Bright, colored packages that say "keep going!"

As well as being an editor, writer and all-around book hand, I also blow on the sparks of my own creative writing. I'm a poet. 

And like every other writer I know, I'm always hungry for inspiration. 

So for a while, as a side project, I blogged and sent writer friends posts filled with shiny baubles to cheer them and encourage them make what they most wanted to make.

Some of the pieces are practical, others festive, and taken together they make a happy little party. I've gathered them for you below.

They're an offering to us, and to all our writing muses!

(Banner image by Egan Snow via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.)

Breathing your way back to writing



My mind won’t settle down. A wind sets it spinning and I hesitate to write what scatters through: thistles in a dog’s coat. Seeds strewn by a machine, some rolling into tilled earth, some onto pavement. Dust weeping from an eye. What ants and beetles push and carry.

Sometimes it’s hard to find a way into a day’s writing. Nothing seems to cohere, and the cursor blinks and blinks over the next white spot on the page. Today, restless, I get up, search the shelves for a book, one of my favorites—David Abrams’ brilliant “The Spell of the Sensuous” —and flip through it to rub against the words, drop myself into the order of another mind. What catches my eye is a moment in a section on “the progressive forgetting of the air—the loss of the invisible richness of the present.”

Abrams writes of a loss of a deep connection between the body and the aliveness of the world that begins with “forgetting of the air, the forgetting of this sensuous but unseen medium that continually flows in and out of the breathing body, binding the subtle depths within us the fathomless depths that surround us.”

In the smallest of steps toward remembering, I draw a slow breath, and another, returning to the room, the telling still life of the desk (crumpled tissue, empty cereal bowl, blue tincture bottle labeled “inspiration”…). The carpet is soft under my bare feet.

I know this feeling of returning, of grounding myself in the body by breathing, then noticing, once more, the world outside my mind. It’s the core practice I use, and recommend, for daily writing: Breathe, observe just one thing closely, intimately, and write what you see.

Remembering the way back

I know how valuable this process is for me, and yet I let myself push it aside. “You’re writing about the past today,” my rushed mind says, getting ever more bossy the more desperate and frustrated it feels. “You don’t have time to stare at a leaf or the stupid reflections in a water bottle. What does that have to do with anything?”

Given its way, it would probably say breathing is a waste of time as well: “Forget the air. Just be creative, okay?”

Stressed or tired or feeling my confidence dinged, I sometimes respond automatically to that inner voice (you probably recognize the Inner Critic’s inflections in it) and act as though it’s got my best interests at heart. It takes effort to shake off its trance, to come back to myself.

So I learn and relearn, forget and then rediscover.

I think we all do, beautiful writer person. The trick is noticing we’ve forgotten what works for us, and beginning again.

Reminders help. And serendipitous contact with voices like Abrams’ when I most need them. When I return to the past later today, I’ll begin in my body, breathing, paying attention to what’s right here and making room for the possibility of binding the subtle depths inside me to those fathomless depths that are as near as the sky and the birds outside the window.

It’ll look for all the world as though I’m just gazing into the palm of my hand but I'll be going as deeply as I can, following its map of lines: head, heart, life.

(Cloud image by Horla Varlan via flickr)


Writing about conflict? Here’s a tool for you.

I thought of you, beautiful writer person, when I heard a guided meditation on conflict this week.

It was offered as part of a program for mediators and others who regularly step into the midst of disputes, but as I listened, I realized that it was an excellent door through which you might step into scenes from your life that could deepen your story or memoir or poem.

The meditation is led by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a Zen priest based in Northern California, and it’s available here. There’s no religious or even philosophical orientation, just an opportunity for entering an inner space and exploring what’s there.


How a night owl got an a.m. writing habit



This is how you change your writing life: You do something differently.

I know that’s no great revelation. Still, I can forget it in an instant, swept along by my routines and the slick thought loops in my head.  My mind must hold a record for the speed at which it can bounce from “I want more time to write,” to “There’s no way to do that!” to “I think I’ll check out ‘Orange is the New Black’ on Netflix.”And then do it again. Repeatedly. For weeks.

Sometimes, though, I wake myself up by moving the furniture. More than once I’ve dragged the bed into the living room to make space for a writing studio. And recently, I did the mental equivalent by shifting my schedule to find room for my poetry project.

This time, didn’t make a spreadsheet or even look at my calendar. My computer and filing cabinet are littered with fancy renditions of a “perfect schedule,” color coded and neatly printed, with time slots for everything including the 10 glasses of water I’ll drink and the 23-minute power nap I’ll take. I love the exercise of creating those visions of efficiency, but once they’re done, they make me twitchy. And by the time I get to Day 2, I feel like a failure.

What’s working? Can you copy that?

So I started with a different question, one I think we don’t ask nearly often enough: What’s working for me now? Not “What rotten habits do I need to break?” but “What's making me happy and giving me the results I want?"

The answer was easy. Some time ago, I got into the habit of rolling out of bed and going straight to the gym. I had never been that person before, and could go for months—years!—without exercising. But I started going to group classes and found that I liked the Follow the Leader aspect, the too-loud music, the endorphins, the crazy Russian lady teacher. I didn’t have to think, I just had to show up and put my right foot in, or shake it all about, when someone gave the cue. You didn’t have to be fully awake to do it—who knew?

Perhaps best of all, for the rest of the day, I didn’t have to think about that exercise I meant to squeeze in, or feel defeated when I didn’t get around to it.

What was working for me? Crossing “exercise” off the list before the day roared off the blocks. I got great pleasure out of knowing that no matter what else happened, I had a tiny accomplishment to show. I could definitely use more of that. I could tack my writing onto that routine.

It made me happy to imagine walking into my working hours having already spent time with my own thoughts, my own words. Without a lot of angst or drama, I decided to try it. Mostly, I was curious to see how it would feel.

Let's just pretend it's night...

It took me a few days to set my alarm an hour earlier and see what it was like to open my computer to a writing file without looking at e-mails or news or anything else. It helped that I was too sleepy to care much about what anyone else was doing at that hour. I’d been snoring just moments before. I typed the date on the top of the page, dimmed the brightness of the screen so I could pretend it was still night, and let myself write.

I’ve learned that it’s not good to stare too long at a blank document without moving my fingers, because my body’s apt to slide back into a snooze. I’ve pointed myself to writing prompts when my mind doesn’t find a foothold or pick up where it left off the day before. I'm still learning what works.

I’ve been surprised by the images that wind up on the page, the stories that bubble out of sleep. And I've been struck by this unthinkable twist: It’s possible to be a confirmed night person and a person who writes her way out of dreams before 7 a.m.

Guilt and self-blame vs. desire

This “first thing” writing is an ongoing experiment that may well be replaced by another. But it feels like a keeper, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I'd been resisting this for years.

There seems to be a difference—a big one—between setting out to fix something broken (“I’ve failed because I can’t make enough time to write!”) and deciding to build on something that makes you feel good. The first seems to come straight from the Inner Critic. And the second seems rooted in those natural magnets, pleasure and desire.

The magic is in following the pull. 

(Image of moon at dawn by Babu Kantamneni via Flickr.)

31 invitations from the muse: Prompts and games

You could think of this post as a hallway lined with doors, 31 of them, to push open when you want to want to enter a new space in your writing.

It's a month's worth of writing prompts—lines, games, images. The visual prompts give me particular delight. They're the work of two of my favorite creative people, David Glynn and Lynell George. David's are the color photos, Lynell's the black-and-white.

I hope you lean into them, and all of the entrances you find below, and discover something that surprises you. 

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The muse says: Start here

1. What's scribbled in light on her body? What has she just released?

Opening lines and phrases

2. Everything I’m about to tell you is a lie.

3. Forgetting is the fourth stage of memory, the fifth stage….

4. Window, cigarette hole, sky—

5. When I held it in my hands, it….

6. Nothing survived but the ….


7. The chairs.

8. Something cracked.

9. The Comforter, the Mind’s Promise, the Beautiful Order of Thistles…. (found in Mary Ruefle's "Madness, Rack, and Honey.")

10. This is what he would bury:

11. They had no words for ____ so they ____…..

12. It looked like a ____ when it finally landed....


13. The questions.


Instructions for poems and other pieces:

14. Place a sheet of white paper under the vase of flowers to capture the scatter of pollen. Read the words inscribed there.

15. Find a seat in a crowded place and let conversations flow past you like wind. Write down the secrets you hear or imagine.

16. Scry through the belly of a glass of cold white wine. Write what appears in the glass.

17. Ask a question and flip through a book, stopping the pages with your finger and finding your answer in the words beneath it. Write the question, and the answer.

18. Type a section of something you’ve written into the “Electronic Poetry Kit.” Make poems by rearranging the words. Make a list of missing words you long for, words you don’t want to live without. Use them to make lines.


19.  Something delicate, or dying.


Stolen titles awaiting new bodies

20. Dark Wild Dream

21. Becoming Animal

22. Bitters

23. A Ruin That Isn’t  a Ruin



24. A fact. A mood.

25. Seven Days of Falling

26. A Photograph of a Plate Glass Window

27.  A Walk in Victoria’s Secret

28. Woman With a Yellow Scarf

20. The Book of Questions

30.  A Guide to Forgetting



31. The light, the globe.

That's enough for a month, if you took on one a day.

Bonus: A trove of amazing toys and prompts you may not know about—for all the days after.

(See more of Lynell's work at Find more of David's at

Feeling the sensous pull of summer? 25 ways to let it draw your writing into the dreamtime.

I’ll be away for a while this summer, not on vacation or at some retreat but in a staring-at-the-ceiling (or the stars) reverie, re-entering that space where identity and time are fluid, if just because nights are warmer and something in me knows that a summer night is one long dream.

And I admit, there will be small … side trips. I’ve been thinking of how some summers when I was young were a series of obsessions: learning to type, and then making newsletters. Or going out in the dark to filch roses from nearby bushes so I could fill jars with petals that never quite dried. Or playing Monopoly until no one could stand it, and moving on to Scrabble or tag.

So many games and adventures began with a ringleader saying: Let’s. Let’s sneak onto the golf course and pick up balls. Let’s see how many Popsicles we can eat. Let’s hide in a crawl space and play cards till someone finds us.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing and everything. Some part of summer’s expansiveness has to spill into the way we write, and maybe it’s time to let sensuality and imagination overtake us and see what happens.

So let’s. Let’s experiment. Let’s pretend the list below is a treasure map—or a series of writing prompts. Three, two, one… Go!



Let’s all:

Climb to the top of a grassy hill and roll down.

Get up at sunrise on the solstice to watch the longest day of the year  begin, then linger outside as sunset becomes twilight and watch till the final drop of daylight disappears into the dark.

Lie on our stomachs in the grass and watch the intricate rituals of ants.

Sit outside whispering in the dark.

Let's write aerogrammes to imaginary selves that live in Paris or the South Pacific.

Listen to waves and wind.

Or drive with the windows down and the heat turned up to a place where the stars are too thick to count.

Let's make up stories about our past lives and write them in locked diaries.

Let's dye our lips and tongues blue with berries.

Go barefooted all day.

Sit under trees and listen for wisdom.

Let’s write love notes to ourselves and our cats and our books and our favorite places.

Throw wildflower seeds on bare patches of ground.

Stop to admire dandelions growing up through sidewalk cracks.


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Let's walk around the block backwards.

Make forts out of card tables and blankets and go in and write.

Let’s take our laptops out to the patio or porch or park and transcribe the language of night.

Let’s buy packs of index cards and write a word we love on each card, then shuffle them into poems.

Pretend we know we’re being spied on and find private places to write, out of the reach of  recorders and cameras, even our own, even the ones on our phones and computers, even the ones we trust.

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Let’s write in the margins of books and on our hands and on cocktail napkins.

Let's write in invisible ink and code, as if our secrets were precious.

Let’s sip mugwort tea and dream.

Let’s read with a flashlight under the covers.

Let’s fill ourselves up and write each other letters about what we've tasted.

Let’s write like it’s summer, like it’s play.

And if you’re in a part of the world where it’s not summer, come join us anyway, in your sweaters and hats.


(Grass image by sundaykofax, patio image by ahdummy, cocktail napkin by Listen Missy!, all  via Flickr.)

At the heart of the workday: art—and the trickster that wants us to notice

I’m researching a short book about cataracts, in my “working writer” guise. I’m no scientist, but I’ve been reading technical papers to pull out details of the quite amazing world packed into the lens of the eye. The task, I admit, is daunting at times.

Simply getting oriented among the crystallin proteins and the clear, six-sided strands they form can feel a little like traveling into an Italo Calvino landscape of incomprehensible architecture and half-understood words. The going is slow.

Once, I might’ve grumbled about having to spend so much time away from the poems I’ve just begun, the project I hope to build over the next dozen months. I was in the habit of seeing my day jobs—and their demand that I focus on subjects I may not be naturally drawn to—as a distraction, some kind of barrier that stood between me and my real work. But I’ve come to appreciate just how much my writing has gained from my immersion in unlikely worlds, and topics or environments that chafe.

Like everyone I know, I’ve done a lot of things to pay the rent. I’ve dispatched construction inspectors, worked to master the counter-clockwise (or was it clockwise?) swirl atop a Dairy Queen cone, fed SpaghettiOs to the kids left behind by a motorcycle gang, written about bad mothers, hauled hoses and painted houses, edited reports on electromagnetic metrology, and wrangled the minutiae of stories on runway fashion and baseball.

'Soul-killing'? Maybe. But maybe not.

I’m sure I described that work as “soul-killing” more than once at the end of a day when someone yelled, something went wrong, my body ached or I just couldn’t get my mind around the task at hand.

The longing I felt through it all was for a writer’s life that was insulated from demands that I pay attention to all those details  that I might not have cared about if someone weren’t paying me. And even when the work was good and interesting and rewarding, I had the lingering sense that I’d been abducted from my real home in some alternate universe, where I could spend my days writing, filling my brain with the names of birds and reading mythology in the original Greek. Instead of scraping the peeling paint off splintery window frames or staring into a computer screen for the 10th hour of a workday, trying to find something interesting to say about face cream.



The exotic, embedded in the ordinary

Increasingly, though, I’ve begun to marvel at what’s right in front of me, the personalities and stories and vocabularies that my working life funnels into my writer’s brain. Today, I looked up the term “cytosolic scaffold,” and my mind rolled the syllables around, then conjured up a clear, liquid ladder, an icon from a dream. The bureaucratic language of corporate memos, the mortise and tenon connections of furniture-building, the haiku sales pitches of shopping websites—extracted from the sea of the workday they’re like household objects set in museum vitrines: exotic, strange, even beautiful. I've begun to see it.

So much flows through a workday, begging to be noticed by the part of us that writes—and used for our own writing. When I can dial down the feeling of “I should be writing a poem right now” and instead allow my workdays to feed my writing, I find myself resenting much less—and pausing to take notes. It used to be that I felt invaded by ideas about the work I do for others. Lately, though, I’ve seen that what was popping up offered images and language and themes for my own work. I just didn’t understand that the gift was for me.

What if our trickster brains are always flying through our workdays and stealing treasures for our writing? Life begins to feel much less fragmented, at least for me, and less conflicted, too. On long workdays, I’m keeping a notebook and a computer file open to see what the trickster brings.

Photo by Edward Dalmulder via Flickr

P.S. Some 'don't-miss' reading for you

A great piece on habits: I've long wanted to write at length about habits, in particular the enticing, life-changing simplicity of "tiny habits"—exceedingly small actions that can form a powerful foundation for much larger change. I've tried and been impressed by the techniques developed by a Stanford researcher named B.J. Fogg, who cheerfully encourages people to "Keep it tiny!" as they commit to, say, flossing one tooth.

Tiny habits and micro-quotas work in a way that grand resolutions never could. And because now is a great time to see for yourself, I highly recommend taking a look at  this article, which explains just how habit-formation works. You'll quickly see how it could change your writing life for the better, and get the lowdown on how B.J. Fogg and others lay out the behavioral  science.

It's the piece I'd envisioned putting together someday, and I'm delighted that Gregory Ciotti at did it.

What to do when the safari (or your project) winds up neck deep in quicksand

Last week was a hard one. I’d given myself a couple of days to do what sounded like a simple writing job, and I filled hours and screens with words, but nothing worked. Each draft looked worse to me than the one before.

It happens sometimes. Notes that sound brilliant when you take them down seem insipid when you try to spin them into paragraphs. The big ideas that are supposed to tie everything together unravel. Every phrase seems recycled. Mine did, anyhow.

Laboring through the rewrites, I could see myself beginning to criticize every line almost before it was out of my head.

 So it would be tough to pretend that I’ve got the magic goggles that keep me from going snow-blind when my writing shatters onto the page and the flakes begin to swirl. Sometimes I stare at the words on the screen and I can’t make out the shape of anything. I’m supposed to be a writer? Who am I kidding?



     The sign says: "Look out! Quicksand" —in Dutch.


Oh boy. Now we're in deep.

When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of an old black and white jungle movie in which a bunch of city-slicker explorers on safari stumble into quicksand. The person at the front of the line sinks up to his waist and starts flailing, and the hero behind him throws him a branch and says, “Stay still. The more you struggle, the more this stuff will pull you down.” We know the first guy’s a goner—he was the anxious, whiny one who never listens. And, sure enough, he goes under, thrashing and screaming.

Just to underline the hero’s wisdom, we get the alternate scenario. The safari’s only woman trips into the goo and again the hero yells, “Just listen to my voice. Grab the branch and stay as still as you can.” She does what he says and there’s a big, goopy embrace when he’s pulled her out.

I memorized the quicksand rule, just in case I ever needed it.

And I guess I have. With my mind serving up images of blizzards and quicksand, I’m getting the picture of what it’s been going through lately. I didn’t realize it had been so tough until I saw the words on the page.

It gets pretty mucky out (and in) there

When I’m working with writers, sometimes I’ll ask a couple of questions about a character or wonder about an image or a chronology and the next thing I know there’s a flurry of pages as they pull out versions one through seven and say, “It’s a complete mess. Maybe it was a bad idea to take this on. Is there anything good in it?  I just can’t see it anymore.”

I’m not in the muck of the writer’s mind, so I can look at those attempts without the angst and doubts and confusion of the struggle and experience what’s on the page. I listen for places where the writer seems to be excited, and for what makes me curious. From there, it’s not hard to connect the stars into constellations and feed back to the writer what I see. There are always stars glittering. We both get still, looking at the words, and we begin to see the way forward.

If only I could do that for myself.

Writers who need writers….

I can easily get caught up in the idea that I should be able to power through any rough patch on my own. So I thrash and flail and keep on sinking until it occurs to me to admit that i'm lost, and I need someone to throw me the perspective I don’t have. Someone outside my head, who can see what I can’t.

It's a huge relief to ask for help. I'm positive that what separates writers who keep going from the ones who stop before their best work is done (or sometimes even started) is the presence of trusted writer friends and workshop peers and editors and coaches who help us still the struggle by witnessing our efforts and telling us what they see.

Go ahead. Let someone see what you're trying to do. You don't have to struggle alone. And if you need the branch I'm holding, just holler.

 (Photo by rs photo via Flickr.)

Create instead of wait: Your writing is urgent

I’m thinking about time—and how much more I want to write. Some of the most motivated writers I know and work with keep a sense of urgency pulling them forward: Someone close becomes gravely ill. A parent dies. A car swerves into their lane on the way home and crashes into the timeline they’d envisioned, that long life full of days to spend thinking about what they might get around to next year or the next.

Time shifts. It loses its the slipperiness that lets us imagine it into any dimensions we choose and reveals itself to be bracingly finite. Precious.

‘I’m an artist. What else would I do right now but this?’

A friend from the gym is 81, and her cancer’s back. Gloria’s optimistic, and intensely focused. “I’ve been tired,” she told me, “but I’m almost done with my children’s book, so I’ve been at my computer working on it.” A week into chemo, she brought the book in to show me, the tale of a mouse—“not a Disney mouse, but a wild one”—who joins the circus. “I’m an artist,” she says. “What else would I do right now but this?”

Gloria's book is full of encouragement as it traces the intrepid rodent’s journey to the big top: Take a chance, the story line suggests. Have an adventure! Try again when something goes wrong during the show! I’m listening to all of that, letting the art seep in as I let Gloria’s clarity about the importance of this work we do—even when it’s “just for ourselves”—reinforce mine.




The art of making our best work urgent

You’re probably familiar with the distinction Steven Covey, the late business guru, makes between what’s important and what’s urgent. Urgent tasks, he says, are the sometimes inconsequential ones that make lots of noise and, with their deadlines or importance to someone else, tend to crowd out truly significant priorities that don’t have a screaming boss, finger-drumming client or child attached.

He advocates focusing on the important, in our case the novels or stories or essays or poems that no one’s paying us to write or expecting from us by a particular date. I’ll be filling the coming year with a stream of prompts, pushes, and practices to keep my own important projects sanely infused with a sense of urgency over the long haul.

Some of that will involve setting deadlines and creating time-based containers for work—five poems in five days once in a while, for instance—and some will no doubt mean making and keeping promises to someone else, because there’s magic in contracts and commitments, unsexy as those words sound.

I’m not envisioning a yearlong sprint or even a fast start. Just a walk-run steadiness that builds intensity, eases off and builds again, filling growing stretches of time with writing, with presence. I’ll share what I’m doing along the way. Maybe you’ll come too?

So, are you game?

I hope you will join me in trying to marry your truly important work with a sense of urgency. Urgent comes from the Latin for “to press or to drive,” and in tapping urgency, we unleash its driving energy, channeling the push to create instead of wait.

It can feel like wind at your back.

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, what’s the slightly scary, undeniably important-to-your writing goal you could elevate to urgent by announcing it to the world (or us) and moving toward at a solid walk-run pace? If you’re feeling bold, declare it in the comments below, and I’ll tell you mine. We can support each other as we go.

If you want concentrated help to get you going, check the “Work With Donna” page. And feel free to use the Contact page if you want dream up other ways we can work together.

(Clock image by Zorin Denu via Flickr.)


P.S. A tracking tool I like


I’m not a big believer in starting a new project or renewed push with a new notebook (see this post if you’ve got the starting-gate stationery fetish), but I do like toys and treats, so I’ve been playing lately with an app called Chains, available at It’s another of the tools based on the old Seinfeld idea “don’t break the chain” of days on which you stay true to a chosen habit. I’ve been using the desktop version, but there’s also an iPhone app (nothing for Android mobiles yet).

In Chains, you can track multiple habits, and each time you click a date to indicate you’ve, say, done your writing practice or made time to work on your fiction, you activate a graphic (you can choose among several) that changes in surprising ways as your “chain” gets longer. Currently, I’m tracking the growth of a yellow crayon, a flower in a pot and a rugged-looking iron chain.

If you liked gold stars, you’ll enjoy this century’s variation. For support (or competition) you can form or join groups of people tracking similar habits/commitments. You’ll find many writers and readers in the Chains community. If you’d like to play with this in the company of other Let’s Write This writers, let me know below and I’ll set up a group.

Looking Away: A simple meditation for freeing inspiration in a crazed writing life

What do you do when you reach that “writer action shot” moment—staring off into space with words bouncing around like bumper cars in your mind but refusing to find their way to the page? I used to simply gut it out, staring longer, “thinking harder,” hoping something would come into focus. But recently, I’ve been using a technique I learned from my meditation teacher, a practice called Looking Away. It’s worked so well, and freed my writing so much, that I wanted to introduce you to both the process and to my teacher, Jona Genova.

Jona has done brain research, worked on Wall Street, helped launch restaurants, been a cookie queen and studied Tibetan Buddhism in her fluid and fascinating life. She now teaches meditation and works as a healer from her base in Malibu, Calif., and her organization Samadhi for Peace,

We talked this week about writing and meditation, and some highlights of our conversation—including instructions for Looking Away—are below. Especially if you’ve had difficulty meditating in the past, I hope you’ll give it a try. It’s a tiny practice with surprising power.

Meditation may be more familiar than you think

“Creative people tend to be great meditators, and even those who think they’re not probably already have a meditation practice—they’re just not calling it that,” Jona says. “So a first step is to tap into how you’re already meditating.” The techniques you use to center yourself before doing creative work are closely tied to meditation, she explains.

Visual learners, she says, may naturally picture themselves doing a task successfully, the way a musician might envision a performance and see himself going through each step, creating a strong image of what’s going to happen.

For many writers, the process might be more intellectual, using words to pull inward and separate from the world. “It might be a peaceful thought you go to,” she says, or a practice of telling yourself, ‘"t’s going to be okay. Just relax. I have plenty of time to do this.”

That means there’s no one meditation technique that’s right for everyone. “I meet many people who are frustrated because they’ve tried meditation by the book and it’s difficult for them,” she says. “I always say that it’s different strokes for different folks—it’s important to find the meditation that resonates with you, and where have a visceral response to the technique. More than likely, it will relate to (or be) the practice you’ve naturally found for yourself, and you can build on that.”




Starting when you don’t know where to start

But it’s not unusual to have trouble recognizing what you always do, Jona says. “You may say, ‘I know I have a meditation practice in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.’ That builds frustration.

“When that happens, the very simple technique I would offer is to engage the process of Looking Away,” which is particularly useful at stressful moments in everyday life.

To describe the effect of Looking Away, she tells a story from her childhood. Her brother was a catcher on a softball team, and during a game, his arm was injured. “So my grandfather ran into the dugout and grabbed an ice pack, the kind you smash so it’ll become cold.” He was a strong man, and when he clapped the pack between his hands, it exploded, its chemicals flying everywhere.

“The next one he grabbed did the same thing. The third time, the coach said, ‘That’s our last one…’ So my grandfather brought himself out of the moment and was a little more gentle. Breaking that ice pack in a more gentle way produced the result he wanted”—and he was finally able to ice her brother’s injured arm.

Go gently, writers, she advises: Brute force probably won’t liberate the muse. “If we try too hard, we’re not going to get the result we want. To some people that effort may feel like squeezing, holding on, or confining our ideas to one train of thought. And when we start to go down that road, it really inhibits our creativity.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a few minutes to not pay attention to the thing you’ve been focusing on can actually put your body in a state that’s able to give you what you want.”

Looking away, step by (short) step

Here’s how Jona suggests Looking Away when you get stuck:

1. Accept that distraction and frustration are going to happen—they happen to everyone, and it helps to acknowledge that.

2. Take a few deep breaths—it may sound cliche, but it does help to clear your mind a little bit and relieves some of the pressure. Then take a very brief break for a meditation.

3. Set a timer for two minutes—and only two minutes; we’re practicing restraint.

4. Sit in a chair and elongate your spine without a lot of strain or thought about it. Try to sit in a comfortable way that makes room for your breath. Once you’re there, find your breath and ride the rhythm of your inhale and exhale, feeling the rise and fall of your body.

Your mind will probably want to go to the task at hand, but bring yourself back to just feeling the rise and fall of the body, and every time your mind returns to your project, bring it back to “feel the rise and fall of my body."

5. Remind yourself to trust this very ancient practice that’s worked for many, many people. Just go with it.

No need to panic if ideas come

She recommends keeping a journal by your side during meditation. “You take your two-minute break, and more than likely, you’ll see ideas pop up about what you were working on. It’s okay to turn to your journal and jot down those thoughts in one or two words rather than letting your mind race through: ‘Okay, don’t forget that. That was a really good one. Don’t forget it! Okay, now back to the breath, back to the rise and fall.'”

“That’s just too much. Don’t make it so hard on yourself. Write down the ideas that pop into your head and enjoy the fluidity of going back into your meditation: 'Okay, got it down on paper. I can go back in. Everything is fine.'”

Less really can be more

“Somewhere along the line, we all picked up the idea that to be successful, we need to work harder and faster. And it’s just not the case,” Jona says. “There’s more and more research telling us that a relaxed state and a well-rested person is going to perform better. So try to shift your framework.

“Spending two minutes in meditation and going back into daily life gives us an experience that I feel is missing in some practices,” Jona says. “What occurs in meditation should flow into the rest of our lives so that eventually, we can’t tell the difference between being in meditation and everything else. When we take those two-minute breaks, we’re carrying with us the resonance of that meditation, that way of being, into what we do next. Less is more sometimes. We just have to recognize that just because something seems simple, that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective. There’s great depth in that simplicity.”

You can find Jona Genova at, and she's Samadhi for Peace on Facebook. To see one of her short and simple guided meditation videos, click here

(Photo by Marcus Hansson via Flickr.)

Elephants in tutus: What I learned about writing at the barre

A little over a year ago, a woman I instantly began thinking of as “the crazy Russian lady” showed up at my easy-going morning exercise class and announced she was the new teacher. Exuberant and kinetic, Zhanna spends much of her life teaching Zumba, but we'd be learning a gym-friendly version of ballet. And she assured all of us— the weak, the semi-motivated, the too-stiff-for yoga—that none of those adjectives mattered. We'd easily pick up the basics she'd learned from her teachers in Russia. Eyebrows rose. Us? Ballet? I pictured elephants in tutus.

“Ballet,” as far as I could see, consisted of long, long sets of rapid leg lifts alternating with stunts that involved balancing on one leg while swinging various other body parts around. Through it all we were instructed to “up your chin” or “make leg like dog at hydrant” as the Zumba tracks blared and the crazy Russian lady yelled “nonstop, nonstop!” anytime we began to flag. Which was often.

But the impossibility of it all was weirdly compelling. What were people like us doing in a class like that? And why did she keep acting as though we could do this thing we clearly weren’t cut out for? It was a mystery. It was also sort of fun. I think we kept coming back to find out what would happen.

My expectations were so low I counted any progress as a victory. The way I saw it, I could only get better. At first, I stopped every time my mind said: “I can’t do this” or “I’m too tired,” but I started to realize that that was practically all it said—so I began to ignore it and just pay attention when my body announced it was time to take a break.

There was a lot of laughter and eye rolling in that class in the early months. Just look at us, the smiles would say, as we wobbled and shook. All around the room, bodies were relearning how to stand, tipping and flailing and falling, trying again. How could it possibly take so many muscles in so many places to stay upright on one leg?




What pulled us forward? A sense of play.

We kept showing up twice a week for an hour at a time, getting imperceptibly better at “upping our chins” and remembering to “straight our shoulders.” When someone brought her two young ballet-student daughters to class, their supple grace set our teetering stiffness in relief. We could see what our moves would look like performed by dancers. We clapped and cheered the girls. No one was going to wave a wand and make us nine years old again. All we could do was enjoy their beauty and our own stubborn persistence. We’d be there at the next class. It was something we did now. For the heck of it, just to play around.

All these months later, progress seems to be sneaking up on us. None of us is doubled over panting five minutes into the class anymore, and all of us are stronger. Weeks and weeks went by when it seemed as though nothing was happening, but every once in a while I’d realize that standing on one leg was no big deal anymore, or notice we all looked taller.

The unintended side effect? Somewhere along the line, the “throw yourself in there and see what happens” approach began to spill over into my writing practice. There was something about the experience of being a beginner that my writing longed for.

The perks of writing as a beginner

* As a beginner, you get big points just for showing up and trying. No one expects you to be perfect. You don’t expect you to be perfect. The victory is in returning to the effort.

* When the going seems absurdly hard, a beginner is likely to laugh and say, “This is absurdly hard!” The laugh is forgiving, accepting. Of course it’s difficult—you haven’t done it before! You’re figuring it out!

* A certain delight comes with beginner status. You don’t know what you’ll discover or how your small efforts will add up. So when you suddenly see yourself do something difficult with more ease, or recognize that you’ve used a move you hardly realized you had, or pulled an image that’s apt and beautiful out of the air, there’s surprise and pleasure in the accomplishment. Wow! That was me! (Beginners, you may have noticed, get a large supply of exclamation points.)

Every time we write, we’re beginning again. And approaching the blank page by asking, “I wonder what’ll happen today” brings a pleasure and freedom that’s all but blotted out when when the “serious professional” in us, the competitive part concerned with outcomes, asks: “I wonder if people will love this. Today's writing is only worth it if it's good.”

Just as an experiment, try letting yourself be a beginner when you sit down to write this week, beautiful writer person. Find the fun in taking the first awkward steps toward something new—dialog you've been wanting to try. A different kind of voice. A writing schedule you've been afraid to commit to. The story you're struggling to finish. Stay with the process of diving in, adjusting, trying again. The pirouettes and denouements will take care of themselves.

(Photo by David 23, via Flickr.)

A path to writing: Reaching into the richness of the world

The first “real” writer I ever studied with was a charismatic, sad-faced poet with a droopy mustache who’d walk into the room with a book of poems, light a cigarette and begin reading or reciting. He put the voice of Pablo Neruda in my ear, the glowing end of the cigarette moving perilously close to the skin of his tapered fingers as the poems progressed, stamping his image onto my archetypal picture of what writers are like, how they breathe, how they stand. Writers, he told us, need to know the names of flowers and stars, the geography of the body, the sounds of ancient languages, the words of folk songs.

As I write and think about writing, his is the voice in my head the pushing me to name the features of the worlds I create, to hold my ear to them and find the sounds that evoke them. To reach into the richness of the world out there and pull it in.

“Live a more interesting life,” I write on my list of things to do to feed my writing (and yes, there’s always such a list). It sounds silly to me, so I cross it off and replace it with, “Notice more.”

That impulse makes me itch to get beyond the rote paths of my usual thoughts. I click over to see what an anthropologist I like has been thinking about, just for the chance to look through his eyes, and that leads me to an adventure.


It’s a remarkable project, beautifully explained here by Ferris Jabr on the Scientific American Brainwaves blog. A researcher, anthropologist Andrew Irving of the University of Manchester, stopped people on the streets of New York and drew them into an experiment that would document their fleeting thoughts.

Jabr describes Irving’s approach—called “New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens”— this way:

“Excuse me,” he would say, “this might sound like a strange question, but can I ask you what you were thinking before I stopped you?” If the stranger did not run away, he would ask them to wear a microphone headset attached to a digital recorder and speak aloud their thoughts as he followed closely behind with a camera. He would not be able to hear what they were saying, Irving explained, and they would be free to walk wherever they liked and continue their business as usual.

“I was surprised by how many said Yes,” Irving says—about 100 in all. By overlaying the recorded audio onto the videos, he has created portraits of individual consciousnesses on a particular day in New York City.

The effect, Jabr notes, is one Virgina Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway would recognize, the thoughts that pivot endlessly beneath a silent surface made audible.

Willing the invisible to show itself

My senses felt heightened when I walked outside after watching the videos (there are several on the Scientific American blog), as though I could feel inner conversations rippling around me.  I was curious about everything again—the shopgirl’s sad expression and what might be behind it, the pacing half of a cellphone conversation gaining volume on the corner, what happens in the brain as it speaks to itself. I’ve certainly been looking moe curiously at the thoughts circling in my own mind.

I’ve had my notebook out, trying find the light bulb that renders the invisible ink of the world legible, so I can name what I sense and see.

I don’t know if you’ll be as transported by these glimpses into the inner worlds of “other citizens,” but I do know that stopping to find what does transport you will draw you into your writing.

Today, beautiful writer person, look through new eyes. Observe one thing carefully. Intuit your way into it afresh. And then write down what you notice. The world is enormous, with so many entrances. Choose one. Write.

A snapshot of where the time really goes

Writers are always talking about time. I wish it were because we’re a metaphysical lot exploring the multiverse. It’s true, some of us are, but most often, we're time-obsessed because we’re looking for ways to gather up enough minutes to work on our projects.

We’re busy, right? That’s clear enough. But how busy, really?

Here’s a toy to play with for a day or two, just to give you a true picture of your days. It’s an ultra simple (and free) time tracker called Toggl. Visiting the website will give you an immediate sense of how you use your minutes. A click to the welcome screen starts a timer labeled: “Reading” That's your life in real time, ticking past.

Launch the application—on a small desktop window or a mobile app—and the screen asks: What are you working on? Label your activity, press the start button, and press stop when you’re done. Do it again with the next activity and the next.

When you use the desktop version, a “timeline” feature, activated the day after you sign up, automatically records the time you spend on the Web, and tells you where you went.

Spend a day, even an afternoon, gathering raw data showing how you use your life, and you’ll probably see missed more than a few opportunities for creating what you want to create.

This moment is what we have to work with, beautiful writer person. It’s our opportunity to see and feel and connect with what’s most important. And the choice we make about what we do with it is the difference between seeing minutes or days filled up with “worried about not writing” and filling up pages. Writing our books. Knowing our creative selves.

Pay close attention to the way you use time this week. Track it, even. Then take some of it back for your writing.

A simple trick for winning the war with distraction

Here's a quiz. You hit a snag in something you're writing at work. Do you:

a. Power through and keep going? b. Get up and walk around? c. Click away to your e-mail or the Web?

I'm guessing C. That quick and easy avenue of escape is so pervasive it's part of the rhythm of the day. Type, stall, click away. Type, stall, click away.

You bend the idea you’re trying to shape back and forth like a paperclip wire until there’s a tiny snap. Okay. Enough of that. What’s on the web?

Many minutes later, Facebook checked, the great and powerful Google oracle consulted, e-mail scanned, you’re back. Same spot, same task, just a little bit farther behind, a little more stressed. The enemy—distraction—is winning. Sometimes there’s hardly a contest.

Maybe it’s always been like this, but getting stuck was probably more fun when people typed their attempts on paper, looked at them with a shake of the head and then yanked the sheet from the roller and wadded it up. (Typewriter talk is so visceral, no?) A ring of big white wads around the desk was some kind of measure of time and progress. And when the pile got big enough, you could shoot baskets into the trash can.

Now, we just silently click away from what we’re doing, sometimes many, many times a day. And there’s not even a satisfying mess to show for it.

The clicking would make sense if we were lab rats getting a food pellet. Or the fresh inspiration of a real break. But no, what we have here is a time suck. More info bits crammed into a brain that seriously doesn’t need another status update. And now there’s even less time to write the important stuff—our own.

Distract yourself with .... yourself

But here’s a secret: You can have your distraction and your writing too. The trick? Don’t fight distraction, don’t declare war and don’t stop. Just do it a little differently. Distract yourself with yourself.

The truth is, you need a balance of breaks and concentration to get your work done, and you’ve worked out a way to do that. You push a browser button that takes you somewhere far away and creates the illusion of a break. It just doesn’t wind up feeling like one.

So here’s something to try: Click away to yourself. Create a button for your browser toolbar that takes you to a file you create for your own writing. Google docs works well for this. And if aesthetics is a hook that will keep you coming back, try a serene setting like Ommwriter (on a Mac) or Zenwriter on a PC (more on those soon).

What will keep you distracted by yourself? If you’ve been away from your writing for a while and the blank page does not make you squeal with glee, type a prompt onto your “distraction”/”vacation” page when you create it. (There are dozens of prompts here  and some wild ones here.) Or take a few lines from the last interesting work you did—an old poem or essay or story. Just a taste to remind you of what you sound like. You, the real you, the one who writes.

You might get hooked

Then, keep clicking back to that page. Stuck? Distracted? Fine. Leave the problem for a minute or two or five or ten. Click away to yourself. And let your mind tinker with your own thoughts, your own writing.

You’ll recapture the time that’s been dribbling away. And you’ll be seeding your own work daily. Even hourly. Do it for a day. Then for another, and remind yourself if you forget.  I’ll bet you get hooked.

As for the work you’re supposed to be doing? You know that’ll get done. It always does. But alongside it, you’ll be building a writing life of your own. All with “distraction,” and stolen time.

Are you battling distraction? What works for you? Let's chat in the comments.

Image by turinboy via Flickr.

Running dragons, and other mascots for a busy life

There are stories that keep me coming back to my small-scale writing practice in busy times, rather than "waiting till things calm down." One comes from the wonderful poet Marie Ponsot, who shook me awake in a workshop at the 92nd Street Y when she described how she continued to write during the years she was rearing her children—six boys and a girl. I picture her with a pen and a scrap of paper, baby balanced on her hip as she tries to calm a 4-year-old who’s chasing a toddler, the ambient chaos of blooming, moody, needy beings filling her household. That’s the rough version of the scene, if you double the number of little ones.

In the midst of this, she wrote in a Chinese form called "running dragon," which uses two- and three-line stanzas, small bursts of description as the “dragon” leaps from stone to stone. She built her pieces two or four or six lines at a time.

'It's easy to keep writing ... in whatever time you have.'

Ponsot wasn’t visible to the publishing world as she was tending her tribe, but she was writing all the while. Here’s a bit of a 2003 interview she did with Bomb magazine :

Bomb interviewer Benjamin Ivry: “There was a span of a quarter century in which you didn’t publish a book. Obviously you were very busy taking care of your kids and working, teaching English in the SEEK program for disadvantaged students at Queens College as well as translating and scriptwriting.”

Marie Ponsot: “I was very busy. It’s really that I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.”

We writers with busy lives are all “people who write novels” or “people who write memoirs” or “people who write poems,” and all of us can tap the wise impulse to keep writing in the time we can grab. Small scenes, “sudden fiction,” bits of dialog or description—they’re all available to us in short spans of time. And from there, we build, no tremendous agitation required.

I summon my own form of “running dragon” during weeks like this one when I’m spinning in busyness—starting projects, nudging others along, doing research for what I hope will become a book one day, oh, and doing my taxes. In the midst of it all, I grab 10 or 15 minutes and make notes, do my observation practice and write down lines, or shape a couple of paragraphs.

The dragon keeps running. The work takes shape.

(The Bomb interview with Ponsot is full of treasures for poets, fans of the Beats, women looking for inspiration and writers who occasionally fear that “it’s too late to start now.”  The blog item that describes the running dragon form is also rich with insights from Ponsot. And if you missed them, you can see suggestions for trapping wild bits of time here, and tips for making good use of them here.)

Image by Alias 0591 via Flickr.