Category Archives: Tips

Romance Your Writing

I sent this post out to my list on Valentine’s Day but you can romance your writing all year long!

Happy Valentine’s Day, Your Writerly Highnesses!

May this day remind you of the many ways in which you can show your love. Not just in the romantically high-profile ways like giving flowers to your sweetheart, but also in the less heralded ones like extending a friendly hello to a stranger on the street, going out of your way to open a door for someone struggling with groceries…or taking two hours out of your busy day and spending it on a writing project that’s close to your heart.

Our writing projects need our love too!

When we have a longstanding relationship with our writing, as many of us do, we can take it for granted. It can become a chore, an item on a to-do list – or even worse, a source of quiet torment because we haven’t been able to get to it lately.

Here are four romantic gestures to dissolve the dreary and rekindle the spark between you and your writing.

1. Plan a date night, if you’re a night owl – or a date morning, if you’re a lark. I was busy all last week with editing work for clients, and so to ease my writerly heart, I made a plan to devote the first two hours of my Saturday to my memoir project. An act of love that not only soothed my soul, it was also fun!

2. Yes! Write for the fun of it! Being a dutiful sort, I have to remind myself to have fun with my writing. (Sad but true.) Deciding that having fun was the only requirement made for a delightful morning. And inevitably, that have-some-fun! attitude opened doors to great solutions to writing issues that had been dogging me for months.

3. Take your writing on a retreat. Dedicating time just for your writing project with no other distractions is delicious. I’m lucky enough to be part of a group of writers who periodically gather in a secluded setting – a retreat centre, a group of holiday cabins in the off-season, or even someone’s home if our numbers are low and other family members are away. We devote our days to writing on individual projects with very little interaction among us. Then we reward ourselves with a great meal (we take turns cooking dinner) and an evening of revelry! I just booked myself and my memoir into a weeklong retreat this coming April. Can’t wait!

4. Share your writing. This seems obvious, but we generally don’t write strictly for our own amusement. It’s important to find out how our words affect people. There’s little more rewarding than evoking an unexpected positive emotional response to something we’ve written. It fuels our desire to keep going. But even if the response is negative, it’s so helpful to find out how we can improve (assuming the reader is someone you trust as opposed to someone whom you know won’t support you). Finding your voice as a writer does not happen in a vacuum. Austin Kleon, author of Share Your Work, says it well: “I realize that the only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.”

Paying attention to our writing by using our voice, by giving it our time, or by writing in community, blesses us in the best possible way – with that deep, heartfelt peace and contentment that comes from doing something we were born to do.

Come Home to Your Writing

Lately, I’ve been excited about new clients, interesting editing projects, and an upcoming writing workshop on Bowen Island – 2018 promises to be a great year!

And yet a few days ago, I struggled with a nagging anxiety arising from persistent thoughts of “not good enough,” “not deserving,” “not belonging…” It’s a familiar, painful state that I’ve usually been able to challenge and neutralize fairly quickly. But not this time.

At the end of my work day, I took myself out for a walk, my go-to remedy when I’m feeling rotten. Just a few meters down the road, the message I most needed to hear came through with blazing clarity – “You need to get at your own writing.”

Couldn’t argue with that! I had been neglecting it lately. Between illness, the distractions of a legal suit that I’d been involved in (now resolved, thank God!), Christmas, a new relationship, I’d been barely giving my own writing the time of day

And then there’s Veronica, also known as my writers’ coaching and editing business. She not only wants my undivided attention on clients’ manuscripts, but is always demanding a blog, a social media post, an email response to a potential workshop participant – and what about that talk to encourage others to get at the book they’ve been dreaming of writing?

I love Veronica – she’s dedicated and committed, but she would take over my whole life if I let her. Here’s what I need to tell her: “Look, Veronica. I know I’m not doing enough marketing, but if I’m not writing, my whole life sucks. My client work suffers, my workshops slump, my creativity flat-lines, and I am well on the road to despair. If I don’t write, there’ll be no one to do any marketing. Capiche?”

That night, before going to bed, I resolved to get up early in the morning and get at my memoir first thing. Before meditation, before exercise, and especially before descending the rabbit hole of email or Facebook.

Then, later that night, in the wee wee hours, these words woke me out of a sound sleep:

“Come home to your writing.”

It was a message that went straight to my heart in its lack of blame, its generosity, and its eternal message of welcome.

I needed an invitation that transcended writing as a “should,” or an act of will. Having been a writer for hire for much of my professional life, I have developed the will and self-discipline to get at whatever writing I’ve been commissioned to do, and to get it done.

But what about writing with no deadline attached to it? What about writing that no one cares about except me, who has not always been the most faithful of stewards? That simple phrase, “Come home to your writing” told me that writing is more than an act of will. It’s where I belong. It’s my home. As someone whose peripatetic life has tended to create a chronic sense of exile, writing has always had a place at the table for me.

My writing clients will often tell me that their lack of self-discipline is the reason they’re not getting their writing done. I often refer them to the work of Steven Pressfield, who equates writing or any other creative endeavour as a fundamental, heroic act of a warrior: “Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue. By confining our actions territorially to our own thoughts and actions—in other words, to the work and its demands—we cut the earth from beneath the blue-painted, shield-banding, spear-branding foe.”

Steven is right. We do need to warrior up, to face the dragons of resistance, and to damned well sit down and write.

And I have come to believe that we also need to feel that writing is our home. A place of sanctuary that will always embrace us. A place that transcends our ambitions, our thoughts of what we “should” be accomplishing, or even our desire to write well. I believe that these words of the great poet and mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi, written about 800 years ago, have something to say to us:

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. This is not a caravan of despair. It doesn’t matter if you have broken your vow a thousand times, still and yet again, COME!”

Come home to your writing this year. Come home as many times as needed. There will always be a seat at the table for you.

The Courage to Cross the Finish Line

Just a few days ago, I received a beautiful new Young Adult (YA) novel in the mail, a gift from one of my clients who had hired me a year ago to provide her with feedback on her work in progress (see Masterpiece Package).

I told Lucille (not her real name) that she had a strong story idea and gave her some notes as to what she needed to do in order for her idea to be realized. She had done a lot of business writing in the past, but this was her first attempt at a novel. The issues that I identified are commonly found in novels in progress.

I told her to make sure that:

• your focus is on your main character.
• your character is active and that his/her actions are driving your story.
• you provide enough detail and examples to make the world that you’ve created come alive for your reader.
• when you use dialogue, your characters have distinct voices that reflect who they are, so that we always know who’s speaking.
• your language and tone are oriented toward a contemporary YA reader.

A year later, at another client’s book launch, Lucille came up to me and thanked me for being honest about the shortcomings in her novel, and not simply telling her what she wanted to hear. She told me that she had taken my notes to heart, had been working away on her manuscript, and would be having her own book launch soon!

What a joy it was for me to hear that! Whether or not she applied all of my suggestions was less important to me than her willingness to take the feedback, to keep going, and to carry her fledgling novel across the finish line.

It takes stubbornness to cross that finish line, it takes talent and, perhaps most important of all, it takes courage. Just this morning, I received that very message in a blog by Seth Godin, brilliant best-selling author, entrepreneur, TED talker and all-round motivational god: “You can improve your skills, get better tools and do the hard work of actually getting better…But most of all, you can realize that the most urgent work is the work of dancing with your fear, because the fear is the real reason the work isn’t getting done.”

Lucille didn’t let her fear hold her back. And that makes Lucille a hero.

“You’ve wrapped. You’ve shipped. You’ve licked this sonofabitch. Kudos to you!”
Steven Pressfield

Writing When You Don’t Know What to say

Do you think you need to know what you’re going say before you sit down to write?

You don’t.

Holding that belief, often unconsciously, is a great way to keep from writing at all and an even better way to make writing an excruciating, bloodletting experience.

For my first decade as a professional writer, I tortured myself with the assumption that I had to figure out whatever I was writing in advance. I opened a vein every time I put a word on the page. Not so surprisingly, I didn’t do much writing for the fun of it during those years, because writing wasn’t fun. It was interesting, it was rewarding, it was gratifying to be able to earn my living in such a cool way – but fun? Never – or at least rarely. Only when I was able to turn in my completed script. Then I was ecstatic. I wasn’t so much into writing as I was into having written.

I was saved by deadlines, without which I would never have begun anything. I was saved by nightfall when the whole world slept and, pulling yet another all-nighter, I sat alone at my desk, looking out the window at a darkened, tree-lined street, empty of all humanity, checking my long hair for split ends while I waited for the words to come. I was saved by page after page of yellow lined paper inscribed with my messy long-hand.

Sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and in the innermost of the witching hour, the words could finally appear, the ideas could flow, the solutions to writing problems could materialize – not exactly effortlessly but far more freely than in the glare of daytime when, inevitably, the reflexive belief that writing required advanced planning would once again reclaim its command over mind, heart – and pen.

As seems fitting, it was writing that freed me. In the early 1990s, when I started leading journal-writing and other kinds of creative writing workshops, I would instruct my participants to write without thinking, without letting their pen leave the page and, most important of all, without any need whatsoever for their writing to be any good. It didn’t even have to make any sense.

Timed exercises were the ticket to writerly freedom. One of my favorites was giving my writers five minutes to write their autobiography, an idea inspired by Deena Metzger’s brilliant book, Writing for Your Life. A deliciously impossible task, it often provoked unexpected insights and revelations (an unexpected bonus, never a requirement).

Because it felt weird for me to sit at the front of the room doing nothing, I wrote along with them. Seeing me scrawl away in my notebook gave them permission to scrawl away in theirs, and doing the exercises gave me something to do besides stare at them like an examination proctor. When my trusty Tibetan bell announced that time was up, I stopped when they stopped.

Writing in tandem with my participants, I freed myself as a writer.

Timed writing continues to be a mainstay in my writing workshops and is part of my personal practice as well. I do it often, and in fact am doing it right now as I write this blog! Setting a timer for a short period of time is a great way to bypass that insistent message that you need to know what you’re going to write before you write it.

The familiar advice, “get out of your own way,” when applied to writerly endeavors has always struck me as more annoying than helpful. However, I’ve come to understand it as finding a way to deactivate the inner fraidy-cat who doesn’t want any of us to write a single word unless certainty is guaranteed. Timed writing is a great way to do that.

With the exception of grocery lists and the like, writing is not about certainty. At least not the kind of writing that makes your (and your reader’s!) soul sing. “Writing is the act of discovery,” says Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and countless other wonderful books on writing.

“We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas. We know we don’t know,” says the renowned Stephen King, author of 56 novels at last count and winner of countless writing awards.

And the great essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Joan Didion, winner of the National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, says it beautifully: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Not only do we not need to know what to say before we sit down to write, we mustn’t and we can’t. It is when we place pen on page or fingers on keyboard that we find out what we want to say. This excerpt from Wanderer, by Antonino Machado, speaks of the vicissitudes of life, but it applies equally to writing:

Wanderer, the road is your
footsteps, nothing else;
you lay down a path in
In walking you lay down a

Lay down a path of words now, Dear Writer. Set your timer for five minutes and tell me the story of your life.

You Are So Creative


One of the cruelest untruths that I hear all too frequently from my coaching clients is, “I am not creative.”

It’s not their fault that they think that way. They probably got that message as a child from a parent or teacher, who got it from a parent or teacher, who got it from a parent or teacher – and so the virus got spread.

It doesn’t help that creativity is universally associated with participation in the arts – painting, writing, dance, theatre, photography, music or whatever. If you don’t do any of those things, how can you call yourself creative?

And then there’s the commonly held belief that if your artistic efforts aren’t making you a rich and famous author, musician or movie star, what’s the point?

These beliefs are so pervasive as to be invisible but they are living rent-free in the minds of most if not all of us.

The thing is, they’re lies. Soul-sucking, confidence-quelling, dreck-depositing lies. Everyone is creative. Creativity is what makes us human and there are as many ways of applying it as there are people – raising a child, preparing a meal, teaching, gardening, constructing a shelter, building a business, solving a problem, making love, practicing the healing arts, devising a spiritual practice, decorating a home… These activities are not limited to the “gifted” or to the wealthy or to those drawn to the arts. They are fundamental to who we are.

As for that message that your creative pursuit has to be a popular success in order to be worth anything, I had to face that one head on, just a few minutes ago.

It followed from a decision I made yesterday — to write a novel. It’s been an unacknowledged longing in me, and it felt great to say yes to it. So this morning I got up early, looked through some notes for an unfinished screenplay that I’d abandoned but never forgotten, and began to consider how I could use it as a jumping off point for a novel.

Later on, I was doing a bit of writing for the project and felt this heavy despondent feeling come over me. What’s going on? Am I not supposed to be doing this? Thankfully I soon recognized it as one of my inner critics delivering that oh-so-uplifting message, “What’s the point?”

Wanda Whatsthepoint at my disservice! Remembering a great tip from the uncomparable SARK, I decided to give Wanda a job. Instead of using her critical eye to crush my spirit and cripple my creative efforts, Wanda could be a quality control inspector at a high-end garment factory — in Prague. Decent wage of 14,000 korunas a month, cool military-inspired uniform, and boundless opportunity to nitpick with impunity. Like magic, with Wanda happily engaged, the despond lifted from my soul and I lived to write another day.

One of the best ways to apply the creativity that we all possess is to effectively dispense with the voices that deny or denigrate it.

How Writers Work

This post is part of a blog hop. I was invited on board by my talented friend, Glynis Whiting, author of A Nose for Death, the first title in her Nosey Parker murder mystery series. As a dramatist and filmmaker, Glynis brings a rich background to her mystery writing, which focuses strongly on character.

Part of blog hopping involves linking with other authors.  PJ Reece, author of works of YA fiction as well as the acclaimed Story Structure to Die For, is one of the smartest, most talented and disciplined writers I know. Read his post and be inspired. I met coach and author Jackee Holder at a writing retreat in Paris a couple of years ago. Her book, 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well, is one of my favourite resources on using writing to heal.

What am I working on?

I’m working on a nonfiction book about the journey of the suicide survivor – the one who is left behind after a loved one takes his or her life. I lost my brother to suicide ten years ago and feel a strong calling to explore a subject that is of central importance in our time. Suicide rates among 35-to-65-year-olds, the age range that my brother was in when he died, have increased by 28% in the last decade. There is also a growing recognition that suicide is more pervasive in our culture than the statistics would have us grasp; many deaths attributable to self-destructive causes could be deemed suicides. Suicide is a huge issue and gives rise to all kinds of questions – psychological, sociological, medical, existential, and spiritual. What can be more important than life and death?

How does it differ from others in the genre?

My book not only offers a multidimensional picture of how suicide impacts those who are left behind and of the many faces of grief, it also addresses suicidality in those who’ve lost a loved one in this way, particularly close relatives of the deceased. The risk of suicide among the surviving sibling is more than three times greater than that of the rest of the population and my book addresses that directly. This book offers an honest and vivid account of how my brother’s suicide impacted me and of my own struggles with suicidality. It also provides a range of tools for dealing skillfully with suicidal thoughts, for dealing skillfully with grief, and for using the opportunity afforded by the suicide of a loved one to craft a rich and meaningful life.

How does my writing process work?

The key to my writing process is to get at it first thing in the morning. It’s my best time of day and I’m happiest and most productive when I honour that intention. I have other things that I have to do that involve putting food on the table, and so I need to be disciplined in ensuring that I get at those writing projects that are close to my heart. I’m also working on developing the capacity to write in the middle of whatever’s going on in my life – to be able to find writing time, however short, in the midst of life’s other commitments and obligations so that if I’m not able to get at it first thing, I’m still getting something done that day. In addition to that, I book myself into writing retreats/intensives with fellow writers where we rent a space for a week or so, devote our days to writing on our individual projects, and then play in the evenings!

Why do I write what I do?

I’m drawn to write on subjects that contribute to healing the human heart – and am inclined to believe that doing so contributes to healing at a global level. While there is cause for hope and optimism, it can’t be denied that this is a dark night of the soul in human history, and I feel a responsibility to bring light to that darkness.

Cutting Through Perfectionism

I had never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but in a recent conversation with a friend who’s known me for many years, she casually said, “You’re like me. We’re both perfectionists.” We are? I am? What is a perfectionist anyway?

I’ve always understood it to mean that you set high standards for yourself and for those around you; that you can be counted on to deliver a high quality performance, service, or product; and that you want nothing but the best in all situations. Isn’t that a good thing?

Not according to Jungian therapist and author of Addiction to Perfection, Marion Woodman, who sees perfectionism as a consequence of an imbalance arising from a culture that emphasizes specialization and perfection, and as a major cause of eating disorders, substance abuse, and other addictive and compulsive behaviors.

Maybe not such a good thing.

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Empowering Creative Women

Today is International Women’s Day, a time to consider the achievements and accomplishments of women all over the world.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the particular challenges faced by women in our quest to live according to our creative passions and inclinations. Although the specific history, sociology, psychology, and spirituality of women has been part of my consciousness at different points of my life, I’ve been less inclined to frame my and other women’s challenges in that manner in recent years.

But it’s essential to take into account the distinct issues that are part of many women’s experience. Issues like always putting others’ concerns before our own, or of giving away our power to authority figures, or of being afraid of rocking the boat, of speaking too freely, of being too much!

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When the Gremlins Have Taken You Down

The gremlins are sneaky. I’m talking about those evil critters whose sole purpose is to sabotage the forward movement of your creative life. You think you’re just taking care of business – dealing with your broken down car or your laundry or the membership applications for your housing co-op. These are all important matters, right? Dealing with them immediately means that you’re taking care of business, and once you’ve cleared the decks, then you’ll be able to get at your creative projects.

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Countering Negative Thoughts

It’s 3:00 AM and here I am, wide-eyed as a marigold. But there is no sun to warm me and open up my petals to the light. Oh no. Instead I am surrounded by the dreaded demons of the night. Nasty phantoms of misery battering my weary, bed-rumpled self with messages of doom, hopelessness, and failure.

“Let’s face it, you’ve never amounted to anything and never will.”
“Your creative dreams come A BIT LATE, don’t you think?”
“You’re too OLD and worn-out to make any money now. Scraping by on an inadequate Old Age Pension is all you can hope for.”

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