Saturday, July 31, 2010

Clarity Through Virtue: Four Steps to Clear The Writer's Mind

I have a client, Mel*, who after switching paths from a very specialized academic publishing world to the commercial, felt she lost her professional identity, although she knew in her heart it was the right direction to go. Stepping into a writing territory that wasn't necessarily defined by hard core research, she was unsure about where to begin as a commercial writer. The artistic freedom was scary. She had questions and doubts about her original writing voice, the genre of choice, where she wanted her writing career to go and what story she wanted to tell first. To this point, she was snatching pieces of time here and there, sketching out bits and pieces of a story - names of her characters and the general mis en scene. Overall, though, she felt her entire identity as a writer was out of focus. She lacked clarity about the thing she knew she most wanted to do but didn't know how to put the pieces together or in what order. She felt totally disabled.

Lack of clarity in a writer's life can be debilitating and I don't say that lightly. The symptoms look like writer's block, unfocused or rushed prose, genre confusion and general undisciplined pieces. If left untreated, lack of clarity in a writer's life leads to unproductive, self-sabotaging behavior: lack of sleep or an over-abundance; copious couch time; over-indulgence with food and alcohol; substance abuse and possibly depression. It's a nasty downward spiral and it is very real. It's sad to me that the iconic image of The Writer or The Artist that fits this picture so well years ago is still around today. What's worse are the handfulls of professionals in this industry who support that image and dysfunctional lifestyle. I had an agent say to me once, "That's why we love them. That's why they're artists, after all." Really? I thought today's author was one who was learning everything they could with the massive amount of education in bookstores and online on how to SUCCEED with their craft and their goal of being a published author! Ever hear the story about the unagented writer who sold their book to a publisher at BEA (Book Expo America)? Or what about the writer who self-published and isn't afraid to put his book in the hands of a nearby shopper? Then there's the author who writes, tours, speaks and still has lots of quality time for her family. They're out there and thriving - these authors KNOW what they want and how to achieve their goal.

There's a lot of great, helpful info available to writers by industry professionals who genuinely want to help you. They'll tell you how to write a book proposal; how to best present your work (and yourself) to an agent; how to find the right publisher for your work; how to negotiate a book contract; how to promote yourself as an author; what to expect after the book deal and so on. This is all great stuff. This is stuff you need to know. I've read quite a few of these books and have contributed to a couple myself. I totally understand this need for information so you can digest it, follow the directions and get your work out there fast! But what's the hurry? If you've read about the path of publication from the book contract to the finished product sitting on the shelf, you know it takes a good 12-18 months, or more. Unless you've earned a six figure advance (which is unusual), you're still going to have to keep your day job. What I'm saying here, is reading these books on how to get published will only truly help you if you began the process, from concept to completion, clear minded and centered. Reading all the "How to Get Published!" books in the world aren't going to help you if you: don't know who your audience is; don't know why you want to write; don't know how to get your characters out of a rut; don't know where you want your writing career to go or don't even know how to start.

Let's refresh a bit and start from square one, my dears.

Clarity is a way of being at your most cellular level and it can be achieved one step at a time. But in gaining it, you need to step back as a writer and allow yourself the time necessary to identify and address some personal habits that may be clouding your brain. That's right. This has nothing to do with craft or putting pen to page. This is you showing up to your first surfing lesson and learning nothing but balance, otherwise you'll get killed out there. You're not catching any waves today, folks.

So hop on to your board and let's balance. Here are four Clarity Action Steps I prescribe to my clients with great results. It worked for Mel!

Drink Water!

It all starts with the clear stuff - how appropriate! According to Health Choices for Life, the brain is 75% water! Even further, your entire nervous system is like Venice, a city built on water. Your brain needs an ongoing abundance of water to send and receive neural transmissions - you know, the messages your brain sends and receives that makes life possible? Should your body experience a drought, you'll feel sluggish, confused, dizzy, lethargic. Doesn't sound very productive to me. I LOVE water. It's my favorite drink. I usually guzzle 64 ounces a day. Should I go without an abundance for a few days, I feel it mentally, physically and quickly get back on program. Believe me, I know coffee is good, and in moderation it's helpful, but your body physically needs water to survive. Water enhances clarity which leads to greater focus. Drink up!

Get Moving!

There is one particular NYT Bestselling author who loves to romanticize her early leanings toward The New Yorker rather than physical action due to lack of coordination. My goodness, how many times have I heard this one?! That's a tired excuse. First of all, all that self righteous intellectualism doesn't make a writer more talented and second of all, it takes only minor coordination to put one foot in front of the other to have a nice stroll. I'm not talking about signing up for Tai Bo or some masochistic fitness boot camp, here. I'm talking about taking a nice walk, preferably in the morning to help your brain wake up and give it the fresh air it needs to thrive and think clearly. Walking in the evenings is nice too - it's a cathartic way to wrap up the day and reflect on all the good things in your life. You have my permission to follow this up with a nice glass of red wine, which is also noted for all its antioxidant benefits (but don't forget to rehydrate with water). The practice of walking never fails to bring me clarity, new ideas, solutions, opportunities for reflection and gratitude. It's my mobile meditating time.

Eat Good Food!

Notice I didn't say, Go on a diet!, I don't like the word, but I do think it's important to eat as healthfully as you can and ENJOY the experience of preparing and eating great food! I love to eat. And while every Friday is pizza night in my family, the other days I try to fill with lots of whole grains, veggies and fruit. I love Mediterranean food, so I'm big on the health benefits of Olive Oil, tomatoes and herbs kissed by the Tuscan sun. This makes me feel good. I love cooking, love eating ( I did mention that, right?) and very much enjoy the sensual pleasures of cooking and food. When you eat well, when your body is getting the nutrients it needs, it will pay you back very kindly. Try going on a junk food binge for a few days and see how you feel. See? That wasn't so bad. I didn't force you to give up your chips and dip habit. But you should consider it.

Get Organized!

What does your creative space look like? What's sitting on top of your desk? What's the state of your files? Do you have files? What's your organization method? I urge writers to get organized well before we start talking about all the publishing nuts and bolts stuff because choosing writing as a career is like running your own small business. To be successful, you've got to have your office/creative space tidy and organized. Sure, little messes happen and paper has a fabulous way of accumulating, but clean it up. My grandfather was an Episcopalian minister whose soft, County Durham English accent and accessible, practical sermons captivated thousands of listeners during his life which ended in the seventies. I had the pleasure of reading one of his handwritten sermons about putting away your day before going to bed. The lesson was, in completing the incompletes, making sure your desk is clean at the end of each day, you'll sleep peacefully knowing your creation is right in its place. That stuck with me. It's hard to move forward not to mention create with a clear mind when your creative space or office is a mess. When you've addressed the desk situation, move to other areas of your house and start pitching the clutter. Imagine you're tossing the toxic mental junk that's been clogging up the works...stuff you're more productive without. Now you're creating space for fruitful new ideas!

When you apply these four virtues to your writer's life you will see and feel the difference. You will achieve mental clarity. Keep in mind it takes time and persistence. It's a lifestyle change and lifestyle changes are the hardest to make. If you're overwhelmed, choose one. Choose water because you will notice nearly immediate results and it's the most important and beneficial to your overall well-being.

Your exercise this week: Choose at least one Clarity Action to address: Water, Exercise, Eating Well, or Organization. Make a pact with yourself that you're going to focus on the one Clarity Action for at least one month and along the way, journal how this change makes you feel physically and mentally. Next month, choose another and build on the first Clarity habit. Keep going until you've mastered all four. Along the way, keep writing. Notice how your writing has changed and how your craft has improved. Be aware of how your inner self is growing more clear about what it wants. Listen.

Success is brought about by an accumulation of many seemingly small good habits.

How have you found Clarity? Post your short story or tips here! I'd love to know about your successes and how you overcame your Clarity challenges.

Have a beautiful week, writers!

*Not the client's real name.

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