Category Archives: Writehack/Lifehack

Interrupt the thought spiral

This is an anchoring exercise. You should practice it when you don’t need it, so that you can call on it when you do.

Start by rubbing your thumb and index finger together in a circle motion. have your eyes closed. As you do this, think about someone that you care about and who cares about you. Think of the good times together and why you are friends/close/etc.

Then move to rubbing your thumb finger and middle finger together. Focus on a happy memory that really brings you joy.

Then your thumb finger and ring finger. Focus on an event where you were successful.

Then thumb and pinky. Focus on where you would like to see yourself in the future.

Make sure to have your eyes closed and really visualize it. Spend about 30-60 seconds doing this with each finger. If you practice it regularly, it’ll be an easier tool to call upon when you get stressed out. We have a huge catalog of memories and experiences to draw from. This anchoring exercise helps you flip to your favorite sections of that catalog when you need them the most.

Also, as a bonus, here’s a quick article on interrupting the negative thought spiral. http://www.valorieburton.com/freebies/resilience/5-ways-to-keep-negative-thoughts-from-spiraling-out-of-control/

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Anger for Sprints, Humor for Marathons

Yesterday was my third mounted archery lesson. I show up early enough that the mists still cover the hills. The vineyards, the barn, and the arena are still chilled and dewy. Usually, no one’s around except for the dogs, cat, and occasional hen that come to see if I have food or cuddles, or both. When someone asks how my training is going, this is never what comes up. They expect the hobby to be fueled by revenge. They expect me to be angry.

Anger gives energy in short bursts. It can be an extra jolt of motivation, and armor to wrap yourself in. It converts two-way communication into a one-way street. Under certain circumstances, when you need to protect yourself, when you need to pull yourself up over the ledge — anger is excellent. Anger rises when someone has crossed a boundary. Anger is both an alarm system and a security system, and it will snap shut on the offender. It is as intense as it is instant, and when you’re done, you’re worn out. Even for those who have a long fuse, I’m referring to the moment the fuse triggers the explosive.

The obsessive mind latches onto a perspective and holds there. It takes a stance, chooses a narrative, and makes it into the sole truth. It chews and chews until the original flavor — the objective truth of events — is gone. Only the narrative is left, and that’s what the obsessive mind feeds on. If the narrative is the story we tell ourselves, then we have the power to choose that narrative.

For example, I’ve unconsciously started looking for his car when I’m out driving. I can’t help it. Since I don’t know how to stop playing this game, I look for the cars driven by people I love and am still close to, instead. Chew, chew, obsessive brain, chew on something healthier.

After the breakup and subsequent loss of our child, I couldn’t find my anger. I felt drained of strength, and without my strength, I had no identity. Without anger to shield me and energize me, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. What confused me even further was that the strongest feeling wasn’t anger, but love. I was still in love, and generated love, but I had no place to put it.

Without anger, I felt weak, but the love and warmth in my heart kept growing and growing. Love wrapped itself around the heartbreak and grief. I didn’t want to be bitter. I didn’t want to destroy or be destroyed. I wanted to transcend this, and be transformed by it. When I started practicing archery more often, those feelings imbued the experience. I wasn’t ok, (I’m still not ok), but archery helped me get out of my head and into my environment for a little while. I felt the bow, the arrows, the targets, the trees, the grass, the hawks and the quails, and my fellow archers. They and I were all wrapped in presence and stillness. In that stillness, I could pay attention to the tiny movements that influenced my technique. Shooting wasn’t about the kill; it was about the stillness.

When I found a mounted archery teacher, it was the same thing. We think of warriors on horseback as a thundering wave of death; but one-on-one hasn’t been like that at all. It’s me and the horse, learning to talk to each other. You have to listen to the animal, and acknowledge the terrain and other distractions. You also have to listen to your own mental state, and its effect on your body language. Riding wasn’t about taking power; it was about listening.

My body has always told me early on when something was wrong, from vitamin deficiencies to appendicitis. I’ve learned to trust it. It knew that anger wouldn’t make me better this time.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of giggling in the midst of the zen. I’ve had arrows hit the target and then flip over themselves and land in the grass somewhere. I’ve done a great fast-draw and then dropped the arrow on my toe before I could shoot it. More than once, while standing in the stirrups, my horse would just stop and pitch me forward. This is silly, slapstick shit. Beauty and stillness is all well and good, but it’s not really fun. Fun is being able to laugh at yourself. If you want to climb a mountain, you’ll have a much easier time if you enjoy walking and sweating. If you can make your fuck-ups funny, you’re set. You look forward to the victories, but also for the jokes. It’s hard to quit if you love what you’re doing.

After the ride, I feed the horse and sit with him until he finishes. I brush him and pet his flank while he eats, the same way I pet the other animals at the barn when they ask for it. Then I take him back to his pasture. The exercise, the countryside, and being with animals is helping me heal in a way that breaking, burning, and screaming never could.

Even the self-talk has shifted. Rather than say “fuck!” when I make a mistake, I say “well, that was silly.” Maybe I was silly. Maybe the horse was silly. Maybe the arrow or the target was silly. Blame and negativity aren’t part of the learning experience. Each success is a surprise, and each mistake is hilarious.

So no, I don’t picture my ex when I’m shooting. I have no desire to do harm. My own pain was enough. When I ride, I’m with the horse. When I shoot, I’m with the landscape.

There was a woman I trained with a long time ago who always smiled. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big toothy grin. At the time, I took her less seriously because of it; but I was wrong. She’s knowledgeable, formidable, and a fantastic friend. I think she was on to something.

If I were angry, I couldn’t do any of these things. I’d be stuck in the cycle of raging, passing out, and raging again. That’s not a long-term strategy.  Instead, I’m learning to flow with what is, and let go of what isn’t. I won’t hit the bulls-eye every time. I won’t always be graceful in the saddle. But if I’m laughing the whole time, who cares? I’ll be back tomorrow, no worse for wear.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
― Sun Tzu

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
― Samuel Beckett

Feedback Hack – How to combine multiple Word docs into one

You might already know how to do this. This might be the most obvious thing in the world. Since I just learned how to do it, and never want to forget, I’m re-posting it here.

Say you’re working on a book or something long, you get feedback from multiple sources (including tracked-changes and comment boxes). This is how to merge all of those into one file so you don’t have to flip between windows. My screen is tiny. Don’t judge.

  1. On the Review tab, in the Compare group, click Compare.
  2. Click Combine revisions from multiple authors.
  3. Under Original document, click the name of the document into which you want to combine the changes from multiple sources.

    If you don’t see the document in the list, click Browse for Original .

  4. Under Revised document, browse for the document that contains the changes by one of the reviewers.
  5. Click More.
  6. Under Show changes, select the options for what you want to compare in the documents.

    By default, Microsoft Office Word shows changes to whole words. For example, if you change the word cat to cats, the entire word cats will show as changed in the document and not simply the character s.

  7. Under Show changes in, click Original document.
  8. Click OK.

    To change which documents appear on the screen when you click OK, in the Compare group, click Hide Source Documents or Show Source Documents.

  9. Repeat steps 1-8. Word will merge all of the changes into the original document.

What is an Artspouse? I want an Artspouse!

I’ve never had a partner who reads my work, or has taken an active interest in my writing. This used to make me sad.

Then I discovered there are many writers whose partners actively discourage it, saying it’s a waste of time, it would never go anywhere, that they should be doing something “productive.” They can never work in an environment free from judgement and criticism.

I am so thankful, every day, that while I’m not always helped by my family (chosen or otherwise) they have never stood in my way.

As much as I am grateful, I find that my most favorite authors thank their partners or spouses first and foremost. Those partners work with their writer, around their writer, applying their shrewd minds, asking good questions, and pushing their writer to be the absolute best they can be. As a mushy example, the writer in Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” had his wife type out the last line in every story. I’ve been giving it some thought, and come up with a word to describe this person:  Artspouse

This might be your husband or wife, this might be your best friend. This might be someone you absolutely cannot stand on a personal level; but when you come together to collaborate on a project, the results are absolute magic. This is the person who knows what you’re going through as an artist, as a creative, as a person trying to meet a bloody deadline — and knows when it’s time for chocolate and tissues; and when it’s time to kick the door in, turn the lights on, and yell at you to get your fucking act together.

Within this sphere of your life, on this particular path, they are your partner, your ally, your battle-buddy, your greatest nemesis, your soulmate, and anything in between. They are the constant measuring stick that says you can do better, and the little voice in your ear that helps you get there.

As a test request, here’s what I would look for in an artspouse. You may assume that these wishes are expressed with an intent of mutuality (I would provide the same support I ask for):

  • Interest in the same medium — a reader to my writer, an audience to my show, a hunter to my bladesmith.
  • Complementary strengths — if I’m good at structure, you’re good at emotional resonance. If I’m good at sculpting, you’re good at interior design. If I’m a lighting guy, you’re a sound guy.
  • Matching goals — whether it’s a quest for excellence, or commercial success, or attaining a certain level of mastery.
  • Seriousness of intent — less blah blah, more pew pew. We’re always aiming for the next level.
  • Commitment to your own work — different goals on the same path. It makes sense to run together for a while.
  • Enjoyment of each other’s work — I’d buy your stuff because it’s good, not just because I know you.
  • Fearlessness —  we can argue, we can risk, we can fail, we can get up and try again.
  • No man left behind — I’m speaking at this con, and so are you. I’m getting published, you’re putting on your show. I’m climbing this fucking mountain, and you’re coming with me. And in that vein…
  • On the level — we’re about the same skill level, or same stage of our artistic  careers. Maybe one of us is slightly ahead, but will be outpaced in a moment. They might piss you off a little because they’re so talented, and you have to hustle to catch up. There’s always something to learn, always something to offer.
  • Aw, buddy — we maybe, just possibly, actually like each other. It’s 2am. Let’s get tacos and talk about that weird dream you had the other day.

What do you want in an artspouse?
Do you already have an artspouse?

Stack of Rejections: How to Know When You’re Done

Say you’re writing a novel. Say you send it off to agents, indie publishers, friends, your neighbor, and no one wants to give you dollars for it.

How do you know you’re done?

If you’re a novelist, and you hate writing short stories, or “don’t” write short stories, I have words for you. They’re not idle words either, as I also dislike writing shorts. I feel you, I do. 

What we do is as much about craft as it is about expression. There are certain tools we need classes to use, certain skills we need to hone, and we need to develop the instincts to say when something is good — and when it won’t work where it is.

This is why writing short fiction is helpful.

Short fiction is an exercise that helps you learn those tools much faster, because you’re applying your skills in new situations one after the other. Like Arley said (while schooling me on structure) some people are born with good instincts, and while that’s awesome, that’s not enough. If you’re able to recognize how and why it’s good — you’re more likely to apply that technique intentionally and mindfully next time.

Isolate one event, one turning point, one moment, and focus on just that. Don’t worry about a long build-up and denouement. Every time you write a short, you’re not just learning about beginning-middle-end story structure, you’re learning narration. Scene-setting. Character development AND characterization. Decorative word-choice. Tone. Mood. The texture of language as it rolls off your tongue and how that informs all the other bits.

Even if they’re totally mundane stories, even if you would never submit them (try anyway) keep pumping them out. Practice the revision stage. Learn to identify your own strengths and areas for learning — and exploit them…

KatanaPen… Right… Here’s the martial metaphor. Short stories are individual forms. A combination of stances, strikes, and finite patterns. Your practice over the course of years is like your novel. Drilling the hell out of the small stuff will improve your ability long term. 

Because once you’ve done that five, 10, 30 times (and you’ll also take the opportunity to learn how to EDIT YOUR OWN WORK, an often overlooked skill in an editor-rich environment)… You’ll be able to take all of that practice and knowledge and apply it to the story you REALLY want to tell.

So, no. You’re never done. Not with that piece. Not until your ability catches up with your taste.

Now toss the pile into a drawer or sub-folder, and get back to work. You’ve got honing to do.

Must-read Books for Writers

hands

I invaded a conversation today about writing books that still hold up today, or our favorite ones we turn to over and over. Megan, Earl and Andy mentioned some great resources so I thought I’d share them with you.

The War of Art and On Writing have been mentioned over and over by most of my favorite people. Wonderbook, also, made the top five and I’ll endorse it here for its fun and silly approach to writing. It’s super cute, imaginative, and an excellent starter; but probably wouldn’t be of use to people who have been at it for a few years. Same could be said of Bird by Bird.

I brought up another work that applies to any artistic practice — much like the War of Art. Many Solstices ago, my dad gave me Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. It’s aimed at musicians, as you can guess by the title, but the primary focus was on how to approach a practice. It emphasized elements of craft — study, practice, repetition, etc, and also encouraged the reader to take advantage of freedom of experimentation. It teaches the right attitude toward mistakes and failures. This is an essential practice to any pursuit that doesn’t have an ultimate goal beyond some vague concept of excellence.

I also recommended Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please because of what she has to say about being a working writer. She writes about how to stay productive, how to strike a work/life balance, and other insights on actually working in the industry. It’s largely aimed at women, but I think it’s for everyone who wants to be a working writer.

That said…

Don’t limit what you consume (watch, read, seek, discuss) to your genre/topic.

The more broadly you read, the more broadly you live, and the more stuff you’ll have to write about.

Whether you’re writing a pile of dick jokes or the next Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you and I are taking on the exploration of what it is to be, to experience, to live.

The news has value. Academic papers on social sciences, music, cooking, metallurgy, and physics have value. Going to a concert can be just as valuable as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Studying the greats of your genre is a good place to start, but you will have more to say in your own way if you also study Malcolm X, Terence McKenna, and Hannah Arendt.

Or whoever else influences your ideology. Because that’s what books do.

And read people who absolutely 100% DON’T agree with you. Familiarize yourself with the difference between presentation and perception.

We’re tapping into something greater than ourselves, drawing connections and finding patterns that have the potential to help other people achieve some kind of anchor or clarity. Yes, heroic stories can have great worlds and cool systems, but the heart of the matter will always be the essence of what it means to be a hero.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my straight-edge, anti-drug self needs to come down from Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.

Hard Work and a Sense of Humor

Hard work and a sense of humor are things that no one can take away from you. Coincidentally, they’re also the two things that will see you through the most painful of clusterfuffles. Every writer gets to the point where they’re banging their head against their desk, trying to move things forward, and the immediate instinct is to fall deeper into despair. Heroes are resilient. Know what else is resilient?

Trampolines.

Seeing the absurd or the silly in the midst of toil makes the burden so much lighter, and will help you and your characters manage the problems that drop into your laps.

Chaos, conflict, and challenge are the life-blood of stories, and no one wants to watch you (or your characters) wither under these pressures. There will always be critics. There will always be hard choices, fear, famine, pain and heartbreak. Gallows humor grants the strength to go on, and hard work finds the way out. These are both your strongest assets, and most endearing qualities. They make each character an invaluable asset to every team, squad, club, order and cult. People like this are great fun to watch, and a joy to adventure with.

Strip away everything that your characters ever needed or cherished. If they have these two things, they will be unstoppable. So will you.

Miss Tick sniffed. “You could say this advice is priceless,” she said, “Are you listening?”
“Yes,” said Tiffany.
“Good. Now…if you trust in yourself…”
“Yes?”
“…and believe in your dreams…”
“Yes?”
“…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on.
“Yes?”
“…you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”
― Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)

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