Limiting My Screen Time Increased My Productivity as a Writer

Akanksha Singh is a journalist, content writer, and editor based in Mumbai, India. She writes about travel, culture, social justice, and her experience of being raised as a third-culture kid. Essays and journalism have appeared in Bon Appétit, CNN’s Parts Unknown, HuffPost, The Independent, South China Morning Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and many more.

After quitting my job as a copywriter in a big-name ad agency, I decided it was time I took the plunge into full-time freelance work. I’d been freelancing while working my “real” job and had earned bylines in a handful of publications I admired. What’s more, the freelancing paid the bulk of my bills—and was more enjoyable work.

So I went full-time.

It was the best decision I’ve made to date.

At first, all was well: I had a routine, a workspace that flipped between the local café, my shoebox apartment, and one of those coworking spaces. Then I hit my third month of “being my own boss” and burnt out. I wish I could say I didn’t see it coming, but in the months prior, I pushed myself daily. Sleeping at 2 a.m., waking at 8 a.m., and staring at a screen for at least half the day until I’d go to bed exhausted.

Occasionally the brain fog would disappear—but the moment I sat in front of my laptop, there it was again.

I tried everything. Hydrating, eating better, working out, sleeping more. Nothing worked. Eventually, it clicked: Between the ten tabs open in Chrome, checking Twitter on my phone, and keeping BBC News on TV for “background noise,” my concentration levels were worse than a kindergartener’s.

I’d read about people who embraced “screen-free living” but dismissed them as over-privileged hippies with too much time on their hands. But after I came by a heap of research on the subject, I decided to give it a go and settled on a schedule which involved being screen-less for the first half of my day.

Apparently, all those claims about how multitasking is changing our brains, screens are making us lazy and moody, and social media is killing creativity are true.

Within days of implementing my “no-screens-till-noon” rule, I realized how much of life—the stuff we actually have to experience before we can write about it—I’d been missing out on. While I was never one of those writers who boasts about how I don’t “have time” to read, before my no-screen ritual started, my memory was spent to the extent that I’d almost forget what a book was about as soon as I finished it. Scheduling time to read gave me the quietude I needed to distill the words in front of me. Ditto journaling or listening to music or making a morning run to the bakery just because I wasn’t allowed to touch my phone or my laptop until later in the day.

Things that I’d considered a treat, like brunching with friends on a weekday, became feasible. Rather than scold myself for doing something other than work, I came to embrace my mornings and early afternoons. My morning routine became less of a series of tasks to get through so I could start working and more of a “get out of jail free” card that gave me permission to procrastinate—and procrastinate well.

Typically, while I was out of the house with a book for my morning coffee, or out to breakfast to meet friends, or to take a pottery class, ideas would trickle into my brain. I’d scribble them down, along with related questions that I wanted to Google (but couldn’t because, uh, screens), and wait until after lunch to get to work.

By the time I actually sat down to write, or to pitch publications, I was bursting with thoughts and excitement—the latter of which I’d lost temporarily during my burn-out phase (but which is so imperative for someone new to this career). I’m not sure if my speed increased as a result, but I hit my five-pitches-per-day goal within a couple of hours throughout that first month.

Miraculously, my brain fog went away, my writing became more coherent, and my pitches less anxiety-inducing. I also doubled my pitch acceptance rate.

Maybe this sounds like common-sense advice. (And, arguably, it is.) But the fact remains that, as writers today, we’re not always aware of how much we consume in our digital worlds. I’m constantly reminded by editors and literary agents and fellow writers that a social media presence is important. That checking emails, reading text messages, and being “in the know” is essential to our livelihoods. I can’t refute any of those points.

But I also think that if writers aren’t mindful about restricting our screen times and what we’re consuming online, we’re not exercising the sort of care we need to maximize both our productivity and our creativity.

Personally, I know I work better after a day well-spent. I’ve also found that, perhaps on a subconscious level (or some weird metaphysical serendipitous plane), whatever I’m writing about later in the day comes up in the first half.

I realize, as I write this, that a lot of these beliefs are in line with those in Eastern ethics and philosophy. There’s a classic book called The Importance of Living by writer and philosopher Lin Yutang that serves as an introduction to Taoism. The concept of wu wei (which literally means “doing nothing”) speaks of action without expectation and exertion, likening it to the gentleness of a river that bends and erodes and shapes all in its path through persistence and passivity.

Perhaps in “forcing” myself to live, I’ve let go of my previous expectations of perfection and just gotten on with life—only to be pleasantly surprised by its results.

And in the age of social media, of clicks and likes and shares and views, where manufactured image is everything and where algorithms largely rule readership, choosing to limit my intake and control my digital vices feels like it could supersede “becoming a full-time freelancer” as my best decision to date.

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Why I Love Working for Content Mills… for Now

Em Burfitt is a freelance music journalist with a focus on female, queer + nonbinary artists. She’s also a copywriter with two years of content writing experience. Learn more about her work at emburfitt.com.

Freelance writing and I met at a very strange time in my life.

Since kickstarting my writing career, I’ve checked it all out: gigs, data collection, transcription, content mills. I’ve also signed up to plenty of those “How to make six figures!” sites that, as much as I respect the people who run the classes, are a big part of how they’re making it.

I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible to make that much as a freelance writer. After all, it’s all about how much work you do in the run-up and how committed you are to scoring those high-budget clients.

Palahniuk aside, all’s fair in love and invoices. So to speak.

And I’m a bit too lazy to go after the high-paying work. I admit it.

As much as I know I could up my income if I went out of my way to find new leads or draft cold emails, my inhuman best friend is procrastination and we go way back. I even spent half of the week I was in Paris doing cold email research for a client rather than myself.

But the key word there isn’t “research”, nor is it “client”. It’s “Paris”.

I got to work in Paris, staying in an Airbnb I rented from money I’d saved up. From writing. Not working hours and hours of shifts to make ends meet but from writing. Two years ago, I never would have believed I could earn enough to live by writing for only five hours a day. Let alone doing so from my favourite city in the world.

AND CO — also my favourite invoice program — did a study towards the beginning of 2019 on freelancers and the financial stability of remote work. Although 77% of the freelancers surveyed weren’t making any more money than they had in their previous work (in fact, 43% said they were worse off), 68% of the surveyed group said their quality of life had improved since they started freelancing. Seeing that made me realise I wasn’t alone.

Granted, more money might also improve my quality of life, but did I mention already that I worked from a flat in Montmartre on my own for a while? Because I did.

And not to get too wax-y or poetic-y or film junkie-y, but nowhere in Moulin Rouge does it say that money is one of the four Bohemian ideals. It’s not money, truth, beauty, love. It’s freedom. It’s what we, as remote workers, as writers, have regardless of how much we’re raking in.

Still, if you spend as much time on writing forums and communities as I have, you’ll probably see writers arguing that content mills are the devil. They’re even worse for us than those “how to make six figures” courses.

And I agree, to a point.

Why work dozens of hours for a pittance while your contemporaries are seeking out repeat clients that keep on coming back?

I agree with that too, don’t get me wrong.

That said, I’ve been leaning on content mills for about four months now.

It was content mills that got me to Paris.

And honestly?

I just think they get a bad rap.

Some of the mills out there really do pay next-to-nothing. I feel pretty lucky that my favourite content sites pay better rates, and I hope my luck doesn’t change. For pretty easy, straightforward work, I can make a couple hundred dollars a day. Some of my friends are doing shift work for less money, and they can’t work those jobs from Paris.

Now, I should probably add that I’m also a music journalist.

It’s kind of my calling.

For the most part, unless my pitches are picked up by paying publications, that work is done pro bono. It’s done pro bono by all of us. Pretty much exclusively because we love music and, for me, I’m tired of the trite music news that’s taken over the internet in recent years.

I’ve also got a client I earned via a referral from a previous client, who pays me around the same rate as I make on the “mills”. He’s a dear and we work well together. With that and any pitches I make that are picked up, it’s a little more income.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of income I make comes from these so-called “content mills”. At the moment, I’m making $50 for 1,000 words. Those 1,000 words, if the topics are good, can take me an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Tops.

Even though I’ve never been good with maths, that would be $200 in five hours.

If I decided, “I’m going to work a full 8-to-4 day today!” it might even be $400 for the workday.

Which means if I worked a standard eight-hour workday, my calculator tells me that’d be $2,000 in a working week. It also says that if I did that for a month, I’d be $8,000 better off.

I’m not, but that’s due to my attention span, or lack thereof.

That, and I value my freedom more than I value lining my pockets at the moment. On top of that, the problem with these “mills” is that the work isn’t guaranteed to be there for that month in which I could theoretically earn $8K.

I also have to factor in time for my music.

And having a life.

I want time to prepare for interviews with my idols, to listen to new albums, and to attend gigs.

I want to drink with friends and discuss the existentialism of life.

I want to go for long walks with my dog whenever I feel like it.

For the moment, I can do all of these things making what I do on ContentFly and Crowd Content. I can go to Paris or Berlin or wherever I want to go. Sure, it’ll take me longer to save up than it will for those who are paid more, but I don’t mind that.

Reading about the pitfalls of content mills can be disheartening, especially when you’re just getting started. But the detractors always come across as way too harsh. While it’s true that ghostwriting content for low-paying mills should never stop you from pitching higher paying clients, for me? It works.

For now, at least.

It works.

How Volunteering Helps My Creative Practice

Laura Leavitt is a writer, editor, and teacher in Ohio; she has a pet gecko and likes a good game of Ultimate Frisbee on occasion.

I love the creative challenge of a day of writing. I write about five days a week now, usually for 4–6 hours a day, and there is a major thrill from getting an assignment, devising a clever way to make it unique and exciting, and turning it in. Writing is rewarding, and these shorter pieces offer a little jolt of satisfaction every time I finish them.

However, I have two major issues as a worker: distraction and context switching. I get distracted easily; I wouldn’t say it is debilitating, but if you present me with a computer, 9 days out of 10 I’m going to scroll through an interesting news article rather than get down to business quickly. One part of the problem is that I’m “unsupervised,” so I’m the only person suffering the consequences of my procrastination, but it does result in some scrambling if I get too distracted.

The other hard part of this work is that I’m writing a lot of smaller things, so I end up feeling like I switch my focus very frequently, often a couple of times an hour. This lends itself to a bit of creativity fatigue. I try to keep some less creative work on hand (emailing, invoicing, light edits of in-progress pieces) in case I need a break, but the truth is that the context switching is the biggest reason why I cannot ever write for 8 hours a day. I eventually hit a “wall” and need to do something else to re-prime the creativity pump.

To inject more creativity back into my days, I’ve tried going to the gym, which is great, but it tends to contribute to me feeling tired (go figure!) and requires just as much willpower as writing itself, in my case. For me, it took finding a long-term volunteering gig to really rejuvenate my writing practice.

I spend 2 hours or so a week volunteering at my local food bank. Rather than a food pantry, where people pick up free food for their families, the food bank is a warehouse, a hub for large-scale food donations from major companies. In the warehouse, we unwrap pallets, box up donations, and pack out new pallets that will go to various pantries, schools, and other distribution points. It’s fun work: it feels very efficient, like every minute of my “donated time” is put to good use, but it is also repetitive and hard-to-do-wrong.

A few things happen while I’m volunteering that I believe contribute to my ability to return to my creative work refreshed:

  • I move a lot. I just don’t move much when I’m writing. The warehouse work does a great job of making me move around but without ever breaking a sweat. I think that my muscles have to move sometimes for me to reengage with the work I’m doing later in the day.
  • I talk to people outside my typical circle. This is surprisingly rare for me; as a writer I mostly talk to subjects I’m interviewing, in the interviewing headspace, so it’s really important for me to get out and talk to people about whatever is on our semi-idle minds. Most of the folks I volunteer with are retired, and I love picking their brains—especially when I’m working on a locally-based article or post. Often, they know about local legends, experiences, secrets, and other insider knowledge that I wouldn’t know to investigate.
  • I get into a groove. The opposite of context switching for me is getting into a groove; while I occasionally get into a groove with writing when it is something long, I really get in a groove when I’m making or breaking down boxes, moving flats of tomato cans, or filling packages of food for local school children. It is one of the only ways to make my brain take a break, and since it keeps my hands busy, it also keeps me off my phone, to which I am a little too addicted.
  • I “feel” productive and useful. There are many reasons why my writing work hours sometimes don’t feel productive: I’ll get extensive criticism on an article, I’ll have a bad-output day, or even just experience low energy. The work in the warehouse, on the other hand, pretty much always feels like it has an impact. It feels pretty cut and dry that getting nutrition to people who are experiencing food scarcity is a good use of my hours, especially since by donating the hours, I’m saving the warehouse on overhead. It’s also nice to have a few hours when I don’t analyze whether I’m being the best I can possibly be, which is a wonderful break for my occasionally-overthinking brain.

Due to these four qualities of this particular volunteering gig, I find that most of my shifts provide tangible benefits for my later writing practice. First, I often spark the idea for a completely new writing pitch. Getting a little “bored” making cardboard boxes is like emptying out my mind, a form of meditation that almost always leaves room for a new idea to fill it.

Second, I often solve a problem in another writing task that was bugging me but that I couldn’t face head-on. One time, I wanted my latest article to impress a new editor, and I knew it was good but not great; my brain worked out a way to really stand out through a new angle while I was filling boxes with peanut butter and canned peaches. I have a hard time stepping away from an article and going big-picture in the moment, but if I do something that uses a different part of me, like volunteering, I find the solutions bubbling up.

I think that creativity is boosted by some level of baseline satisfaction and joy in life; I know I’m more creative when I feel balanced and healthy. Volunteering is a nice way to snap out of some of my unproductive, unhealthy mental scripts: your work isn’t good, you should just goof off today, no one will notice or mind… Volunteering reminds me that, out in the world outside my home office, there are so many useful and interesting things going on. I want my creative ideas to be out there too, and volunteering is often the brain buoy I need to keep seeking those creative ideas with gusto.

How to Submit Your Work Without Completely Losing Hope

Christine Hennessey writes a weekly newsletter about creative projects, ambitious goals, tiny budgets, and her latest Trader Joe’s obsession. Sort of like personal blogging circa 2007, but in convenient email form! She lives in coastal North Carolina with her husband, their dog, and 11 bossy chickens. By day, she works in the marketing department of a software company. In the very early mornings, she works on a novel and a collection of short stories.

The act of writing, we’re told, is mystical, magical. It happens when we’re struck by inspiration, driven by a nearly animal need. In our imagination, the writer sits at at her desk, wild-eyed and disheveled, pure brilliance flowing from her fingers.

But there’s another part of the creative process that’s not quite so romantic, a part often hidden from the public. For example, we don’t see the writer sending out her stories to obscure literary magazines — stories she poured her heart into, stories she sacrificed sleep and a social life and countless other hobbies to write — only to receive ten bland rejections in a row. As it turns out, writing the thing is the artist’s first challenge; getting it published is the second. In my opinion, it’s also the hardest.  

I write fiction, mostly. I’ve been fairly successful at it — numerous publications at some very nice journals, a few fellowships, an MFA. I’ve been sending out my work since 2010, and over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing both sides of the creative process: writing and submitting. Today I’m going to share the strategy that has kept me consistent, productive, and — at least a few times a year — published.

When to submit your work

In the beginning, when it’s just you and the blank page, there are no consequences, no one to tell you your idea is silly or your sentences cliché. Everything you write is brilliant, or could be after a few dozen rounds of revision. Some of my best writing experiences have happened when I suddenly unearth a theme I didn’t notice the first six times, or find a faint connection that helps the plot click into place. The pleasure is akin to solving a puzzle or walking into your own surprise party.

There comes a point, however, when the work is done. You’ve taken it as far as you can, and it’s time to see what the rest of the world thinks. For me, this takes about two years. (I wish I was joking…) This is partly because I work full time in addition to living a fairly full life, and only really have time to write for an hour each morning before work. That time is precious, which is why I dread giving it up. Each hour I spend sending out work instead of writing it seems like a waste — especially because so often my reward is rejection.

Instead of fretting about wasted time, I remind myself that it’s good to give the creative side of my brain a break, let my ideas lay fallow. When a piece feels ready (notice I didn’t say “perfect”), I’ll take a week off from writing, or choose one morning a week to spend on submissions. It’s still writing, even if it looks more like spreadsheets and less like that wild-eyed artist at her desk.

Where to submit your work

Figuring out where to send your work can be a tedious process. For me, it involves looking up every literary journal I can think of, checking their guidelines, making sure they’re open for submissions, formatting my work to their unique specifications, and finally hitting send.

But maybe you’re new to submitting, and the only magazine on your radar is The New Yorker. Send your story there (I always do!) but make sure you find a few other journals as well. Google is a good friend, and there are some great round ups of well-regarded magazines and journals. (I like New Pages for up-to-date calls for submissions.) I’ll often spend my lunch break looking up magazines, stalking the publications page of writers I admire, or figuring out where my various nemeses have been published. It also helps to read each journal’s “about” page, where they give some insight into what they’re looking for. It’s also a good idea to read a few pages of their magazine, virtual or otherwise, to see if and how you might fit in. If a journal is specifically seeking western-inspired sci-fi, for example, your literary vampire saga probably won’t be their first choice, no matter how gripping it may be.

When I first started submitting, print journals were the end-all, be-all, but these days I prefer online publications. People are far more likely to click a link and read your work, and isn’t that the whole point? Before I submit to an online publication, however, I look at the design of their site, the quality of the work they publish, their social media platforms. How many followers do they have? Are they good at promoting what they publish? Is the site beautiful and accessible? I spend my days in a marketing department, and this part of the creative process is all about selling yourself. Make sure the home you find for your work is a place you actually want to be.

How to submit strategically

The average response time for a journal or magazine is three to six months, though there are outliers. (I currently have one pending submission from April 2017, which at this point I’m treating as an elaborate game of chicken.) I always aim to send the same piece to 10 journals at a time, and I always mention in my cover letter that it’s a simultaneous submission. Most journals are fine with this, because they know it’s the only possible way to get published in your lifetime.

Here’s the other thing a lot of people don’t realize about submitting your work — often, it’s not free. Many journals have moved to slick software like Submittable, which makes the process super-streamlined for both writer and reviewer. (In addition to sending out my own work, I read submissions for Raleigh Review, and this software is pretty much a dream.) However, it is expensive and that expense is often passed on to the submitter. $3 is the norm, which can quickly add up. If you’re entering a contest, get ready for some serious sticker shock — it’s more like $25.

Many debates have been waged on whether this is a fair system, or whether it takes advantage of hopeful writers. My advice is to save those fees for your dream journals, and the rest of the time keep a running list of magazines that don’t charge submission fees, or that offer free windows throughout the year. If you time it right, you can keep costs down and still get published in some pretty great places.

My super simple submission spreadsheet

Once you start sending out your work, you’re going to have to keep track of it. Not only will this keep you from sending a story to the same journal twice, it will also help you remember who sent you an encouraging rejection, what you need to withdraw in the event a piece is accepted elsewhere, and exactly how much money you’ve spent on submission fees.

Personally, I use a Google Sheets spreadsheet. (Here’s a scrubbed version, which you can download and edit to your heart’s content.) Each year, I start a fresh sheet to keep things from getting too unwieldy, and I find it motivating to see how many submissions I can send out over the course of twelve months. The most useful part, however, is my color-coding system.

  • Red type is a form rejection, the kind that contains no encouragement, nothing specific about my work, could have been written by a robot.
  • A red highlight is a personal rejection. The editors said something nice about my story, encouraged me to submit again, or told me it wasn’t a standard rejection. (Check out Rejection Wiki if you’re not sure whether your rejection was actually higher tier or just written by a particularly empathetic robot.) I like highlighting these because I want to see them at a glance. Not only does it make me feel better (nice rejections are almost as good as acceptances) but I want to make sure I re-submit to these places ASAP.
  • Purple type means I withdrew a piece after it was accepted elsewhere, which is extremely important — you don’t want to waste readers’ time if the piece is no longer available, plus it’s just good manners.
  • And finally, a yellow highlight with bold type means the piece was accepted. I make this as big and bright as possible because I want to celebrate, even in the confines of my spreadsheet.

Accept what you can’t control

The hardest lesson about creative work is that no matter how hard you try, how much you believe in a piece, you can’t control whether the person reading it will agree with you.

And maybe this is the real reason I don’t like submitting. The act of writing is something I can control, mysticism aside. I can make myself sit at my desk and move my fingers, diligently carve out the time to write sentences and scenes and stories. What I can’t control is whether anyone will want to read those words, or choose to publish my work in their pages. Deep down, however, I want someone to publish my work. I want all of you to read it. I want awards and money and admiration and cold, hard proof that all those mornings at my desk have not been a pointless waste of time.

Which is why I keep submitting, month after month, year after year, rejection after rejection. Because every now and then, I get a “yes,” right when I need it most. And when I return to the work, that yes ringing in my ears, it feels different. Not mystical or magical, but part of the same creative process that guides all wild-eyed writers, that elusive balance we try our hardest to strike.

The Perks of Having a Writers’ Group

Today’s guest post is from Kimberly Lew, a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I first started working at a play publishing company, I was immediately taken by how creative my coworkers were. They were mostly in their late twenties, and they all wrote plays or directed or produced on the side.

I remember early on, when I was just an intern, one of the founders of the company — a very prolific playwright himself — hosted an informal reading of his latest comedic one-act, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t an actor by any means, but no one seemed to care. Despite fumbled lines and lack of writing expertise by some of the participants, me included, we had a really productive discussion about the piece and all got a sense of what was really working and what wasn’t.

I had done writing workshops and classes my whole life. I knew the graces of a good compliment sandwich and the pained challenge of perfecting a piece in time to be shared with a classroom. But never before had I felt the vibe of room that was so constructive and so fun while simultaneously educational.

When the play company moved to bigger offices that included a small but well-kept conference room, a couple of my coworkers, who had been friends since college and were both playwrights published with the company, began using the conference room as a meetup space for their after-hours writers’ group. As the company grew and a few other young female 20-somethings joined the team, I helped organize us into our own writers’ group, which remained a consistent creative outlet for the next couple of years.

That informal one-act reading I attended with the company founder was deceiving, though — while good discussion and feedback doesn’t necessarily require professional writers and creatives, there is a delicate balance that separates a constructive creative meeting of the minds from the dry writers’ workshops that leave you wishing you’d stayed home.

Here are a few things I’ve since learned about having a successful writers’ group:

Everyone in the group needs skin in the game

Theoretically, everyone who joins a writers’ group shares a common love of writing, but everyone has different creative processes and produces differently. In a good writers’ group, everyone needs to be able to feel like they are learning and growing from the experience — or they’ll be less inclined to contribute.

Many writers’ groups operate workshop-style, where people take turns bringing in pieces to be critiqued by the group. In ours, it was especially nice that a lot of people had long-term projects that they could share in smaller chunks, instead of needing to bring in a finished piece every time. This gave everyone a forum to try new material still in development and bounce ideas off the group.

We also had members set goals from week to week, so even if we didn’t have a piece to discuss, we could discuss the progress we were making with our creative projects. As we became better friends, this became an opportunity to share goals related to both our careers and our lives. Writing wasn’t just about making a script for a play or typing out a short story — it was also about setting up a website for clips or submitting an application to a development program. We weren’t simply commenting on each other’s work; we were providing a support system for people’s creative endeavors.

A writers’ group needs structure

It wasn’t enough to simply open the floor to anyone who wanted to bring in a manuscript and have them share with the group. We needed to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to both receive and give feedback. We also wanted to make sure that everyone felt represented in decisions about how the group was run.

The ways in which we structured our meetings varied over the years. At one point, we had everyone take turns running the meetings, and usually the person who ran the group would have a piece to present. We also took notes every session, usually by having someone record any goals we discussed and circulating those goals to the group after the meeting to hold us accountable. When people were having a harder time consistently bringing new material to the writers’ group, we instated short writing prompts, sometimes for free-writing sessions during the meetings and sometimes for us to develop short pieces that would be shared in the meetings.

We also once tried to instate a “punishment” for people who didn’t meet deadlines. This involved creating alternate song lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as a shame song for not fulfilling writers’ group duties, and then singing our song out loud as a group. This was all in good fun until we realized that this actually just punished all of us who had to sing in front of everyone.

A writers’ group doesn’t need to be just about creative writing

While it was always incredibly helpful to use the writers’ group as a forum for getting feedback on creative writing projects like plays and stories, it was also a place to get feedback on anything. As one of our members began getting more and more interested in graphic design and printmaking, she would share some of her art with us. When I started blogging for an arts website, I shared my initial posts with the group.

I feel like everyone could benefit from a writers’ group, even if they don’t think of themselves as a writer. It could be a great forum to get feedback on a resume, or a letter to an editor, or a Yelp review. Sometimes it’s nice just to get another pair of eyes on your work — and sometimes, in our group, we would simply share ideas about what wanted to see happen with our writing and our lives. It was nice to have a built-in think tank to discuss ideas with, even if those ideas never evolved into anything.

A writers’ group isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to one space

While our writers’ group met regularly in the office conference room, we would often go out to support each other in the real world. We often attended each other’s readings and performances. It was nice to have a group of people at these events who understood the nature of a work in progress — and how far our work had progressed!

We also planned a writers’ retreat once, where we all went up to the Cloisters for a day writing around the property. We split off to sit in the little courtyards, working on whatever we wanted to. We even stopped by the park on our way home for a quick writing exercise where we all sat on a park bench and wrote as much as we could in a few minutes. It was a great opportunity to get ourselves out of an office setting and feel like our creativity could roam free.

A writers’ group doesn’t have to last forever

In a successful writers’ group, everyone feels like the group is helping them grow as a writer and a creator. Unfortunately, not everyone grows at the same speed. It’s important to communicate with your fellow members and check in with how everyone feels about their contributions to the group. If someone doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they need out of the group, or that their time is not being well spent with the group, it’s fine to re-evaluate whether or not the group is serving its purpose. It’s important to keep people accountable, but depending on where you are in your creative development, sometimes you need to reprioritize to be accountable to yourself first.

Our writers’ group ended quite unceremoniously. Our goals just weren’t as aligned as they were when we had started and we were finding that we were getting less and less value out of our meetings. When one of our members decided not to continue, we disbanded. I missed it a lot, but with time I’ve also come to see that sometimes a writers’ group is a support group for a moment (or luckily, in our case, years) in time.

Bringing other people into your writing is always a tricky thing, but when you find a group of people with similar goals who genuinely want to give feedback, it can feel like the most valuable thing in the world. A writers’ group doesn’t have to follow a blueprint — you don’t have to bookend your criticism with compliments or have regular in-person meetings. You can form a writers’ group over email or FaceTime. You can discuss your latest novel or your list of failed ideas for novels. All you need for a good writers’ group is the ability to share your work with creative people — and a clear structure and/or agenda that ensures everyone gets what they need. It may sound simple, but when done right, it can be the most magical thing in the world.

How to Look for Owls: On Writing, Ritual, and Intuition

Today’s guest post is from Tara K. Shepersky, a writer who holds conversations with inner and outer landscapes via essays, poems, photos, and feet. Read more of Tara’s work at pdxpersky.com or follow her on Twitter @pdxpersky.

I used to have what I thought was a writing ritual. With earnest intent — though perhaps without full possession of the truth — I could tell you that my setting aside of space and time to write had three ingredients: there was a QWERTY; there was an appointment; and, usually, there was an owl.

Some of this, perhaps, is still accurate. More of it may still be useful, as lessons learned. In the last few days — since I sat down to draft this post, in fact — I’ve felt an existential shift, an unmooring of what I thought my practice was.

I will explain, but be warned: you’re reading this almost in real time. You’ve got a front row seat to the dissolution of a writer’s successful creative practice ritual, and I don’t know what’s going to happen either.


The shift began at depth, impossible to ignore but still unnamed. The way I imagine the Santa Barbara Channel feels, when great masses of cold water from its deepest reaches begin to roil toward the surface. The comparison offers some comfort. In the Channel, upwelling is a regular(ish) phenomenon with useful results: a dense flourishing of microscopic life that in turn refreshes everybody else.

I don’t feel refreshed yet; I just feel cold. But maybe I can look at this as an opportunity to examine the elements of what I thought of as my ritual, and explore what works, what has shifted, and how to create what’s missing.

First, though: why do I need a ritual? What even is that? What use is one to an artist? And why have I never asked myself these questions before?

Religion has been a deep part of my life from birth, one way or another. Both religious traditions I’m connected to are ritual-heavy.* It’s the very thing about them that keeps them grounded, and has kept me coming back for their wisdom. Done well and with love and for a right purpose, rituals help us celebrate and live into what is most important, particularly in the everyday.

You know how sometimes you know you look a certain way — you have blond hair, for example, always have — and then one day you look in the mirror and realize your hair is brown? It’s been brown for months, maybe years, and you never noticed the shift. I wonder if I’ve been coasting in a similar way on my self-image as a “ritual person.” I “know” this is a part of me, and my writing is a crucial part of me, so perhaps I’ve only assumed that ritual plays a part in my writing.

So. A ritual is a set of physical actions performed in a particular order, using (maybe) one or more tools. It functions as a signal, defining, in this case, a mental space which the writer commits to her practice. It helps push aside distractions, settle the mind, and offer reassurance to your imposter syndrome that you, and your art, are worth regular energy and time.

In my experience, rituals work best when you do them regularly. Like anything else, they get stronger with practice. And those times life gets in the way, pleasantly or otherwise, so that you don’t write for a few days? That’s when they really come in handy. They bring you back.

My own supposed ritual has those three components I mentioned earlier. I haven’t asked myself how they function. I’m asking now.

The QWERTY represents the only attention I manage consistently to pay to my father’s maxim of “having the right tool for the job.” I can use a keyboard — specifically this common, adorably named configuration — with the same unconscious ease that shapes a thought in my native tongue. I also use it quickly; it lets my fingers keep so nearly up with my thoughts that I’m rarely frustrated by the lag time. And I can use it by touch, allowing to me look out the window, rest my eyes, sometimes even daydream while still in the flow of composing. So it’s my exact right tool for translating prose to page. And it does just fine for revising — though not composing — poetry.**

The Appointment is critical. It comes from the best piece of writing advice I have yet to receive: show up for the same kind of work at the same time every day. Mary Oliver said it, Nicole wrote it; a little less than a year ago, I finally got the memo.

To really nail this one, you need to know what time of day and under what physical circumstances your mind is most interested and agile, and also most willing to be solitary. Clock-time doesn’t mean much to me, though your mileage may vary. I tune instead to light levels and body rhythms, so my writing appointments begin in the liminal space between night and day, outdoors and indoors, walking and settling. Which brings us to The Owls.

Walking, several miles at a time for pleasure, is so much a part of my life that it’s also part of my identity. So there’s a physical circumstance that meets the above criteria. Walking in the very early mornings, before the dawn and sometimes accompanying its unfolding, is a practice I began as a way to access exercise and fresher air in the over-heated, smoke-choked summers that have become the new normal here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s pure serendipity that I began to do this immediately before my high tide of solitary mental engagement: the first few hours of daylight.

The place I came to favor for these early walks mixes forest and field, wetland and hedge, and it’s less fragmented than most of what passes for “the outdoors” where I live. It’s perfect habitat for barn and great horned owls. Realizing this, and keeping my eyes and ears alert, is all it took for the owls to find me first.

Great horneds are not too talkative in the summer, and their flight is silent, but catch half-sight of one crossing a waxing moon, and you’ll look for them ever after. Barn owls get described as “ghostly,” and indeed they seem this way, in pre-dawn not-quite-light, as you stop in your tracks and try to follow the dipping, fluttering hunt, low to the grass. Your eyesight will fail you; this is not a human hour. From the vagueness comes a sound like a waterlogged zipper, then pale maybe-wings tilting sharply to dodge your confused and clod-bound presence. Then a long cry, soft and terrifying — scraaaaiiil! — and if you didn’t know yet the presence of Mystery, now you are beyond invited — you’re impelled.

After the first encounters, I had to do the work. Owl-listening became something between a habit and a passion. Besides how to find owls (in my particular place), it reminded me how to walk in my surroundings, not merely on them; how to be, as Thoreau said, entirely present “in the woods,” thinking of the woods and not of things outside them. How to meditate, in fact.

And meditation is very good for writing. The regular practice of emptying your mind, then allowing just your immediate experience to fill it, singly and slowly, like dropping pebbles in a pool, both stokes and soothes that restlessness from which you shape the writing you know for truth.

There are about a hundred ways to meditate; mine is to dress in quiet colors and go out to meet the darkness. Before I can completely see the earth and sky, I have to reach for them, feel for them, listen. I enter a state that is set apart, reserved out of regular time for something Other.

So this is a pretty solid ritual, right? Five days a week, rise in darkness to walk a couple of miles with full attention on the natural world and your own internal state. Come home around dawn, at the beginning of peak creative hours, and settle to your practiced partnership with the tool best suited to help you spin experience, emotion, and thought into words on a page.

Here’s the wrench I didn’t know I’d left in the gears, though. I didn’t start meditating by happy accident, and I didn’t start doing it as a way to shape space for my writing. I did it specifically to control my anxiety. There was a synchronicity involved: I discovered that walking with attention was just as good as say, sitting in your bathtub for 20 minutes with the lights off, thinking of nothing in particular. And then I happily combined meditating into my pre-writing walks and thought no more about it.

When I subsequently went back to therapy and (yes, I know this is a big claim, and it’s true) got rid of my general anxiety, the first component of what I had imagined to be my writing ritual sort of… shook itself loose.

I used to return from my pre-dawn forays absolutely itching to meet up with my keyboard. I didn’t always know what I wanted to say until my fingers touched down, but I was that perfect combination of emotionally settled and creatively provoked.

Lately I leave the fields feeling unsettled and unfinished. I still want to write, but I don’t settle to it. The currents that used to push me straight there are shifting, and I’m occupied trying to watch and understand.

My owl-time itself is almost speaking to me about this, insisting it is actually a different sort of ritual, about identity and inner quiet and connection. It used to be a tool, and it wants to be, instead, a deep well and a refuge. I think the direction it’s ultimately pulling me is toward a spiritual practice.

My religious identity is complicated, and I’m so confused about praying I’ve been known to conflate it with my writing practice. So what kind of spiritual practice my owl-walks or their successors want to be is an open question I will take my time and invite all my patience to live into. Meanwhile, there’s this other opportunity: I need a new writing ritual. How do I find that?


Here’s what I know: there is a compass inside me. It pointed toward owl-walking, it pointed toward therapy, and as of the morning I sat down, fresh from the fields, to write this piece, it spun around and pointed clear off the established map.

I’m not sure what’s over there yet. Ever play one of those role-playing video games where the map is covered in fog that dissipates only as you walk right into it? I’m well-practiced at walking into literal fog and darkness; I am totally up for this metaphorical challenge.

So. Watching for the path forward, what else do I know?

I know the QWERTY and the appointment and the timing of that appointment are elements I want in my creative practice. In the not-quite-one-year I’ve set my intention to partner with them, they’ve powered seven drafts of two manuscripts, uncountable new compositions, and 155 single essay and poem submissions. Even when I was too sick to owl-walk, or I couldn’t meditate, or my mind refused me the right words, they helped me deliver.

I also know how to look for owls. It’s a knowing I was graced with at first, and then had to learn in order to continue to succeed. So I know I can learn to follow my compass when it points somewhere I don’t yet understand.

Intuition: that’s probably what this is. I used to believe I didn’t have any. Great at introspection, I never knew where to take what I had learned. My compass has constructed itself over the years through wildly varied efforts to figure that out: psychological study, prayer, meditation, acquiring a contemplative practice, reading tarot. And also just experience. I might be figuring out that the secret isn’t actually knowing. It’s trust.

So I don’t know how my writing ritual will re-shape.*** Nor, since this shift is so much larger than one area of my life, how my spiritual practice will coalesce. Nor how to reckon with whatever else I am without the anxiety I carried for so long.

But I am learning to trust myself to ride the upwelling currents. My compass has let me know when the course is changing; my job is to keep my eye on its dance, and follow. In itself, this trust is more valuable than any specific rituals that result. It is their source, and maybe my access to much that is deep and worthwhile within me. I am so grateful, finally, to have found it.

*I was born, baptized into, and participate today in the Lutheran Church. Some other important connections I discovered in early adulthood, via a moderately traditional version of Wicca. I suppose they do seem quite disparate, on the face of things.

**Poetry, in my experience, happens everywhere except at the neat-and-tidy keyboard, and often inconveniently. It’s the unruly friend you love being around — if she would only stop inviting herself over without notice. (At least she brings wine.) If I specifically want to be the one doing the inviting, I go for a walk and I pay attention. That’s it. Poetry is about rhythm, and so is walking; it’s basic sympathetic magic.

***I do certainly keep trying new ideas. But so far when I reach for one, my compass just wobbles. It’s an encouraging wobble, if that makes sense, but it’s not a Heck Yes. The closest we’ve come is lighting the fire and just staring at the flames until it feels right to pull away. My otherwise well-behaved tuxedo cat, d’Artagnan, takes this as an invitation to shout about how much he has missed me on my walk, and how I should settle in our chair now so he can snuggle. So this may not, in fact, be the best way forward.