Why I’m Not Allowed to Say “I Don’t Know” Anymore

Why I’m Not Allowed to Say “I Don’t Know” Anymore

For a while now, my husband and I have responded, “You do know,” whenever one of us sighs with confusion and says, “I don’t know.” It’s a pact we made after catching ourselves using this excuse far too often.

I’ve become better about this habit, but I still have a long way to go.

Recently, I discovered Brooke Castillo’s Life Coach School podcast. (Thank you, Amy Porterfield!) Brooke serves up tough love and pierce-through-the-heart insights on her weekly show. I’m delighted for a thousand reasons that I found her. Right now, I’m mulling over her thoughts on confusion.

Brooke points out that confusion is a luxury. At first, that idea sounds ridiculous. No one wants to be confused. When I think about it though, I find myself nodding. Yep. She’s right. I say “I don’t know,” or some form of “I’m thinking about it,” instead of making tough decisions. I don’t want to make the wrong choice. I don’t want to feel the pain of being wrong.

So, I opt for the pain of snail’s-pace progress. I have so many excuses. The world (and technology) is changing so fast. I’m a writer, not a marketer. I’m a mentor, not a fundraiser. I’m too busy earning a living to make time for my creative work. I don’t know where to focus. I don’t know how to… (fill in the blank). I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I’ve been looking for a mentor for a while now. I still think mentorship will help me grow. However, I see that my reason for wanting a mentor MUST shift. I can’t wait for a mentor to wave a magic wand and blow the fog away. Why? Because the problem isn’t the fog. The fog isn’t going away. Creative work requires us to walk directly into uncharted territory.

The problem is my fear, and specifically, my fear over being wrong. What if I send you an email and it bugs you? What if I spend months on a book that no one wants to read? What if I write a scene or a character and my blind spots become apparent? What if I hurt you? What if that hurt causes you to lash out and shame me for what I never intended to say or do?

The truth is, I could spend five years being “confused.” Finally, I’d make my decision, put something out into the world, and still face any of those horrible possibilities. I’m an artist. I’m here to spread love by creating the work of my heart. Creativity sparks creativity. That means when I do my thing, I help you do yours. That’s who I want to be in the world.

But, being honest here … I’m afraid. I’ve been trying to have the best of both worlds–safety AND creativity. It hasn’t been working.

Brooke talks about how facing our fears can make us feel like we’re going to die. Fight or flight wasn’t supposed to be about writing books or hosting webinars. Still, our survival instinct kicks in all the same.  Being an artist isn’t for the faint of heart. 

I’m not allowed to say “I don’t know,” anymore, at least not about decisions about what step to take next. I’ll face up to that fog and call it what it is. Not confusion. Fear. It’s terrifying to try something, knowing that it may be a grand disaster. But what if it isn’t? And won’t I learn so much more from trying and failing than I would from hovering on the sidelines?

The way to overcome fear is through action. Even tiny action makes a difference. So, if like me, you’re facing fear that’s posing as confusion, maybe you’ll want to try what I’m trying. Choose one clear step. How can you call that confusion by its true name? For me, it was writing this post. Next up: drafting the online course I’ve been tiptoeing around for months. What is the one clear action for you? Take it, and then tell me so I can cheer you on. Tag me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Let’s overcome fear together. You in?

What Might The Young Reader You Once Were Teach You?

What Might The Young Reader You Once Were Teach You?

I remember the smell of my first elementary school’s library: dust, aging pages, and a hint of peanut butter and honey. Actually, the PB & honey was probably left over from the lunch I raced through. All I wanted was more time in the stacks. I’d race to the V shelf, grab Jumanji and curl up in the cozy beanbag. I know I read other books, but Jumanji was the one I returned to day after day, escaping into a world where magic spilled over into the real world, and where kids had to become heroes whether they liked it or not.

No matter what book I’m working on, I’ve realized that I’m trying to recreate the feeling of that book. I want to create a world that first I, and then my reader, can slip away into. Of course, that experience requires excitement, high stakes, strong characters, lyrical writing and imagery, but underneath the writing craft, for me, stories are doorways.

How about you?

What do you remember about yourself as a young reader? What might that young reader have to teach you now about the stories you might try reading, or the ones you might need to write?

The Gap Between Here and My Expectations

The Gap Between Here and My Expectations

 

What goes through your mind at the end of the day?

If you’re a creative, I’m guessing you run through a mental account of what you made today. At least, I do. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but my counting usually goes something like this.

1. I did write that scene.

2. But I should rewrite the ending. So maybe the scene doesn’t count.

3. On the up side, I had that meeting, and we figured out how to launch our summer marketing project. I’m really excited about our approach.

4. … And that meeting added about a hundred tiny items to the to-do list.

5. Plus, I did finish two of the “big three” on my what’s most important list for the day.

So… gold star? Honestly? No. It’s too hard to see past my to-do list that multiplies by the day.

Here’s the thing. I’m not willing to live a life filled with demerit days. And when I started to realize I’d worn a negative mental rut, I knew I had to do something. And quick.

 

First, I started listening closely.

And I started hearing interesting tidbits in conversations, on podcasts, even on the Nike Run app. It turns out that if you tell yourself a convincing story, you’ll believe it. Or, in other words, the expectations you set, and the way you measure yourself against those expectations matters. A lot. 

 

So, second, I set out to change my expectations.

Turns out, changing expectations is more than a one-time deal. Remember the “big three” list? The whole point of that tool is to focus on what matters and not sweat the small stuff. Right, but in the real world you don’t get to ignore your email forever. You can’t be considered a responsible person if you never pay your bills, fill out that form, or prepare for that meeting. You miss out on opportunities if you don’t research them, track important dates and complete applications. The truth is … unless you live in a wonderland filled with at least one–but probably three–full-time assistants, you are going to have to deal with small stuff. On the regular.

 

Which led to my third step: crafting a rhythm.

I’m inventing strategies to keep me accountable on the regular, small (but important) tasks, leaving room for the momentum-driving deep work. I’ve been working on my system, partially a calendaring process, partially some scheduled time blocks, and within those time blocks, specialized checklists to make sure I complete important weekly tasks.

 

Fourth, I needed to circle back to my expectations.

They still weren’t realistic. Unfortunately, even with my flexible system, with my checklists and calendar, I kept ending the day feeling low. On reflection, I realized that I had two lists. I had the one on my schedule, and I had the invisible list in my head.

Maybe you have two clashing lists, too. You have a solid plan, and you work your way through it. You probably don’t make it all the way through the list, but that’s okay. You’re a smart cookie, and you’ve built in wiggle room.

 

The issue is with that other list, the invisible one in your head.

All those fresh, exciting ideas haven’t been weighed down by being fleshed out. They’re shiny and intriguing. Surely, if you work quickly through today’s list, you can try out one or two of them. Maybe three. Once you start in on the unplanned tasks, it turns out they’re projects, maybe even full-fledged initiatives. Only now, you’ve started. You feel obligated to carry on with them. So you squeeze them into the schedule.

And that’s just Monday.

No wonder I’m exhausted by Thursday.

At this point, when we look truth in the face, many of us give up. But, I don’t want to do that. I don’t think you do, either. 

If we can’t strategize ourselves into trustworthy expectations, and we can’t trick ourselves into them, what options remain?

 

Here’s where I started laughing.

And where I started writing this post to poke a little fun at myself. Maybe the only thing to do with those expectations, the ones that crinkle their noses at me and tell me that days ought to end with gold stars or demerits, maybe that idea is actually a boggart. Maybe the only sensible thing to do when I stare into it’s disapproving, judgmental face is to burst out laughing. 

We need our dreams and ideas and goals. They sparkle in the distance and entice us onward. However, the space between right here and where we expect ourselves to be is equal to the amount of stress in our lives. Let’s stand up to the boggart-expectations with full-body laughter. I’m going to try it. Will you?

Hey, if you do, tell me how it goes. I’d love to hear about it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Tag me so I can laugh along with you and cheer you on. Your creative stories–and progress–inspires me.

 

 

The Opportunity of the Blank Page

nothing in the world is like this ... quote by Jacqueline Woodson

How do you feel about a blank page? We often talk about the terror of a blank, white page, but what about the possibility? I love this poem from Jacqueline Woodson because it reminds me that a blank page can be seen in more than one way. It reminds me that writing is a sensory activity with sound and texture and smell. How might you reframe your next blank white page?

Try This:

  1. Take out a blank piece of paper and a freshly sharpened pencil.
  2. Close your eyes. Notice the smell of your pencil and the space around you. Feel the texture of the paper under your fingers, and the ridges along your pencil.
  3. Along each of the four edges of the page, make a border of texture, sound, smell and emotional adjectives.
  4. Then, challenge yourself to use as many of the words in your border as you can in the draft you create on the page.

And don’t forget! Your adjectives can inspire your fellow creators! Share them below, or tag me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Cut Years Off Your Writing Learning Curve with this Mindset Shift

For writers, 10,000 hours is probably an understatement. The writing learning curve is no small thing. Writers twenty years into their careers will tell you they still have miles to go–so much landscape to cover, and so many discoveries to make. However, as any hiker knows, a solid plan, clear expectations and a backpack full of optimism are absolutely necessary to take the first step up a daunting mountain.
 
How you start, how you spend your time, and your overall mindset about developing your skill set can make years of difference in your writing learning curve.
 
Cut Years off Your Writing Learning Curve
 

The Publication Milestone

If we’re honest, when we start writing seriously, the milestone most of us aim for is publication. Writing is an art form, and art is meant to be shared. We might love writing for self-expression, for the sheer creative joy of it, for sharing with our students, children, family and friends, but we still long for that finished book with our name on the spine.
 
Now that I’ve been writing seriously for nearly twenty years, I see how aiming for publication as my first milestone was detrimental to my learning process. For one thing, I put my success (and honestly, my feeling of self-worth) squarely where it didn’t belong … in the hands of other people.
 
Okay, time out for a second. A voice in the back of your mind might be piping up, saying, “Well, yeah, yadda, yadda. I’ve heard this all before. Make goals that focus on process. But, time is short. I’m strategic. I’m determined. I can find the publication shortcut if I look hard enough.”
 
Yep. I absolutely agree. You might be the exception to the rule, and you might find a shortcut to publication. Let’s say you do find a publisher before you’ve deepened your writing craft. Now, your first book is out there, and it may not be representative of you as an artist. Or, you may not have the ability to follow it up with a next book. Or you might face any number of other problems that occur when the cart comes before the horse.
 
Or, let’s say that you experience the writer’s fairy tale. You work hard, grow as a writer, and are published without too much heartache. You carry on, growing and publishing regularly. This story is honestly the one that I wish for you, and it’s absolutely possible. It’s much more possible if you choose to focus on your craft from day one.
 
Here’s where the years of difference come in.

The Writing Learning Curve: An Early Milestone

Returning to our hiker for a moment, consider a trail map. The map highlights points of interest, giving you mid-trail mini-goals. However, the most memorable moments of your hike are often the ones YOU discover. You might spot a mountain lion in the distance, or unexpectedly find a four-leaf clover. In the same way, your personal milestones are likely to be the most meaningful as you develop as a writer. Still, it’s always helpful to watch for a few common milestones, as well.
An early milestone is the ability to clearly identify a craft problem in your writing. Rather than focusing on a specific story, and how to nudge a sentence or paragraph in one direction or another, you start to see patterns.
 

My characters don’t have the necessary depth to feel real.

My exposition pours out as an info dump.

The pacing of story questions and discoveries is too fast or too slow.

 
In order to make it to this milestone, writers need to have read, researched and practiced enough to:
  • Know what a well-crafted story needs
  • Build courage in their ability to solve problems
  • Have a body of work across which they can identify patterns
Courage may seem like the least important in that list, but I believe it is the key to unlock the others. No one wants to identify a problem he or she cannot solve. Daring to see a problem that goes beyond a specific story, to see an area of true growth for yourself, is highly difficult. You must admit that you have done your very best and still fallen short. Our subconscious flares up, playing all kinds of tricks to keep us from seeing the truth. If we haven’t proven to ourselves that a shortcoming is no big deal, if we don’t believe at a bone-deep level that with hard work, we can gain that next skill, we simply won’t be able to see the gap.
 
Have you made it to this milestone yet? Here are a few steps to speed up your momentum if you think you’re in this phase of growth.
  1. Read and write regularly.
  2. As you read and write, ask yourself questions that go beyond the specific story. If you notice that a character isn’t pulling his or her weight, ask yourself why. Then, step back and notice what this insight might mean on a more universal level.
  3. Write small. One novel will take you a long time to write, and you won’t be able to see patterns as clearly in one piece of work. Instead, use at least some of your writing time to draft 10-15 minute stories. These low-stakes stories will help you experiment (which builds courage) and also to see patterns more clearly.
 

The Writing Learning Curve: A Next-Step Milestone

 
A next-step milestone is the ability to identify strengths in mentor texts. Once you see an area of growth, you can then turn to resources to help you develop that skill. The ability to see specifically how another writer has done what you aim to do will change the trajectory of your growth. Here’s where you truly cut years off your writing learning curve.
 
In order to make it to this milestone, writers need to have questioned, experimented, and explored enough to:
  • Identify writers they admire for strength of writing craft
  • Understand the strengths of their own perspective and writing voice
  • See past the surface of a story to the gears and cogs turning within
 
Again, the most important skill on this list deals with mindset. You can’t expect yourself to be teachable and willing to learn from master writers if reading their works closely will discourage you. If you don’t yet believe you have something unique to add to the conversation, you will feel as though you’re working toward being a shadowy copy of someone else. You have to know, without a doubt, that your stories matter. Learning someone else’s successful strategies allows you to stand on the shoulders of the greats, and from there, create your own beautiful, innovative, meaningful work.
 
Have you made it to this milestone yet? Here are a few steps to speed up your momentum if you think you’re in this phase of growth.
  1. Create a vision for who you are, at core, as a writer. Collect artifacts–stories, scenes, beautiful lines, anything that helps you see and hear your unique voice. You may even want to make a list or a collage to keep in your writing space, a touchstone to remind you of the simple truth: there is only one you, and only you can tell your stories.
  2. Read with your writing objectives in mind. Notice when an author stands out as a master in a skill you want to develop. Keep those mentor texts on a specific shelf or on your desk. Also, consider reading twice. Read once for the experience, and a second time, more slowly, to notice the inner workings of the story.
  3. Begin to practice the art of reverse-engineering. Underline specific lines that show a strategy in motion. Consider what the author is doing, why, and how you might do something similar (in your own words) in your work.

Setting Milestones Provides Momentum

 
When I started my MFA at Hamline University in Writing for Children and Young Adults, people told me that my study would take years off my writing learning curve. Hamline is a magical place, and working with my incredible mentors there delivered exactly what they promised. If you’re able to invest in an MFA, I strongly recommend it. The mindset challenges I noted above, especially, are more easily overcome with close guidance and encouragement from a distinguished mentor. Also, writing critical papers on mentor texts pushes you to do the necessary work to make this progress possible.
 
That said, with or without an MFA, these milestones will make an incredible difference for you. It feels counter-intuitive to take precious writing time to write small, or to closely examine someone else’s work. However, if doing that work is like turning on a headlamp to pierce through your internal fog, think of how much more quickly you can make it where you want to go.
 
If you’re a longtime reader of the Writerly Play blog, you’ve likely spotted that the skills explored here are foundational in the Writerly Play Library. If you’re curious to dig deeper into how to individualize, map and problem solve your creative development, you might enjoy reading about what Writerly Play is, or how the Writerly Play Library offers creatives an opportunity to strategically develop their skill set.
 
As writers, one of the best ways for us to support one another is to share our insight. Have you found any mentor authors? What book has helped you grow as a writer, and how has the text specifically helped you? Let us know in the comments section or tag me on Facebook or Instagram. I can’t wait to learn from your experience.