Thursday, June 27, 2013

Writers! Get Out of Your Own Way with Guest Author & Coach Lisa Romeo

Are you a writer, or a would-be writer with all sorts of excuses for not writing? Meet Lisa Romeo, writer, teacher, and coach. Great advice follows, so pay attention! And please note: Lisa will stop by the blog over the next few days to answer questions left in comments. Share your biggest obstacle, or how you solved it. We're also giving away a signed copy of Why We Ride: Woman Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press), and a PDF of Lesson One from Lisa's *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp course. Leave a comment to be eligible (must have a U.S. postal address to win the book). ~ Sheila

Write, Don't Write. Just get out of your own way!

by Lisa Romeo
Aren't writers an interesting bunch. We say we want to write, we long to write, we crave more time to write. We need to write, we say we can't not write, we may even have writing deadlines, contracts, or specific writing goals.
And then, in a hundred different ways, we find ways to sabotage ourselves. Oh, we claim it's all about time, day jobs, kids, elderly parents, complicated relationships, non-supportive spouses/friends/lovers, the stubborn manuscript, that pesky next draft.
But  really it's all about us. We just can't get out of our own way.
I teach  (no, I should say I lead or facilitate) an online class (more a set of guided exercises) called *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp for Procrastinators and Busy People.
So, I've heard it all. 
Every excuse, reason, rationalization, problem, obstacle. We think we have good "reasons"  -- but they are really excuses. We think we have legitimate "obstacles" -- but they are really just situations. We think we have ingrained, intractable personal traits that limit us -- but they are really just habits. We think we have unique lives and families and obligations that constrain our writing time and ability to focus -- but really we just don't use our creativity in ways that let us work around/within those circumstances.
The first week, I ask participants to list every single thing that's keeping them from writing, or from writing with more regularity and consistency. Everything from the dog getting older and needing more attention to the dwindling bank account requiring more hours at the day job to the uncomfortable chair at the writing desk to the spouse who says you're wasting your time and the cousin who threatens to sue if you put the events of 1984 in the memoir.
Then we systematically go about the messy, important, sometimes embarrassing, often surprisingly revelatory and necessary work of figuring out how to debunk, work around, obliterate, acknowledge and accommodate,  alter, tame, eliminate, live with or otherwise find a way to deal with the obstacle and still get the writing done.
It doesn't always work.
But usually it does.
And by the end of six weeks, people are writing again, or writing with more intention and according to a schedule and routine they've designed that takes into account their individual situations.
Here are my basic (maybe brutal) tips for helping writers get out of their own way. They work. I know because I use them myself.
  • No one else has the answer. But YOU do. Really you do. But first, be willing to admit all of the ways in which you make it difficult for yourself to be a writer.
  • Make a comprehensive list of everything you perceive as holding you back from developing the writing life you want. Everything.
  • Then, write the ANTI-list.  All the ways everything on that first list might be managed. Be wildly ambitious, bold, far-flung.
  • Next, look at the first list and admit it: there's a difference between something that genuinely will prohibit you from doing more writing ("my child is ill") and something that is nothing more than your mind or emotions acting up ("I just don't feel like a real writer").  The first kind of obstacles are real, you may not be able to eliminate them (but you can work around); the second kind are excuses. Stop it.
  • Now, look at the list of REAL obstacles. Choose which one to tackle first, then second. Be methodical. Creative. A little ruthless. Hire the dog walker. Sleep a little less. Shame your lazy sister into sharing some of Mom's doctor visits.
  • Find someone to hold you accountable. Another writer or someone who respects the time spent writing. Someone who will – just before you said you were going to finish X – send an email or pick up the phone and say:  "I'm holding you to it. Is X done?"  It helps if this  is someone you would feel terrible about disappointing. Someone whose opinion you value, who you want to be proud of you.
  • Like the characters in your stories, the words on your page, YOU can change, edit, revise your life to make room for writing. The question is: Are you willing to make changes that others may not like?
  • Be a grown up. Stop whining. Stop talking to other writers (and emailing, texting, tweeting, posting to Facebook) about the reasons you can't seem to get the writing done or the writing you did do or the writing you hope to do. Just shut up already – full stop. Use that time and energy to write.
  • If the obstacle you claim is keeping you from writing (or from writing more, better) were brought to you by an employee, child or service person, how would you respond?  What if that person said, "Email and Facebook are too distracting"?  How fast would you reel off solutions:  Turn off the internet! Turn off your smartphone! Download a program to  lock out the internet while writing (Freedom, Cold Turkey)! Set a timer! Write longhand in a notebook! Grow up!
  • Write your ideal, dream writing routine, writing room, writing life. Be gloriously detailed, delightfully outlandish – the ocean in the background, an antique desk, three hours a day to yourself, Yo Yo Ma playing his cello in the corner. Now, before putting the description away, pick just one thing and find a way to inch closer to it. A small CD player?  A tabletop fountain?  The tween from next door watching the kids a few hours here and there?
  • Pull that list out from time to time and inch toward one other dream item.
  • Or, be grown up and admit that you don't need any of that to write – you have everything you need already:  a brain, a notebook or computer, some time.
  • Speaking of time: learn how to use small chunks of time. Very small – 10 minutes here, there. Carry and stash tiny notebooks, put a note-taking app on your phone. A few lines here, a snippet of dialogue there, an idea, list, title – capture it somewhere. It all adds up.
  • Adopt a mindset of "I'll try it and see what happens."

This last one to me is the most crucial. I had a writer tell me she could only write in the early mornings, propped up in bed with three pillows, some herbal tea, cat at her feet – and yet she wasn't managing to write regularly.  A few weeks later, after agreeing to "try it and see what happens," she was writing for 45 minutes three days a week during her day job lunch hour at a coffee shop she didn't even know was there before.
Try it. See what happens. Who knows, you may get out of your own way long enough to get something (else, more) written.

 Lisa Romeo writes essay, memoir, freelance journalism and sometimes works as a ghostwriter.  Her first published pieces were as a teenager, writing about horses and riding. She still occasionally writes about the echoing effects of horses in her life, including in Why We Ride: Woman Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press).  Her work has appeared in mainstream media (New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine), many literary journals, collections, and anthologies. She is now at work on a memoir about her midlife reaction to her father's death.  A New Jersey resident, Lisa teaches writing at Rutgers University, at The Writers Circle, and privately online, and edits book-length manuscripts. Her blog offers resources for writers, author interviews, and writing tipsConnect with Lisa via Twitter, Facebook, or email


  1. Lisa, thanks so much for being here. If no one else wants to win, I do! :-)

  2. I love the idea of writing down real vs. imaginary obstacles. I'm pretty good about writing every day, but it's pretty darn easy to get distracted/discouraged/disheartened etc. The one thing that seems to work is to remind myself how much whining I do when I'm NOT writing, so why futz around when I have the time?

  3. I forgot to ask a question! My biggest 'real' obstacle is my appalling lack of organization. Do you have a favorite organizing tool for writers, like something that helps keep track of notes, websites, research, chapters, outlines, etc?

  4. Exactly, Christinalay! And think of how much more we'd get written if the whining time was dedicated to writing or writing-related activities! Even 5 minutes, for example, can be spent thinking about how to solve a writing problem in a work-in-progress...that is, if we do the thinking away from distractions. Thinking time is so undervalued, and so necessary for writers.

  5. I find each writer will use a system only if it's designed by them, w/their needs in mind, and usually it's a combination of a few things.
    Ideas include: Excel spreadsheet - bulletin board -- Scrivener software -- meticulously labeled computer doc files (sorted and DATED in the file name) -- three ring binder w/old fashioned separators (think junior high!) -- online organizing websites/resources (todoist is one) -- even plain old index cards/file box. Experiment.

    I like spreadsheets, well labeled and dated electronic files, and a whiteboard. Plus (since I'm old!), paper file folders and good old spiral notebooks -- each for a different reason/item.

  6. Hi Lisa,
    I have all the time in the world at the moment to write since this is the first time in my life that I haven't had to work a job outside the home. But, my biggest obstacle is that I want to write memoir.
    I have some islands of writing already written but some of which I'd like to write about is very painful for me to delve into. I feel so happy and content in my life that going back to all that 'crap' (for lack of a better word) and having to relive it just to put it down on paper feels like the waste of a good day to me.
    Sometimes, like right now, I have to wonder if it'd be worth it to put it all together, so it's neatly tucked away if I ever do decide to pick it back up again. Other times I get very determined and start getting it all organized, telling everyone I'm writing again, pulling out notes, taking notes, taking my writing with me, re-reading, editing, etc.
    How do I decide once and for all if this project of memoir is something I want to take on? I either want to write it and get it published or be done with the even the idea of it. Do you have any advice for me?

  7. Hi Robin -
    Have you considered, instead of committing to a full length memoir manuscript -- writing several short (say, 1000 - 4000 word) personal narratives/essays about a few of the memoir strands, working to polish one at a time, seeing about getting it published.

    I've suggested this strategy to several writing students/clients for a couple of reasons: (1) there's an end in sight (one essay at a time, not a full manuscript); (2) you'll find out if you can manage spending part of your day delving back into that (perhaps painful) time period of your life without it negatively affecting your current mood (and if you find it does, you've only then abandoned an essay or two, not a book); (3) you often figure out what's important and what's not in terms of material this way -- an essay (and the experience of writing it) can point you in or away from a particular direction, saving you hours of writing down pointless paths; (4) if you can produce decent, publishable shorter pieces around your memoir topic(s), they can then become building blocks to your full manuscript.

    One great way to do this is to sign up for some sort of class/workshop so you have deadlines which will force you to shape your currently formless, free days with some sort of writing routine to work on these shorter pieces.

    So - nibble at it, chip away at the idea of writing memoir by writing short memoir-like pieces. See how it feels. There are plenty of markets for such material. You may decide to go forward with a full book, or you may decide you like dipping in and out, which makes time in your day for other kinds of writing too.

    By the way, I don't see "I want to write memoir" as an obstacle. The real obstacle here is not being enamored of revisiting a particular past when you are currently happy. I once abandoned a memoir idea I had for the same reason, but for the last 10 years, I've been occasionally writing essays and shorter personal narratives on the topic (severe postpartum depression). It feels better to me to visit that period of my life in short bursts, and I also find I have new insights as time passes.

    Good luck. Whatever you decide, I hope you will find a writing project(s) to give yourself over to since you are in the enviable position of having so much time on your hands!

  8. Sheila and I said one reader would get the giveaway, but since there are only two comment, I'm pleased to award both of you! So, @christinalay and @Robin Donnelly, email me with your preferred email contact, and your postal address (RedLetter67 at aol dot com).

    Thanks for reading and sparking an interesting discussion.