All posts in "Pencil Box for the Soul"

“The story” or “the writing”

Lately I’ve been trying something a little different. Instead of dedicating myself to the writing, I’m dedicating myself to the story. To the bigger picture.

This is a big shift for me. I am one (maybe you are, too?) who becomes sentimental about words, sentences, paragraphs I like that I wrote. The issue with such sentimentality or attachment is that, what good is a beautiful sentence if it doesn’t serve the larger piece I am working on? And why am I holding onto it?

We don’t need to go into the neurotic reasons I’m holding onto it, but this much I know: I can save the old file, dissect and reshape it, rename it, and still have all those other “writings” I am attached to. I can pull them up if needed, and use portions here or there. I can feel secure leaving them behind knowing that the story is my focus now – not only my private writing time. My written words are always there to serve my story (rather than my story serving them). Maybe they will. Or maybe they won’t.

Either way, I move forward.


A Mess

…[it] always feels better than coloring between the lines.
—Polly Campbell

By Polly Campbell

I’ve spent most of the morning trying not to write an essay about a family tradition. It’s first on my To Do List. The deadline is a week away, which, for someone who over-ponders just about everything, is not long. I sat down with the intent to knock it out, get’er done, finish it up. Still, so far, I’ve got nada.

So, on days like today then, when I’m not writing, when in fact, I’m avoiding writing altogether, I’ve got to settle down and give my permission again to create crap. Then I set the timer.

I don’t buy into this baloney that we become blocked, or that we’ve got no material left within us. We are material makers. We are a part of this ever-expanding creative Universe. It is within us and psychologists now know that we are all creative, it’s innate.

But, by the time we settle into second grade, we are working hard to suppress any aspect of our creative nature that is, well, creative. As we grow older we begin to stifle those parts of ourselves that we see as unique, or different. We want to fit in, be right, color between the lines.

As grown-ups then – as writers too – we spend a great deal of our creative energy trying to do just the opposite. We actually want to be different, to come up with the next big thing. We want our work to reflect our unique voice. We want our writing to illuminate in a way that hasn’t been done before. And we go into suppression mode again, this time suppressing the inner critic, the one we allowed to take hold of our 7-year-old psyche.

The only way to really quiet those critical inner voices is to give yourself permission to get messy. To create no matter the fear or the doubt or the gossip. To begin, again, to color outside the lines and this time, to relish the process.

In my book Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People, I write that every creative process requires “trial and error, experimentation, exploration, mess, sleepless nights, lots of coffee and sometimes M&M eating (or is that just me?) Sometimes it also requires tolerance for the terrible because in the beginning, the process is rough and unpolished.”

So, this a.m. when I was avoiding the essay, I realized I was mostly just trying to avoid the mess. Trying to stay away from the terribleness sure to show up on the page.

It’s been years since I wrote an essay for publication. I knew I’d need to muddle through parts, make mistakes and find my way through and I didn’t feel up to it. I even felt a little afraid that I couldn’t make it work. That it would never be good enough for publication. That fear was enough to keep me from creating anything – for awhile.

Then I remembered that I am a creator. I make stuff and the process is worthwhile even when it isn’t easy or clean. With that awareness  I did what I often do when I’m caught sabotaging myself: I sat down at the computer, set a timer and got started. I committed to writing for just 10 minutes. I knew that by the end of the 10 minutes I’d be sucked in and wrapped up in the idea and the writing and I would be on my way.

It worked of course. And of course, I wrote crap. It’s not ready for publication. Seriously, it’s a mess. It really is. But now, I have the words out there. There is something to see and shape and mold into something better and more polished. I won’t brag about the writing just yet, but today I reminded myself of how much better it feels to create than to sit and worry about our inadequacies.

We do better, feel more connected and alive, when we allow ourselves to make something – even if it is rife with imperfection and mistake.
Perfection can only catch you up, keep you stuck in the realm of routine. But, when you embrace the messy process of creation, the trial and error and experimentation you have a chance to do something expansive and meaningful and that always feels better than coloring between the lines.

Polly Campbell is the author of Imperfect Spirituality. It’s available at bookstore or online at Amazon and other retailers, or at Imperfect Spirituality.

In conversation with Julia Cameron

The Artist’s Way has and continues to be one of the few books that, after many years, I go to for inspiration about trusting myself, especially when I’m emerging onto (into?) a new phase in my creative life.

My tendency, when change is underfoot, is to think I should harbor zip-zero-nada anxiety about changing. About growing. Because change–and growth–are good. Well, yes, they are good, and necessary–but I still get anxious and have to pull myself back to…my self. The Artist’s Way (and several of Julia Cameron’s other books, in particular Answered Prayers–Love Letters from the Divine) brings me back to me. And once I’m grounded, I can set off again on my process of growth and change.

Beginning a new creative journey is Julia Cameron herself. She recently launched The Artist’s Way Toolkit”, an online version of her bestseller text. Julia has translated The Artist’s Way with to better accommodate those who would like to do more online. Talk about growing and changing with the times and needs of the individual, especially the millions who prefer to conduct their writing and more online.

While foundational items like morning pages are still meant to be done by hand (there is that connecting to self component that pen to paper delivers quite nicely, and in a very different way than fingers to keyboard), the program is more portable than ever.

I had the rare opportunity to ask Julia Cameron a couple of questions about her own process and vision of creativity, as well as her vision of the online kit in regards to morning pages.

Meredith: What does beginning look like for you…and what did beginning this toolkit look like for you? 

Julia Cameron: Beginning looks like hope. You hope to be able to expand your life. You hope that the tools that have worked for four million people will work for you as well. You are open-minded to experiment. You try the tools and record the results.

Meredith: What is your feeling, with the new online toolkit, of morning pages by hand or online? Has your take on this evolved?

Julia Cameron: Morning Pages remain the same: they need always be done by hand. Hand-writing puts us in touch with our emotions. We learn how we feel about what we say. Writing by computer is a more shallow practice. It yields us speed and distance, but not the depth that we are looking for. The Toolkit is to be used more as you would use a notebook. The great thing about this notebook is that, while it doesn’t match up with The Artist’s Way week by week, it contains many of those exercises and tools, more than you will find in the book itself.

Her newest book, The Prosperous Heart, is on sale now. Visit Julia’s website, Julia Cameron Live, by clicking here.

[Thanks, Julia!]

Change your thoughts and you might just change your writing life

In this thought-provoking, to-the-point essay, syndicated food columnist, cookbook author and chef Monica Bhide writes: “As a writer in an industry that is rapidly changing (I checked and half the publications I used to write for are gone or going away), it is easy to focus on what is not there.”

Of course, focusing on what’s not there only gets me/you/he/she/it/us/you/they more of that—nothing, nada, zip.

And Monica knows this. “Instead of worrying (which I do oh so well), I began to focus on what I could do well.” In other words, how to flip things around (inside herself), and tells us how as well.

Please click to read her piece “Knock, Knock….Who is at your door?” Hint: When you get to the part about the two wolves, think for a moment about which one thrives on you (or maybe, vice versa).

[Thanks, Monica, for the inspiration!]

PS: Here’s my 5-Question Interview with Monica Bhide.

Natalie Goldberg on writing

Susan Johnston of Urban Muse Writer had a great interview with Natalie Goldberg this week. Click over to Susan’s blog to read it. Then set your timers and start free writing. If you don’t know what that means, immediately—after reading the interview—go out and get yourself one of Natalie’s books on writing, among them: Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Old Friend From Far Away. And get yourself a timer.

Quick (related) story: I met Natalie Goldberg at a half-day workshop offered through Pacifica Graduate Institute, where studies focus on depth psychology (think Jung). Natalie led us in her signature free writing exercise, timer and all (she used a gong). She taught gently (yet firmly) the importance of holding sacred, on a daily basis, our first words, paragraphs and stories, those rough gems that spill onto the page when we open our consciousness. Never judge, just notice. What to do next will be made clear.

Five Questions With Marla Beck

Marla Beck is a life coach for writers who blogs at 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.