When I first met Cat, she had been working on her book for more than three years, since finishing her MFA program. She was frustrated and discouraged, feeling like she didn’t know what direction to take with her manuscript. She questioned whether anyone would ever want to read her book and, worse, she felt burned and discouraged by her MFA program because she didn’t feel she got the support she needed to write the story she felt compelled to tell. She learned a lot in the MFA program, but not how to actually finish a book. And she wasn’t able to figure out how to make progress on her manuscript without the external structure of the MFA program.
Maybe you can relate, because I hear these kinds of stories from writers all the time. They can’t seem to make progress on their own, without being in a workshop or MFA program. They also get stuck because they are overwhelmed by the amount of material they have, they don’t know how to organize it, and can’t figure out what structure will work best.
The writers I talk to also attempt to get unstuck in similar ways:
- You read all the books and articles on writing you can get your hands on, thinking that if you can just unlock some mysterious craft secret then everything will magically fall into place.
- You attend as many workshops and seminars and master classes as you can, thinking that if you can just get the exact perfect feedback from so-and-so famous author who has all the answers, then you will have all the answers too.
- You keep doing the same things you’ve always done, thinking that if you just spend more time, work harder, attend one more workshop, or get more feedback, you’ll finally figure it out.
There’s just one problem with this thinking: It’s all a version of expecting external solutions, when the reality is that most of the time the solution is internal. You need to make three internal shifts to help you finish your book and become the writer you’ve always imagined: structure, story, and sanctuary. Let’s take a closer look at each element of this framework.
Shift 1: Embrace structure
Thinking about structure often makes creatives, especially writers, cringe a little bit. You want to write when you’re feeling inspired, when you’re in the mood, or when you feel like it. But the problem with that is you’re making time for your book project in a reactionary way that is sporadic, unsustainable and, ultimately, exhausting.
Instead, embracing structure means planning and finding consistency in your creative practice so that you can truly start to see the progress you want to see on your manuscript.
You can embrace structure in your writing life with these three actions:
- Work your why. If you don’t know it already, figure out the WHY behind your book project and your life as a writer. What is the one compelling reason behind writing your book and telling your story? Once you have this, treat it like a vision statement—one sentence that summarizes your WHY, that you can post somewhere you’ll see it everyday, that keeps you motivated to keep returning to your manuscript.
- Gather your goals. Once you have your WHY, identify 3-5 goals that support your vision. These are milestones along the way toward accomplishing your vision, and completing your manuscript. As soon as you achieve one goal, you know you’re that much closer to the finish line.
- Safeguard your schedule. Now that you have your WHY and your GOALS, you need to establish a schedule that will support both by planning time to take action. Your schedule should be a calendar that you use every day. You don’t do anything unless it’s on your calendar, and you don’t make plans without checking your calendar first. And, most importantly, you treat all appointments as equal, even appointments that are only with yourself.
Shift 2: Love your story
When I say “love your story,” it may sound a little cheesy or even a little cliché. But compared to other things you might say you love, like cooking or playing music or spending time with your family, it becomes pretty clear that you don’t love your story in the same way.
Let me explain. If you love to cook, you might spend time searching for new recipes. And when you find one you want to try, you might go out of your way to a specialty grocer to pick up some exotic ingredients that they don’t carry at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Because you love it, you nurture it, and infuse the time you spend cooking with tender loving care.
It’s like one of my clients, Susie, says, “It’s not that my manuscript changed, but that I changed in relation to it. I started to believe, ‘Okay, I can write this. I can finish this.’ And that proved to be way more important to me.”
You can begin to love your story with these three actions:
- Develop your draft. Sure, it’s easy enough to generate words, get feedback, and revise. Most writers feel like they have that part down. But if you try to force the material into submission and control its outcome, that’s not a very loving way to treat the project. Instead, how can you listen to the draft and let it tell you what it needs? Can you bring a sense of lightness and play into your work, holding it loosely so that it becomes what it’s meant to be?
- Master your mind. Your mindset affects you more than you know. It creates the story you tell yourself about the story you are writing. One of the best things my therapist ever did for me years ago was to give me the mantra: The story I tell myself creates the reality I experience. So as long as you tell yourself that your story doesn’t matter, that no one will want to read it, or that you don’t have what it takes to write a book—guess what? It will be true.
- Invest in yourself. When you hear the word “invest” you might automatically think: money. But investing in yourself is about giving yourself—and your book project—what you need to be successful. That means time, energy, attention, and, yes, sometimes money. If you are neglecting yourself, your skill development, or your creative process, then ultimately you are neglecting your story and you won’t make progress toward finishing your book.
Shift 3: Create a sanctuary
If you hear the word “sanctuary” and think of a physical place, like a church or yoga studio or a botanical garden, in this context I want you to understand it as something you create in your mind so that you can take it with you anywhere you go.
When you do that, you can access the mindset and energy you need to work on your book without worrying about whether you are at home with all of your creature comforts or in a hotel room on a personal writing retreat. You can access it at any place and any time because you have everything you need within you.
You can create a sanctuary with these three actions:
- Renew your rituals. Reflect on how you begin any time you sit down to work on your book. Is it rushed? Frantic? Forced? You can shift this energy so that it is calming and uplifting by incorporating rituals as a way to begin your writing time. Rituals are habits in an elevated form, an action you take intentionally that triggers your body and mind, and prepares it for the creative work ahead of you.
- Cultivate your creativity. As a writer, you are naturally curious and creative, and so you are probably drawn to forms of creativity other than writing. But, again, how intentional is it? I like to think of cultivating your creativity as cross training for your brain. It’s a way to stretch and train your creative muscles so that they are stimulated and ready to get to work when you sit down to make some progress on your manuscript.
- Watch your wellness. Your physical wellbeing is just as important for making progress on your manuscript as your craft skills and your mental wellbeing. I like to say, when I am not well, my work is not well. Just as athletes train and watch what they eat so that they can perform at their highest level on game day, you need to take care of your body by sleeping well, eating well, moving and exercising every day so that when you sit down to write, you are also ready to perform at your highest level. If you want to have the mental clarity, energy, and stamina required to generate the output necessary for a book-length manuscript, then you must watch your wellness.
You may have noticed that there is some overlap in each of these shifts and associated actions. Rituals can support mindset, wellness, and creativity; and investing can support all of those things as well. The framework is intentionally designed to be a layered approach, where one aspect supports the next, building on itself to create a more holistic approach to your book project that allows you to integrate your writing with every other aspect of your life.
It’s so easy to get caught up seeking external solutions to your problems, when the truth is if you take time to get quiet with yourself, you’ll realize that making these internal shifts will have a profound effect on your progress.
After working through this framework and making these three internal shifts for herself, not only did Cat finish her memoir manuscript, but she also told me that she now feels the way she wanted to feel at the end of her MFA program: Like a real artist.
Janna Marlies Maron is a professional editor with nearly 20 years of experience helping writers to complete their projects and produce the best work possible. Her experience includes time as a magazine editor, college professor, agency editorial director, and content director for a popular internet brand. She has worked on a number of book projects from self-published Amazon bestsellers to traditionally published New York Times bestsellers. She’s also the founding editor and publisher of Under the Gum Tree, a literary arts magazine publishing creative nonfiction and visual art. She runs the company More to the Story with her business partner, Karen Beattie, supporting women writing nonfiction books with their model of coaching, community, and critique. You can find out more about Janna and working with her here.