4 Practical Steps to Rekindle Inspiration even after Exasperation

DSCF5590Ever tried searching for inspiration at the bottom of a paper cup of skim cappuccino?

I have! It’s not there is it.

Unfortunately, an untold sum of fieldwork has proven that coffee does not automatically make you a better writer.

Writers hit ruts. It’s a fact of the practice. You go at it with disciplined action, however you reach a point where you are so drained that the sight of your words on paper  makes your eyes hurt.

Take your hands away from the keyboard and breath.

We’ve all been there, but contrary to popular belief, at this point, your writing project will not re-inspire you. I repeat, don’t expect your writing to re-inspire you. Because (A) it’s not going to happen, and (B) it’s not your project’s responsibility to inspire you anyway. That’s your job.

That said, I’ve got a great technique that I’ve been using to make writing feel alive and thrilling again, even after the exasperation point. I’ve named it: Backwards Inspiration Generation.

Basically it’s the idea that you create an internal state of being inspired and stimulated first, and then move to the page, rather than the other way around (i.e. look at the page and expect to be inspired).

It’s based on the idea that emotions are generated by internal triggers rather than external triggers. Have you ever noticed that?

When we have a certain emotional state the world around us fits to match.

For instance when you wake up crabby, the first thing you do is stub your toe, then the coffee tastes disgusting, and when you open your e-mail it’s full of junk and a ton of stuff you don’t want to do. However when you wake up and you’re in love, you don’t even notice that you stubbed our toe, your stale coffee tastes great, and your e-mail is full of exciting opportunities and articles you can’t wait to read.

Basically, your mood dictates the reality of your experience, rather than the other way around.

So how does this apply to writing?

Being inspired is a state of excitement and stimulation. Often I can feel it bubbling up inside of me even before I sit down to write. That’s exactly how Backwards Inspiration Generation works.

Here are simple steps to get inspiration to bubble up even before you sit down to write:

Step 1: Put down the pen

I used to regularly hit a phase that I refer to as “muling,” in which I’m the mule and my story was a one ton wagon of cargo I’m hauling up a mountain. Then I realized something, the muling phase continued as long as I kept hauling. It could last up to a month, until the sight of my project made me ill. So, the short cut here is, PUT THE PEN DOWN.

Step 2: Scan the Panorama and Adjust your Lens

After a lengthy writing streak, a lot of other aspects in life get neglected. The next step is to adjust your lens, let your writing blur in the background and zoom in on something else that needs your attention. Something completely non-writing related.  I try to pick a task that I can be immediately successful at, like a family trip, an organization project, or something visual like painting a room.

Step 3: Devour that New Project

Once you’ve chosen your non-writing related, new and exciting task, devour it. Give it all your attention until you finish it. The idea is to direct your mind in a completely different direction. If you revert back to the writing, you will likely get frustrated again. Forget about it. Do the new thing and get it done. This should engender a sense of pride and excitement, which is exactly what you need to get back on track.

Step 4: Bring it back to the page

Take a deep breath and get back to work. Try to keep an open mind and see what new ideas flow in. A little distance from a problem can go a long way, especially where writing is concerned. This doesn’t mean that writing will suddenly be easy but I have found that it’s easier than staying in that sedentary state of having nothing to say.

Writing is always a balance between disciplined action and the necessary downtime that creativity requires. In fact, more and more research has shown that discipline is like a muscle, which means its important to train hard, but also allow the space for growth. And although it may never be easy, it’s certainly more enjoyable when you’re fully charged.

Feeling Behind on your Writing? 4 Steps to Sync Up for the New Year

IMG_7863Let me tell you about a dirty little habit that millions indulge but nobody talks about:


It’s epidemic among writers! We look up other writers’ birthdays and compare them to the copyright date of their first book and add or subtract the number of years from our own age and proceed to drive ourselves crazy. In the weeks after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature almost every writer I know would excitedly spout: “Did you know she didn’t publish her first collection of stories until the age of 38?”

And I would say, “Yes, I did.” Because I had already googled it.

Why does it take another writer’s age to validate our own stage in the process?

Well, I’ve got more news:


Impatience gives you a headache, distracts you from what you’re supposed to be doing, and worst of all, it triggers nagging messages that eventually cause you to fall out of love with writing.

Patience, on the other hand, increases focus and promotes the kind of growth and confidence that inevitably helps you accomplish your goals. This became obvious to me through a strange coincidence. The other night Mauricio (my husband) was watching soccer and in the midst of a flurry of spitfire Spanish, the sports caster paused and said something extraordinarily profound:

“Where there is patience there is opportunity.”

I looked up and sure enough the players had triangulated around the goal post and there was an air of confidence, because they could strike from several different angles if they waited for the right moment. Suddenly, it occurred to me that even in a game that’s all about speed and the element of surprise, the key to successful execution is patience, not haste.

Thus I’ve come up with  4 ways to shift from impatience back to patience:

  1. Make yourself a Mantra.

The first step to overcoming age comparison is simply to shift your attention. Whenever you start to find yourself complaining, “This is taking too long” or “I’m never going to get there” you’ve got to tape over it. Usually we don’t even realize we’ve got these negative thoughts on repeat. That’s why it’s good to have a mantra on automatic pilot in order to flip that script. Might I suggest “This is right where I’m supposed to be” or “I’m on my way a few hours a day.”  I think the rhyming helps.

  1. Define your Terms.

Specificity is the cure for any type of negative comparison. Whenever you define your terms you bring the focus back to your own work and stop getting neurotic about other people’s paths. The good news is, nobody else is going to write your book, so you don’t really need to worry when or what those other people are writing. Instead look at your  message and realize that you have to take your own specific path to get there.

  1. Stop worrying about the years and focus on the hours.

If the good news is, nobody else is going to write your book, that bad news is, nobody else is going to write your book. Your life isn’t made up of years, as much as hours and minutes and milliseconds, so if you don’t utilize those, the project will never get written. Don’t focus on the year, focus on your daily habits, because that’s what gets the work done.

  1. Celebrate the scenic route.

When life is rich with projects, work and family, don’t mentally penalize yourself for it. The richer the life, the richer the writing. The key however is consistency. As long as you work consistently on the book you want to write, the actual amount of time you put into each session is not as important. Don’t miss out on the things you love, just schedule consistent times to write so that you always go back to it. This is how the single working mothers, like Toni Morrison wrote their books.

On deeper reflection, I realized perhaps the reason behind this epidemic of “Age Goolging” is actually permission. Perhaps another person’s age gives us permission to be patient with ourselves. Well, consider that permission granted. Mental Floss put out the conventional list of “11 Who Started Late” which is only the chip of the ice burg of successful writers who started late. I just went to my bookshelf and grabbed some popular examples of my own. There are all sorts of people who experienced the variety of life’s little adventures before they sat down to write.

The fact is that you can write during any decade of your life. Really the only thing that holds us back is the courage to be patient. Impatience is based in fear, the fear that the desired outcome will never happen, and if that fear gets its way, the desired outcome never will. However the moment you have the courage to be patient, the work goes faster, inspiration comes more easily, and the desired outcome rushes to meet you, right where your are.

The Ultimate Antidote for Your Inner Critic

IMG_7735Sure, writers should have the ability to be objective and even critical, however when our clever editorial skills take on a life of their own, it makes the creative process miserable. We’ve all experienced flare ups of the inner critic. Symptoms include:

  • Work slows down as you write and erase, write and erase.
  • You feel like you’re producing what you are “supposed to” produce.
  • The process is no longer fun.
  • Nothing you do lives up to your own invisible standards.

Furthermore, if an inflamed inner critic goes untreated it can lead to paralysis or abandonment of a perfectly good idea.  Let me get specific, because this was my situation about a month ago and I found a sneaky escape route.

I was trying to write a blog (the one about Chimamanda Adichie’s story “Birdsong”) in which I shed light upon the enigma of how a master writer creates brilliant characters. Three weeks later I was still staring at the same draft.

Three weeks to write a blog? That just won’t do! Blogging should be fun and flowing, but no, this was rigid and stagnant.

My inner critic, who is always obnoxious, had become flagrantly abusive:

“Why did you think you had anything original to say about Chimamanda Adichie? Better to give up blogging now before someone other than your mom reads this. Please, lady, save the good people of the internet another boring rehash of your literary nonsense.” -My Inner Critic

Unable to type I started trolling around the internet and I came upon a quote:

“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.” -Anthony Jay

Then it struck me, why am I trying to provide answers about something that’s an on-going process? Why don’t I approach it as a question?

My snappy inner critic was outwitted by the humility inherent in asking a question. Or to make a tongue twister out of it:

“The critic wasn’t creative enough to critique a question.” -Me

Inner critics also hate tongue twisters because they are juvenile, but I’m leaving mine in, and will probably tweet it. Yes, that’s a declaration of war.

Since that day in late-October I’ve used the question technique on both fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction I worked the question into the text, bringing up arguments and counter arguments. It made the piece feel more authentic.

With fiction, I closed down my document and got out my journal. I moved away from my desk and curled up on the couch. Then, rather than attempting to move straight to the paragraph, I started with a question. It can be as broad as, what’s my problem? Or as specific as, what does this character want from this scene? Just the act of asking the question mobilizes my neurons to provide possible (not definitive) responses. And then I’m writing again.

What I like about the question approach is that there’s a certain naked honesty to it. I’m not telling you anything, I’m just asking. There’s no pretension in that. Questions bring back a spirit of inspiration and wonder. After all, a writer should always be free to wonder and have a little fun doing it!

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block, Even When You’re Not Writing

Just as those last few pounds are hard to drop, those last few chapters, and especially those last few paragraphs are hard to write. If you want to keep your passion project passionate you should have some trusted habits to loosen up and let yourself NOT work on it.

That’s right, step away from your desk and put the pen down. There are certain kinds of breaks that actually help make the work better. When I’m stuck, experience has shown that there are several strategies I use to help me let go, before I get going again. Six to be specific:

Move Around

  1. Dance – I admit it, sometimes I dance alone at home. Usually I do it with my one-year-old son, but sometimes I do it by myself. It’s a great way to shake out a new idea, especially when no other method works. Think about it, many people use music as inspiration, however if you’re going to dance alone, you’ve really got to like the song. You’ve somehow got to be inspired. It’s hard to feel frustrated or blocked while you’re dancing.
  1. Take a Long Walk – In fact, take a long exhausting walk, get new blood and oxygen pumping through your brain. Sometimes we forget that ideas are physical as well as mystical and studies have shown that when you can get a fresh flow of material through your brain, you are more likely to get a fresh flow of material on the page.S0010152

Get Your Subconscious on Your Side

  1. Question Your Dreams – Sometimes problems work themselves out if you let yourself “sleep on it.” Yet, that’s not often how it goes with writing. Lately I’ve tried a more direct approach. I set aside any creative problems I can’t solve during the day and write them in the form of a question. At night, I re-read the question when I’m on the cusp of sleep. When I wake up, I often get new insights, without torturing myself.
  1. Meditate – This may not be a quick fix, but it is a revolutionary one. It has been an on-going experiment of mine. By that I mean ten minutes a day, imitating what I’m supposed to be doing, less than perfect concentration, meditation experiment. But it has actually worked! Despite all my imperfections! As a result I’ve experienced less resistance and more clarity when writing. Considering my actual meditation abilities, that is nothing short of a miracle.

Never Face a Blank Page

  1. The Napkin Method – Now that you’ve created a storm of inspiration by moving around and loosening up the subconscious, it’s time to catch some rain drops. This is a classic practice I call the “napkin method.” You might want to carry around actual index cards in case there aren’t any napkins handy. Then remember to scribble ideas as they come to you, right outside the shower, in the midst of washing dishes, during your long, exhausting walk. By respecting your ideas enough to write them down, it encourages more ideas to pop into your head, and that’s where the real accumulation happens.
  1. Make a Binder – I’m a nerd. Actually I´m a teacher, but I´m also a nerd. I use binders for everything, because it creates a hospitable container for the avalanche of information that builds up in my brain. This is where I keep my napkins and research and little clips of inspiration. It makes the ethereal process of writing a little more tangible.

Although conventional wisdom advises you to ignore writer’s block and write through it, the fact is that any normal human brain needs a break. It also helps to have different ways to process material. What doesn’t help is reaching the point where the very sight of your keyboard produces noxious chemicals in your brain that make it impossible to get back to work. So test out some new habits. They might just become a regular part of your ever-evolving creative process.

Can Meditation Increase Inspiration?


Recently I had the time and energy for a serious writing streak, and it got me thinking about inspiration. What does it feel like? How can we keep it going? What is it made of?

Of course this topic has been written about at length, but when I started to reflect on the feeling, it occurred to me that inspiration is an intersection between being relaxed and stimulated.

What does that mean?

When you’re inspired ideas pour out rapidly, there’s a flow that doesn’t require much effort. On the one hand there’s a feeling of enjoyment and ease, but at the same time, it´s not at all passive. You’re highly stimulated and excited. You can’t write fast enough.

This got me thinking about inspiration as a unique state balanced between meditation and work. So I decided I want to initiate an on-going experiment, reflecting upon the relationship between meditation and inspiration. 

I’ve come to some initial conclusions, but first, let me define my terms:

Meditation – When you let go of all thoughts of the outside world, often by focusing only on your breath or a mantra. This practice is enhanced by time, patience and repetition so that the meditator increasingly reaches an incredible state of bliss.

Inspiration – As artists, this one is probably our favorite state, it’s like a creative fountain of ideas that flow with great clarity. It’s also a place of naked honesty because ideas are still evolving. In your mind, you’re still posing questions, and answers are flashing up (which is exciting) but you’re not committed to them yet. You’re allowing them to build and fluctuate.

Thus far in my experiment, I’ve made three initial observations that greatly increased my levels of inspiration and my productivity as a writer.

  1. The story becomes clearer. Have you ever noticed that the moment you stop trying to solve a problem, the answers float to you almost naturally? So it is with meditation. I spend ten minutes letting go, and then as I’m coming out of it, my mind is flooded with clarity. I have insights that I wouldn’t normally have. Plus I can focus this clarity in the direction I choose.
  1. I’m more flexible with my edits. You’ve probably heard the old writing adage, “Kill your darlings,” but usually that’s so hard to do. I have the habit of coming up with a title that I love and then trying to bend the whole plot just to make it fit. You’ll have to murder me before I kill that title, even if it’s not working. However, I’ve noticed that meditation gives me a more flexible cushion for editing. I’m not grasping on to the stuff that’s got to go.
  1. It increases concentration and decreases cappuccino. This one surprised me, because it wasn’t intentional, but I noticed by meditating (and constantly hydrating) I was better able to concentrate and my coffee craving went away after breakfast. Plus at the end of the day I didn’t feel drained. I still had energy to spare.

So, this is where I’d like to invite you to join my experiment! It’s an invitation to become more creative, energetic, and of course, more inspired.

Do you have to do meditate perfectly?

No. Just sitting with the intention to let go brings with it these early benefits of meditation. Your thoughts don’t have to disappear completely so that you enter Nirvana and become totally enlightened. What ever you bring to meditation is good enough.

I’ve just meditating again, and it’s been for ten minutes and my thoughts have by no means disappeared. But the habit of concentrating inward has felt so great.

The fact is, as a mom, wife and full time teacher, I’ve been trying to find ways to make the spare hours I have for writing really count. If you’re in a similar situation, and have strategies, I’d love to hear them!

Powerful Characters: A Look at Chimamanda Adichie’s “Birdsong”

In a recent blog I proposed that we identify with characters through bad luck. After that I was thinking, is that too doom and gloom? Why am I so focused on the hard stuff?

I want test my theory on a real story. So I’m taking a step back to ask: Why are problems so important?

To answer my challenge, I want nominate a writer who is a total master in the character department: Chimamanda Adichie.

ChimanandaAdichie gave a TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she explains how “single stories” become a kind of conceptual imperialism over cultures, countries and continents; her central example being how negative messages have collapsed Africa into a stereotype of poverty and pretty animals. This talk went viral because it struck the chord of what needed to be said and perhaps had never been said so exquisitely.

Still, I want to distinguish between these two types of negatives: There are stories that rob people of their dignity and there are stories that give dignity to struggle.

Chimamanda Adichie’s story “Birdsong,” is the latter. Here’s why:

The story actually touches upon the similar themes to the TED Talk. It’s a classic love triangle in which we have an honorable wife living in the United States, and a hidden lover living in Nigeria. The story is told through the voice of the lover, who is being tortured by this married man who passively implies that she is always secondary.

I love this line, “She’s 32 and tottering under the weight of her own desire to settle down.” In the context the narrator is describing the desire of a friend, because perhaps she won’t even admit it about herself. That’s the thing about stories, we expose all the things we’re scared to say.

And why don’t we ever say them?

Because they create problems and vulnerabilities. Look at Birdsong, plug it into the character worksheet.

BirdsongConflictFrom a craft perspective, I really admire the architecture of this story. Scene by scene, Adichie lays out the complete triangle by addressing the arrows of connection and conflict between the characters.

There’s an intimate scene between the lover and the married man in which she plucks a pillow feather from his hair and he says, “You’ll want to settle down soon… I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way.” She responds with “the kind of overdone mockery that masks damage.” Here we feel the load baring wall of her longing for love and his repressing it to just sex. The arrow between the husband and wife is drawn through the presence of the cellphone and a tangle of private jokes. Finally the arrows between the wife and lover are represented at the beginning and end of the story by a staring contest between the lover and a wealthy woman.

However, returning to the original question: Is there really dignity in this mess of problems and desires?

I still say yes, there is dignity.

Our problems and desires are essential to our identities. Our stories are our identities.

Think about your own life. Who would you be if someone robbed you of all you’ve been through?

Our struggles turn us into the people we become, and they need a place where they can be expressed, valued, and dignified.

As Chimamanda Adichie says in her TED Talk, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story.” That’s why it’s so important that we tell our own stories and put them out there to clarify our own struggles, triumphs and desires.

At the end of Birdsong, the illicit lovers stares back at the wealthy figure of the the wife and says, “What’s your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?”

There is both power and dignity in that.

3 Literary Game Changers that will Enhance Your Writing


If you want your story or essay to stand out in a crowded market, these are literary concepts that will transform your writing by maximizing depth and power.

These are the real game changers. They captivated people in Ancient Greece, and they’ve been mastered by Hollywood, but they are also the mark of great literary fiction and creative nonfiction. ln fact, they’re so juicy I’m not even going to introduce them anymore. Here they are:

  1. Internal and External Conflict

One thing I love about good writing is that exterior events are given their proper interior weight.

When we rush through life on a daily basis, tons of things happen, but we rarely see the meaning of it. On the other hand, sometimes life slows us down with catastrophic events. However, unless we sit down and put pen to paper, we never get to examine the ordinary or the extraordinary from the inside out.

In literature, this is called internal and external conflict. Take a look at your own writing (and/or life), especially the challenges and conflicts. Make two columns. In one column write the external situation, and in the other write the internal meaning and value. When you separate out these to perspectives, you’ll get better control of your narrative.

Perhaps this sounds simple, but it’s not. So often we take the interior meaning for granted and it’s not explicit in our work. And it’s a shame because that’s what will resonate with your audience. Write it out and put it in!

2. Inciting Incident

In literature, bad luck is actually good luck. Weird but true.


Because bad luck does a better job of developing our characters and ideas. It runs them through thresher so only the riches rise to the top.

That’s the beauty of the inciting incident, that moment early-on when something bad happens: a problem, surprise, or mystery appears. This moment sets us off-balance and sends us tumbling through the rest of your words, hungry for resolution. Although the inciting incident was originally designed for fiction, it applies to nonfiction as well. It’s an early show of vulnerability where you connect with your reader, by showing them something utterly human that your work will address.

Take a look at your current draft and highlight the inciting incident. If it’s subtle, magnify it. If it’s missing all together, think about how you might use this device to better connect with your audience. You may also consider grabbing the stories or essays of your literary heroes, and see if you can detect this tool in their work.

3. Epiphany

Everybody wants more epiphanies, right? Obviously. They are those euphoric moments where everything seems to make sense, you achieve clarity, and suddenly you know what you must do.

People love reading epiphanies as well, they make for a fulfilling climax. Plus, that’s where all the problems we labored over finally pay-off, because, the greater the challenge, the grander the epiphany.

But how do you get to this amazing pay-off? Do you have to sit and wait for God to tap you on the shoulder?

No. You can create your own epiphanies with pen and paper. Writers do it all the time.

Here’s the process I use. It’s simple and very effective. I start out with utter honesty. Whatever I’m afraid of or angry about, I start writing it down, exactly as it feels in my head. I can do this as myself, or as my character. However, as I’m doing this,  I’ve learned to expect a turn. If I dig deeply enough something golden is revealed beneath all that darkness.

At its core, an epiphany is essentially just bombastic honesty. That’s how this trick works. Ride the wave of honesty until everything becomes exquisitely clear.

Why are these the game changers?

Because these three tools will wedge you deep below the surface, where your work is truly original. That’s where you hit the paradox of the specific and the universal. When you’re being authentic and writing about the struggles and lessons that only you can write about, you get universal resonance. That’s the real gold.