I teach the Mastering the Mental Game workshop at StoryStudio. The workshop is a one-night event where I lead fifteen writers through a series of techniques that blast the inner critic (affectionately called The Gremlin or our Antagonist) and help to overcome procrastination, self-doubt, and fear of the blank page and rejection. These techniques empower participating writers to double their productivity and increase creativity and publishing success.
I didn’t create Mastering the Mental Game out of a bell-ringing moment of enlightenment. The catalyst came a few years before my memoir came out, in a moment of despair. After years of writing in secret, then taking my first writing class, and finishing a polished draft of a book, I was introduced to an agent who offered me the opportunity to make a series of changes to the manuscript. After which, if she liked what she read, she would consider taking me on as a client. Here I was—so close to this thing, this “becoming a published book author” thing—that I wanted most in the world, and first one, two then three weeks went by and I realized, with sinking shame and fear, that I had not revised one word. I sat on the grey carpet in my bedroom and stared out the window. Some kind of anti-artistic riptide kept me from moving my hands across a page. I couldn’t think. My laptop screen lay dark in my lap.
I had a “day job” working as a Life Coach at that time. Every day I helped clients break patterns, take risks, start businesses, achieve goals and break through fear. My writing life was separate from my coaching life. Of course entrepreneurs, executives, students, athletes, young violin players, golf prodigies hire coaches, but writers don’t. But as I sat looking at a pot of geraniums on my back deck, I wondered, with my first shard of hope in almost a month, what if the same coaching strategies I used with entrepreneurs and parents and professionals could also work for writers?
The workshop is a composite of the techniques I used to claw my way out of that abyss. The core techniques—the breakthrough strategies I share at every workshop—are the precise practices that I credit for getting my agent, book deal, publication in national magazines and acceptance into the MFA program.
- Set a ridiculously easy goal. Instead of vowing to write for 3 hours, set your timer for 5 minutes. Don’t let yourself write more that day. The next day, write for 10 minutes. By only asking a small amount of yourself at first, you’ll more likely follow through and reach your goal-and you’ll keep with it. The minutes will add up, you’ll have stamina for more- you’ll set yourself up for success.
- Change your mindset. Look up a writer you admire on You Tube or some other media. Listen to an interview (or read their memoir) and note how they both experience and overcome the struggles with writing. Often we tell ourselves “successful”, “famous” writers write easily. We tell ourselves if it’s hard, we must not be good enough. In reality, it takes everyone incredible amounts of devotion, practice and courage. Remind yourself those writers were once where you were- and go for it!
- Maximize your time. One of the biggest challenges for writers is finding the time to write. Try making a time log for 1 week- write down every single thing you do i.e. “7:00-7:15 shower, 8:00-8:30 drive to work”. What typically happens: we realize we spent 45 minutes on social media or roaming the aisles of Target when we didn’t really need to and then we can take those wedges of time we were tossing away and turn them into power writing sessions.
Because the workshop is only one night, albeit a spirited one (the exercises are interactive and lively), I don’t expect students to keep in touch. But I hope they do. And I can tell you it is a thrill when I receive an email a month or a year or sometimes even a few years after we’ve met and hear:
“I finished my novel draft!”
“I had an article last week in the local paper.”
“The Huffington Post is publishing my piece!”
Sometimes students write to say they’ve gotten” stuck again” or “I haven’t been writing.” If they’re up for it, we look back in the toolbox to the strategies we discuss in the workshop. I remind them the things I tell myself when I feel the seductive and sickly pull to not write—how every writer I’ve heard speak says that writing is hard, that they feel afraid and lost and stuck a whole lot of the time. I share the Salmon Rushdie quote: “revision is torture”. But I share that we have every reason to have hope. Whenever I use the strategies in the toolbox, I start writing again. I share the words of one of my writing teachers: “writer’s block is cured by a single keystroke.”
Brene Brown (the psychology researcher) says that the most important words in the human language are “you are not alone.” Teaching, writing and being a student simultaneously forces me to be in consistent intimate contact with writers. When I teach, I am keenly aware of the vulnerability inherent in the act of sharing written work. I empathize with the uncomfortable flashes of insecurity because I know I will feel them as a student in my own class the next night. I write more because I’m encouraging students to write more. I write better because I am filled up by the enthusiasm and courage of the writers and students around me. I spend great time writing feedback letters to my students and classmates because (altruistically), I believe in generosity and because (selfishly), critiquing other’s work makes my writing better.Teaching, writing, and studying blend my life into a vortex of literary energy. For me, this writing immersion is a highly fulfilling way to live. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote. No writer should be either.
Teaching, writing, and studying blend my life into a vortex of literary energy. For me, this writing immersion is a highly fulfilling way to live. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote. No writer should be either.
Sara Connell is an author and writing coach with a private practice in Chicago. She has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, The View, FOX Chicago, NPR, and Katie Couric. She received the Judith Dawn Memorial Grant for fiction and has presented at Printer’s Row Literary Festival, Open Books and teaches at Story Studio Chicago. Her writing has appeared in: The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, BabyTalk, Mindful Metropolis, Psychobabble and Evolving Your Spirit. Her first book Bringing In Finn was nominated for ELLE magazine 2012 Book of the Year. www.saraconnell.com