of emotion that hits us squarely in the heart.

Whenever you fall into the cynical mindset of “not enough” or “no one cares”, jump on Google and search for poetry blogs. People are posting new poems every minute. It’s like sitting at the edge of a field and watching dozens of different flowers bloom right in front of your eyes. The poets out there haven’t given up on the writing industry, or on planet earth. They are saying YES to life every second, with every new poem they write and share with the world.

Instead of there being no future and no place for modern day poets, the exact opposite is true. Today’s poets have created their own space in our online landscape, and by sharing their poetry within our virtual world, they help to teach all of us how to pause and receive beauty. They show us how to truly live in the present moment.

If you are a poet, or even someone who thinks they only “dabble” in poetry, consider these ideas deeply. Your time has come. You have a valuable, essential role in this world. I can tell you, just from my personal perspective, that the poems I’ve come across while browsing blogs have a significant impact on my day. They lift my mood. They recharge my spiritual batteries. Your poems make a difference in my life.

Thank you.

And keep writing.

Secrets Your Inner Critic Would Kill to Keep

SAMSUNGThis article is not for everyone.

Some writers really love the actual process of writing. Some writers have so many ideas they don’t even know what to do with them all. Some writers almost always feel confident and upbeat about their writing.

I am not one of those writers.

It is incredibly difficult for me to sit down and do the physical work of writing. I love tripping though Imagination-land in my head. I love talking about books and writing. I love to read novels, stories, and poetry. But when I sit down in front of the blank page I would rather be anywhere else.

I am also a very slow writer. I write about 5 pages a week, sometimes I make it to 10. I have never—never, ever—written over 20 pages in one week.

And almost every time I reread the first draft of anything I’ve written, I absolutely hate it.

For years, I assumed all of these things were indicators that I was not cut out to be a writer. My inner critic pushed me to compare myself to other writers, and to legends about writers, and to idealized fantasies in my head about what a writer was supposed to be and how they were supposed to work.

I came up short every time.

Then…I discovered that my inner critic is not my voice of truth. In fact, it’s not even my voice at all. The voice of my inner critic comes from a place of fear. My inner critic likes to mislead me into thinking that if I listen to fear I will be safer, I won’t be laughed at, I won’t lose anything.

After all, it is true that is if you never put yourself out there, you might feel safer.

And if you never put yourself 100% into finishing your novel, you won’t run the risk of it being laughed at.

And if you never try to move out of your comfort zone, you won’t ever lose the familiar.

But when I started writing again seven years ago, I decided things were going to be different between me and my inner critic. No matter how much fear it tried to pour all over my hopes and dreams, I would keep going. I would keep pushing forward, no matter what. So what if writing is hard for me? So what if I’m a slow writer? So what if I cringe when I reread my rough drafts? I still get to try.

In seven years I’ve written four novels. I’ve written eight short stories. Now, I’m writing a blog. And the only thing I did was show up for myself and my writing, week after week, and promise the universe that I would get those 5 or 10 pages down on paper. And I did this in spite of being possibly the world’s worst procrastinator, while simultaneously competing for an Olympic gold in low self-esteem.

If I can do it, you can too.

You don’t have to be amazingly awesome at writing right out of the gate. You don’t have to have an idea that no one’s ever had before. All that’s required is that you show up and write. Even one page once a week will do it.

Warning: Your inner critic is not going to like it. It’s probably going to throw a temper tantrum or try to undermine you sneaky-style at first. Because the number one thing your inner critic is truly terrified of is you stepping into your own power. Once you take that step it’s very likely you’ll discover that you never needed your inner critic to survive. Quite the opposite: It always needed you.

To follow your dream as a writer, it’s most helpful to practice positive thinking and persistence. That means, the Beast of Self-Judgment is not going to get you again. That means, one bad day no longer has the power to significantly set you back. The future is full of more days in which you get to try again. And if you do have a bad day, it’s not something to beat yourself up over. That’s an inner critic strategy and we’ve determined the inner critic is destructive and unhelpful, if not outright insane. So if you have a bad day, or feel down about your writing, the new strategy is to show yourself loving kindness and gentle compassion.

And then get up the next day and try again.

Persistence and positive thinking come from a place of love. Moving out of fear and into love, using love as your new operating system, and consistently practicing love towards yourself—these are all radical shifts to make. However, once you shift into a life that includes mostly love and not so much fear, your creativity and writing will show the difference. And because you already know what every writer should know

You will find the strength to show up every week for yourself and your writing.

You will trust and have faith that your book is already inside you, waiting to be born.

You will accept yourself as the unique, beautiful writer that you are, and you will spread this light to others around you.

And you will get up, day after day, and keep on trying again.

The next time your inner critic speaks up you can choose to listen to your own true creative essence instead and expose your truth.

Your inner critic voice is not you. And YOU already know what to do.

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The Writer’s Magic Notebook

SAMSUNGI’m talking about a real notebook. The physical, paper kind of notebook.

Of course your laptop, iPad, or phone works for taking notes, but the writer’s magic notebook is for so much more than just taking notes.

Writers are a certain strain of artist. Like sculptors and painters, we are creatively tied to our hands. We tend to forget that fact in our brave new world of futuristic technology. But no matter how much we come to rely on computers it is always beneficial for writers to maintain that link between our mind and our hands.

This is the attitude I want you to bring to your writer’s magic notebook. It is not just a place to jot down notes. Think of it instead as an artist’s sketchpad. You’re going to use your notebook as a writing tool to explore environment, record experience, and practice the craft.

Here’s how you do it.

Pay Attention to Physical Fit
Many writers have already discovered their preference in notebooks. Some use Moleskins, some use the old-fashioned black and white composition notebook, some prefer pocket-sized with a flip top. If you’re not yet sure which type works for you, experiment with a few different options. Your notebook should comfortably fit into your schedule and your life. For instance, if you tend to travel light, go with something small and easy to carry. And if you have toddlers running around your house, go with something that can survive the assault of a two-year-old.

Paint a Picture
Choose a public place like a park, a Starbucks, or a subway station, and sit somewhere out of the way with your magic notebook. Observe everything around you and “sketch” the scene out with words. You can practice creating vivid physical descriptions by noting the details of dress, facial expression, and overall appearance of the people, and the weather, lighting, and overall ambiance of the location. Pretend this sketch of yours will be read by a good friend who needs an exact picture of this place and these people.

Indulge in Eavesdropping
If you frequently ride the bus you can get lots of practice dropping in on conversations. You can also do this as part of the exercise above. Listen to the conversations going on around you and write them down. Fragments work too. Note the rhythm of voices and the emotional tone. Pay attention to the way people use slang and abbreviations. This is an excellent way to improve your skills at writing dialogue, and you might even come out of it with some story ideas as well.

Share the Love
I had a couple of writer friends in Seattle who used to keep one notebook together, and pass it back and forth. One person started a storyline, trailed off with a cliffhanger, and then handed it on to the second person to continue the story. They would do this for months and then finally, when the notebook was almost full, they wrote the ending and read the whole thing out loud. It was an amazing narrative every time. Pick one of your best writer friends and experiment with this process. It takes the pressure off and allows the silly, fun part of your writer brain to come out and play.

Always Write It Down
For some reason, I seem to get my best ideas right before I fall asleep. I always think to myself, “I should really get up and write this down. Nah, I’m sure I’ll remember it in the morning.” And you know what? I never remember. Because our writer brains present ideas to us so vibrantly and they seem so alive, it’s hard to believe in the moment that they could ever fade. Until a new, vibrant and alive idea comes along and pushes it out of the way. Our brains only have room for so much to swirl around in the forefront of our consciousness. Always keep your writer’s magic notebook near you, and when you get a brilliant idea, always write it down.

Think of your magic notebook like a doctor’s medical bag, or a CEO’s cell phone. As a writer, you’re always on call and the call could come at any time. Part of being a great artist is being prepared.

Buy a magic notebook. Keep it near you. Write it down.

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Does Your Hero Have a Hidden Dark Side?

SAMSUNGWe all know what “compelling hero” means. It can be the difference between a so-so manuscript and a potential bestseller. It seems like a deliciously layered character can almost hypnotize readers into devouring a whole series of books, and significantly increase chances of a long-dreamed-of movie deal for the author. Let’s consider Harry Potter. In the first installment, Harry was an average bookish, lonely, and misunderstood kid. But by the end of the series he had blossomed into a powerful young wizard, willing to take risks and wrestle with fate. The depth he gained came not only from the experiences we watched him go through, but more essentially from the ambivalent psychological texture of his changing motives.

To be plain, sometimes the good things people do come from a dark place.

Boring heroes never teeter on the edge. We never wonder what they’re going to do next, because we already know. Of course they’ll do the right thing. When this element of wonder is low, so is our urge to turn the next page. We followed Harry Potter’s adventures so doggedly because we all knew that he always had it in him to go dark side.

And we wanted to see if he actually would.

You also can craft your hero in such a way that the narrative of their journey inspires rabid devotion from their fans. To take personal story to the level of compelling mythology, dig deep into the dark muck of your character’s psyche.

Temptation
If it came down to a deal with the devil, what would the devil offer your hero in exchange for their soul? Remember, the devil can see into your hero’s darkest secret heart—what’s the desire hiding in there that can’t be passed up? The devil rarely conjures up anything so easily won these days as money or fame. Think about people your hero has lost, deeds that can’t be undone. Regrets that haunt them in the middle of the night. Every character has their price, it’s just a matter of finding out how high.

So Jaded
No one remains unscathed by life, so what does your hero have to be cynical about? Were they part of a political movement that didn’t work out? Or did someone break their heart and turn them off love for good? Even if they’re the most optimistic character in the world, they still have at least one tiny area that’s been poisoned by an awful past experience. Dig up that little poison spot and expose it to the light. How does it affect your hero’s present-day actions?

Achilles Heel
This isn’t just any old weakness your hero might struggle against, it’s the weakness. The flaw that could bring them down entirely. It might be uncovered when using deal-with-the-devil temptation, or when turning over the stones of cynical bitterness, but be prepared for heavy duty excavation with this one. You’ll probably go back through childhood memories, and maybe even all the way back through a character’s ancestry to find the weakest link. The intense archaeological dig will be well worth it though. Once you find the Achilles Heel of your hero, you pretty much hold the key to everything.

Using any of these methods is going to make your hero uncomfortable, no doubt about it. It might even make you a little uncomfortable, since our heroes are usually reflections of ourselves. But you can use intuitive character development and your own natural artistic empathy to pull that kind of charged emotion out of the depths. And when you bring it to the surface your story will start rippling with beautiful interesting texture. Every ripple sends another chain-of-reaction outward, building those interconnected circles and layers of narrative.

To find the layers of your story, dig down into your hero. Dig as deep as you can go.

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