Five Questions With Writing Coach Marla Beck

by Meredith Resnick

Marla Beck is a life coach for writers who blogs at TheRelaxedWriter.com. In recent months her name kept coming up in that way that names come up (for me) when I’m seeking someone unique to interview here. I really like this interview, too. One of my favorite quotes, in response to a question about how Marla fuels herself creatively (in her answer, there is a list…):

The last item I’d add to the list is the one that works the best. Consciously stop trying to be “all that” and just be myself.

MEREDITH: What is the difference between an examined life and an overanalyzed life?

MARLA: A juicy question, Meredith!

In my early 20s I was a classic “overanalyzer.” I was caught in a loop of self-concern, so concerned with my analyzing own feelings and perspectives that I unknowingly cut myself off from the solutions, relationships and possibilities I was seeking. I wasn’t making the most of my life because I was too caught up in the past.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I take care of myself better. I’ve been meditating regularly for a long time, I get support from friends and I eat food that makes me feel great. These practices wake me up and help me see my choices, habits and thoughts more clearly. As a result, I’m free to live in the present. My practices help me be more creative, responsive and engaged with the world.

So for me, at one end of the spectrum is the overanalyzed life: static, inward, ruled by the past. At the other end of the spectrum is the examined life: proactive, intentional…happy. I’ve been at both ends of the overanalyzed / examined life continuum. I much prefer the latter!

MEREDITH: How about the difference between setting up rules for your writing–and being a disciplined writer? How can we writers cultivate both discipline and flow in our creative work? In our lives?

MARLA: I’ve coached many writers around this topic, and the way we engage with this question often surprises my clients. They expect me to crack the whip, to demand more “butt in seat” time, but often I coach them to step away from their work or broaden their focus to include non-writing projects.

If a writer’s not showing up consistently to write, there’s a good chance he or she is ignoring or squeezing out a very real need for relaxation, fun or self-expression. As a result, their “inner rebel” runs wild.

To be simultaneously disciplined and creative, we’ve got to advocate for ourselves as both creative beings (ones who needs rest, relaxation, new experiences) and productive, working writers. Achieving this balance is a dynamic process – a real art!

MEREDITH: What fuels you creatively? Does the same thing always work? Are there standard ingredients? A shopping list?

MARLA: I use a variety of ways to spark my creative fire. Some of my favorites:

– listen to Bach, Thelonious Monk or classical vocal music

– meditate or do yoga, then take a solitary walk

– read something exquisitely written, then challenge myself to imitate some aspect of it (voice, syntax, perspective)

– shift my environment, by writing in my favorite cafe or library

The last item I’d add to the list is the one that works the best. Consciously stop trying to be “all that” and just be myself.

I performed a few weekends ago at a benefit for a terminally ill friend. After worrying (for several weeks) if I was selecting the “right” tune for this serious occasion, I just decided to do what came naturally. I decided to offer what I had, with a full heart.

Turns out that at this well-attended, serious-occasion benefit, I sang a blues song — an original, tongue-in-cheek blues tune I’d written — to the crowd. It doesn’t make logical sense to sing a blues tune at a benefit for a dying friend, but I had a great time. The audience loved “Crawldaddy.” I needn’t have worried so much! When I used “what makes me relaxed and happy” as a guide, I performed well and chose a good-enough tune for the occasion.

When I need more permission to create, relaxing my expectations works best.

MEREDITH: What’s the biggest downer/wet blanket routine….clients do to themselves – what stops the flow/promise/joy? Is there a list of the most popular? What are the best remedies?

MARLA: When we first start working together, my writer-clients will often try to talk themselves out of their creative work.

They’ll say things like:

– “Nobody but me would be interested in a piece on this”

– “It’s already been done before”

– “Who am I to write this?” or

– “I can’t pull this off.”

Others simply avoid their work. They don’t admit to themselves how important the novel really is to them, so they get caught in a cycle of respond to outside stimulus (always doing paid work first and never finding time to do their creative work) or shiny objects, like food, social invitations, housework…

The best remedy for a blocked writer who really needs to pursue a creative project is this: get really clear about why the project matters to you. Then, invest in yourself. Invest time. Invest in an experienced coach to help you get clear and stay on track.

MEREDITH: How do you keep your own blocks from getting in the way when coaching? What are the ways you’ve discovered to keep cheering them on when you’re stuck?

MARLA: It’s never tough to cheer my clients on. Most of my clients are established and successful freelancers. Others are talented literary writers. (Some are both.) I coach some amazing people!

It’s uncanny how many times I might find myself coaching a writer around exactly the same topic I may be struggling with in my own creative life. I learn so much about how I stand in my own way when I see my own challenges through someone else’s eyes. More than once, I’ve gone home and tried my client’s awesome solutions out for myself. Which explains why I sometimes bring my guitar into the bathroom to practice music while my three-year-old daughter takes her evening bath.

When Marla is not busy coaching she sometimes sits in as a jazz singer on restaurant gigs and open mics in Marin County, California. Join an upcoming free teleclass here.

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Sarah Henry

I loved this writing coach’s approach re “butt in seat time.” I find after writing a long piece –when my bum has been in that seat for way too many hours — it’s therapeutic and necessary to do something completely different (a 2-hour walk up steep hills does it for me) to help me feel ready and refreshed for the next writing assignment. I do a lot of thinking about crafting a piece when I’m not at the desk too: In the shower, organizing work files, hiking those hills. I’ve learned after years of writing that it’s all part of the process and not actually procrastination.

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart

I think it’s ALWAYS easier to be brave for (and cheer on) someone else. I love the idea of just being yourself and not getting caught up with keeping up with those who appear to be “all that.”

Alisa Bowman

This is a great interview. There’s so much pressure to market our writing that I think a lot of us get blocked up because we start with the end in mind. This is a good reminder to start with the start in mind, if that makes sense.

Kerry Dexter

I enjoy reading Martha’s blog — thanks for further insights.

Sheryl

Wonderful, insightful sparks of wisdom here, so many things that I identify with and can take away from. I so identify with the “overanalyzer” syndrome. Never thought of it as stopping me from fully living in the present. Thanks for interviewing Martha!

Marla Beck - The Relaxed Writer

Meredith,

What a lovely venue for our conversation. I really enjoyed answering your questions and appreciate the opportunity to appear here!

Nice to see you here, @Kerry, @Sheryl, @Roxanne.

@Alisa, “start with the start in mind” makes perfect sense to me. Like your insight re: the market pressures. I agree wholeheartedly.

@Sarah, loved hearing about the various ways you gear up to write. Your comment’s sparked a new blog post — I’ll post the link here when it’s live.

Hope you’re all feeling great about the new year! -Marla

Casey@Good. Food. Stories.

excellent advice for the new year – I’ll be working diligently on using “what makes me relaxed and happy” as a guide and not being so hard on myself!

judy stock

The simplest advice is the best, be yourself. “I am enough.”

Kristen

I liked her thoughts on how to overcome writer’s block–to remind yourself about your purpose.

christa santangelo

Marla,
We have met a few times.
I am a PhD psychologist and I have a book I’ve been writing for the past 5 years – on and off.
I have written about 100 pages – I have a thesis and a direction – it is not completely fleshed out.
I also have written a proposal and query letter and have an agent a colleague has referred me to – haven’t contacted this person yet.
I’m not sure exactly what I need- someone who knows the non-fiction publishing world and can guide me to the steps to get this puppy published. What are the components? (Query letter, Proposal, 2 chapters? Full book? Start a blog? Epublish? Self publish?)
The goal is to publish the book and then use it for speaking engagements.
Thank you for any guidance.
My best,
Christa Santangelo, PhD
Assistant Clinical Professor
University of California, San Francisco CA
415-290-6083

Liza

I have had the amazing gift of working with Marla…with the dream of writing vs being an already establishedd writer…YET! 🙂 She is a gifted insightful provoking and kind coach…and always seems to know which of these, or in what combo, would best serve progress or insight…or both! Her help has impacted my confidence to uncover my voice…in authenticity as a teacher to share my craft more broadly…and as a fiction writer. Thank you for this interview and congrats Marla on your performance as an artist…and coach!

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