How I Got Past Fear and Started to Write a Book

How I Got Past Fear and Started to Write a Book

Do you have any projects in the closet waiting to be born?

I have set out to write a book that I have been wanting to write for a few years. And, I am running into a lot of fear and diversionary tactics. Sound familiar?

Here’s what I’m doing to get myself started (and keep going!). I hope you may find it helpful in jump-starting your own scary, wonderful, creative projects.

First, a little background.

My New Book Project

My new book is based on my years of teaching. It is to be a book about how to ignite and sustain the fires of a creative life, what you need to know, be and do in order to thrive as an artist.

I don’t mean thrive financially, because I don’t know diddly about that. I mean thrive internally, have a joyful, inspired, sustainable, healthy creative life, which I know a great deal about.

This book will debunk the lies, myths and mistaken approaches we are taught about artists and creativity, and replaces them with powerful truths that work. It comes from my own hard-won experiences as a creative person, from my struggles, painful crashes, lost chances and also my healing, successes and growth.

I aim to share my story and my discoveries, my knowledge and wisdom, and also inspiration and encouragement. I aim to share practical, vital tools and perspectives, as well as a kind of magical potion for those who are called to the creative life.

But where and how do I begin? Ack!

The First Hurdle: Which Project Do I Choose?

When I finally finished the umpteenth edit of my manuscript of poems last Autumn, I kept waffling about which book to write next.

I wanted to dive into a new collection of poems. And I want to write an inspiring primer on writing poetry. I also have a neglected novel I cannot face.

But this Creative Sparks book has been knocking at my door, and I have had a few encouraging signs that it is the one to start now.

I pay attention to signs in my creative life. I recommend that you do too.

We are not alone in the creative projects that are ours to birth. They come through us. And they bring with them all manner of support and guidance, if we pay attention.

I’ve been terrified to start this book. I feel overwhelmed by the project, totally unsure how to do it, inadequate to the undertaking.

Fear is one sign you are on the right track. That kind of fear often signals that we are onto something big and meaningful for us.

Choose the project you are most scared to begin.

Step Two: Research and Planning

Next, I began by researching.

I am re-reading and analyzing the structure of several classics in the creativity world. If you want to know some of what I think are classic creativity guides, read my post: Five Fantastic Books to Foster Your Creativity.

Each of the books I admire in this arena are completely different, completely one-of-a-kind, in structure, form, style, approach. That is encouraging and scary too.

I have been binge-reading posts on The Story Grid, particularly on “Big Idea” non-fiction, which may be the genre of this book. I’ve been making notes about the “obligatory scenes and conventions” of both Big Idea non-fiction and How To. And then making notes about how I might fulfill those.

I have been writing the answers to a host of questions about my book to help me understand it better.

I have made multiple possible outlines.

In other words, I have been stalling.

The Hardest Part: Time To Dive In

All of this research and thinking and structuring and note-taking has been helpful and important, especially for a non-fiction book. I continue to do it.

But at the same time, I saw that I was terrified to begin. I had no idea how to begin or what voice to write this book in, or what it really should be, even after all this note-taking and thinking.

The only antidote to this kind of fear and stalling is to dive in. No more excuses. No more wading in the shallow end.

Once I saw these diversionary tactics for what they were, I made myself start writing.

Set Clear, Do-Able Goals

I set myself a firm goal, a task: 500 words a day or more on my four writing days. For me, this is a very do-able goal.

Do-able goals are a good way to get started. We can wrap our brains around them a whole lot better than trying to write a whole book.

Because I am a fluid writer, it doesn’t usually take me long to write 500 words. I sit down and just begin anywhere. That might be where I left off the day before or somewhere unrelated. Usually I go for a lot longer than 500 words.

Create a (Very) Rough Draft

My job right now is to get the pen moving, get past the paralyzing fear and indecision, get into the water. My job is to generate a “shitty first draft,” as Anne Lamott calls it in her brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird.

The voice is all over the place. The subject matter is all over the place. Some of the writing is good. Some is not. It doesn’t matter.

This is a rough draft. I need to have words on the page in order to have something to work with, to have any idea what this book actually wants to be.

The book will show me the way, but only once I am well in it.

So, I write.

And I keep gathering inspiration, ideas, reading other books, making notes.

So far, I am still uncertain and nervous.

But I am also immensely relieved to be actually writing. I always feel better when I am writing than not writing, creating than not creating. This is the unswerving law of my being, my inner directive, as the I Ching calls it. So I write.

What project have you been putting off, that you are truly scared to begin?

What mentorship, support, guidance or clear goals do you need to begin?

When will you start?


I am sharing my artistic process and journey on Patreon. If you want more posts like this, please join me on Patreon.

Facing the Blank Page: Tending Your Creative Fire, Part 2

Facing the Blank Page: Tending Your Creative Fire, Part 2

[This is part of a 2-part series on Tending Your Creative Fire and how to get yourself started creating each day. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.]

As artists, we all know the horror of the blank page (or blank canvas or the equivalent in whatever medium you work in), that gaping void waiting to be filled with brilliance, if only you knew how to begin.

So how do you begin?

Have a Familiar Entry Point

Having a regular way that you start your creative time can be a tremendous support to overcoming the blank page/blank canvas syndrome, and it will decrease your resistance to getting started.

For instance, if you are working on a novel, you might begin your creative time each day by rereading what you wrote the day before. And then, have decided in advance what scene you will be working on that day.

As a dancer, you might have a particular warm-up you always do. When I dance, I begin by lying on the floor for quite a while, stretching and rolling around. I need to make strong contact with the earth, the base for all my dancing, before I move into the upper levels and become more active. Knowing this is where I begin, I enter the studio and lie down and begin. I don’t have to wonder where to start.

photo by Derek Truninger

photo by Derek Truninger

As a poet, I usually begin by reading several poems by other poets. This helps me shift into a musical and alive use of language and sparks my imagination for what’s possible in a poem.

Then, I usually follow that with a writing prompt (a word, phrase or topic to write about) and do a 10-20 minute freewrite, using that prompt, to get the words flowing. (If you do not know what freewriting is, I highly recommend you read Natalie Goldberg’s now-classic Writing Down the Bones, and familiarize yourself with this extraordinary tool for writers.)

These two short activities—reading a few poems and doing a freewrite—help me to prime the creative pump. I don’t always begin in this way, depending on what I’m working on, but I always have this simple practice to fall back on, and it’s how I most often begin.

Use Creative Games and Playful Activities

I have various creative games and exercises to bring me into a more inspired state in an inviting, open way that often yields profound work.

Playful and inviting are touchstone qualities for entering into creative work.

Creativity is play, at its heart. Unfortunately, as artists, we often forget this, to our detriment. We turn our creative play into hard work.

We approach it as work, partly because that helps validate the activity in our minds and the minds of others. American culture, grounded in the Puritan work ethic, and many of our contemporary first world cultures, tend to revere work and think of play as frivolous. But approaching our creative activity as hard work is a sure-fire way to make it less appealing in the long run, and hence generate more resistance to doing it. And I believe, it is ultimately not true to the creative spirit.

ladypainting_123rfI recommend that you create some of your own playful invitations in whatever medium you wish to work in. Search out interesting creative exercises and try them on.

Small challenges and assignments are also incredibly helpful. As are larger projects you can work on over time. Limitations or boundaries actually set our creative imaginations free.

As a painter you might decide to begin each painting session for a month by making a quick 4” x 4” painting in 20 minutes. Or you might allow yourself only certain colors. Or you might always begin with a still life sketch. If you get bored with your assignments after a while, change them up.

The dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp in her wonderful book The Creative Habit has an exercise she calls “Do a Verb.” She expresses with her body for several minutes a single verb, such as “twist.” This gets her moving and thinking creatively.

Collect a Treasure Box of Generative Ideas

Here’s an idea:  Create an index card box full of creative prompts and draw one out at random when you begin your creative time. Then, do whatever is on the card. Come up with a batch of your own ideas to get you started. Ask friends for other ideas. Write them down. Collect them.

Or, choose a regular way to enter your creative state, a routine, a habit, a practice, and stick with it. Perhaps your regular way is drawing a card from your treasure trove box and doing it.

What matters is what works to get you started. Few things are more daunting than the blank page or blank canvas or stage with no idea where to begin. Have a way to begin and know what it is before you enter the studio that day. You might leave yourself an assignment at the end of the previous day’s work.

Collect some fallback methods or exercises that you can rely on. Ask other artists what works for them to get started. For me, when all else fails, I revise earlier work. No matter how uninspired I feel, this always gets me into creative engagement, and it moves my work forward.

How will you begin the next time you enter your studio? What helps you get inspired and flowing?

My Recommendations

Use some or all of these as they work for you.

  • Decide in advance how you’ll begin the next day
  • Start with something small and easy
  • Think playful, inviting or inspiring
  • Experiment and see what works
  • Consider creating a regular warm-up practice, a habitual way to begin your creative time

To your creative fire,

Maxima

The Power of Ritual: Tending Your Creative Fire, Part 1

The Power of Ritual: Tending Your Creative Fire, Part 1

[This post in the first in a two-part series on Tending Your Creative Fire and getting started creating.]

Getting started with creative activity is the very hardest part.

We say we want to write, paint, sculpt, make films, sing, but when it comes to actually doing it, we procrastinate and distract ourselves endlessly, never seeming to get around to it.

And thus, another day goes by when we aren’t living our dreams. We beat ourselves up about it, but that doesn’t do any good.

So how do you get yourself to actually sit down at the piano or your desk, enter your studio, stand at your easel, pick up the pen, or doing anything else you love to do?

Two Extremely Helpful Practices To Get You Creating

Two things will help you most to get started creating each time:

1) A regular creative practice at the same day/same time each week, so that it becomes an unquestioned habit (nothing helps more than this). See my post on The Power of Creative Routines for more about this.

2) A way into the creative activity itself, a way to begin.

In this essay and the next one, I address the second step above. I talk about ways to help yourself get started once you are in the studio. However, these tools will also reduce resistance to getting yourself there in the first place. (To find out more about getting yourself into the studio, read my essay on Resistance to Creating.)

Create a Simple Ritual to Invoke Your Muse

Altarish2_MichaelDuliba

Photo by Michael Duliba

Create a regular way to enter into your creative practice. A simple ritual is helpful. Simple is, most often, best, so that your ritual doesn’t become yet another hindrance to doing creative work.

The ritual serves to alert you that you are entering a different state of being, one set apart from the workaday world, you are opening yourself to the creative flow, making yourself available to greater powers to flow through.

The ritual is like a gateway you pass through to enter the creative state. It announces your availability to your muse.

I like to light a candle, ring a small bell, and say a short prayer. Sometimes I also fill a bowl with water and a few drops of essential oils and wash my hands in a symbolic act. In this way, I evoke my physical senses and engage my whole being in the creative act to come.

Take a Moment to Connect

In whatever ritual you choose, take a moment to connect to the following three things:

  1. Your reason for creating—what it gives you, why you love it, why it matters. This is what I call your Deep Why.
  2. A promise and commitment to yourself to not judge what happens during your creative time that day—not the work itself, nor how much you did or did not do, nor your abilities or talent.
  3. A sense of offering up your work in service to something larger than yourself. This may be the world, others who will benefit from it, the Divine, or art and beauty itself. In other words, detach from your ego’s ambitions and attachments to the work and reconnect to a deeper purpose.

It only takes a minute or two to connect to these three things, and they will help you be motivated and free to create from a place of love and giving, and keep your ego mind more quiet, so that you can do the work/play.

At the end of my creative time, I have a little ritual of closure to mark my transition back to the so-called ordinary world. I ring the bell again, blow out the candle, and pour the water in the bowl onto the earth outside.

Ritual Helps Us Enter the Creative State

Full disclosure: I don’t always do my ritual. Sometimes I resist the ritual itself. Often I simplify it to just lighting a candle and ringing a bell.

But I find the ritual helps me in small, subtle ways to cross a threshold into creativity and to sanctify the time and activity, making me less apt to get distracted or off-course or to postpone starting.

The ritual also reminds me that I do the work not for my sake alone, but for a greater purpose, that my art is meant to serve others and the Divine. It gives me a moment to reconnect to this larger purpose and helps me put my ego aside and dive into connection with something larger than me and more meaningful, and that, at the same time, is motivating and inspiring to me.

Your Ritual Needs to be Right for You

Meditating person

Photo by Dingzeyu Li

Bottom line: Your ritual needs to work for you and suit your nature. It could be going for a walk or doing yoga before your creative time. Coming into the body and getting the energy flowing is very helpful because our creative energy is our life force energy, or chi, and it helps to have that flowing.

Your ritual might be as simple as clearing off your desk before sitting down to write, removing distractions. Some artists put on a special piece of clothing each time or their favorite music. Some simply begin by making a strong cup of tea or coffee. Many have superstitious and strange habits that work to signal their muse to show up.

Your ritual need not be elaborate, and it is essential that it works for you. By “works for you” I mean it suits your nature, and it does not become another obstacle to creativity. Your ritual should help you to enter the creative state, to invoke your creativity and inspiration and set aside your self-judgments, doubts and preoccupations with the rest of life for the time being. You may need to experiment a bit to find a ritual you like.

In our next issue of Creative Sparks, I give you some bright ideas to help you overcome the blank page/blank canvas syndrome and get creating. Click here to read Part 2 of this series on Tending Your Creative Fire.

To your creative fire,

Maxima

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