Projects as a Structure (or Possibly a Soul) of Creative Practice

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art & poetry experiment.

In 2015 I said to my husband that I wanted to become a writer. “What do you mean?” he replied. “You are a writer.” 

This was true. I had written (bad) poetry and (worse) fiction through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. By 2015, I had essayed (“attempted”) for several years, and I had published one of the eventual results, paid. I had written copy as a volunteer at the public library, and in my full-time role as a winery tasting room manager. I had a long-term, deeply fulfilling and faithful relationship with my journal. What my husband was pointing out was that, in the important sense Georgia Heath has identified right here on this website, I was a writer because I was already writing. But I couldn’t shake the doubt: I saw myself as someone who might be a writer someday. 

The problem lay in that lazy statement of ambition. When I scrapped it for parts, I realized what I really meant was much more specific: 

  1. To put my work in front of an audience. 
  2. To learn whether I could produce work I respected, regularly, on schedule.

The first is a test I have been afraid all my life I will fail,* the second a critical skill I didn’t yet know if I had. 

I still had the fear, but I was finally tired of its weight. Let it carry me for a change. I drafted a plan, bought a domain, and started my first writing project. 

I called it Trail-A-Week: August to August, once a week, I’d hike a new or known trail, and then I’d sit down to think through some aspect of the experience “out loud.” 

My weekly installments started as lyrical trail guides, and evolved into something more like personal essays. I learned, by writing them, all kinds of very basic things: what, for example, is a personal essay? I learned my preferred style, started paying attention to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, started refining them. I re-learned the joy of the challenge—following a line of thought, revising for a better sentence—and the conversation: speaking back to the work of others. I remembered the joy of the flow-state, and understood for the first time that entering that state was as much a matter of practice as of luck. I found out how much work goes into a finished piece, compared to how many people like it on Twitter (three), and how many comments readers leave (one, maybe). I learned I could, indeed, produce good work on a deadline, and share it publicly. I learned to believe I was a writer.

***

Believing this has allowed me to open the kinds of doors that lead exactly where I want to be. Submitting to magazines and literary journals, for example: writers are entitled to do that. And writing workshops, which do not occur as something you could legitimately attend, if you do not already think of yourself as a writer. After Trail-A-Week, and after a small string of acceptances to various publications, I applied to one such workshop, run by my favorite magazine. I figured it was a long-shot. Maybe—they didn’t comment on that, but they did let me come. And of course they never would have done so if I hadn’t asked. 

At workshops, I have learned about writing prompts. “Go away,” said the first person from whom I formally learned poetry,** “and write a poem to introduce yourself to the rest of us.” My God, I thought, I can’t write a poem on command. And then read it out loud! I wandered outside—the only place I ever understand myself—settled on a footbridge over a river I’d never before met, and did exactly that. It was not, in fact, hard. It was a small constraint that released my creativity, and once I put pen to paper, it felt natural. 

There have been lots of prompts since: slow-paced wanders focused on observation; exercises in mimicry; timed stream-of-consciousness sessions where I wasn’t allowed to lift my pen from the page. I’m learning to love them, partially for the way they constantly show me how much more I can do than I think I can. But they have—for me, and your mileage may vary—significant limits in the longer term.

Outside the context of community, for example, they don’t have the same unmitigated positive effect. I still sometimes use a prompt I find, say, online, tweeted out by a poet I follow, or in a book like this tiny one I got from Kim Stafford, my state’s current Poet Laureate. But without the intensity and excitement of the workshop, where we immediately read our creations to each other, give feedback, and bounce ideas, pushing myself out of my routine in this way can feel like an interruption instead of a gift. Great, some random words on a notebook page. Now what? Work on those, or get back to the book I’m creating? Which highlights another problem: unless I’m at a workshop, there’s only so much time in a day that I can block (or flat-out steal) for writing. I have a long-term zone, and I don’t want to jar myself out of it.

So how to combine the creative push of a writing prompt and the joyful flow of the zone? My solution has been to go back to the model from which I learned so much in Trail-A-Week. 

***

A writing project, as I define it, is a self-directed, long-term generative exercise with a unifying theme or goal. Installments are done at regular, pre-determined intervals. They’re published as I go, creating accountability for myself, and allowing for outside participation.

It’s a second long-term zone, but one that takes up far less time in a day or a week than my ongoing manuscript revision—or, for that matter, random writing prompts. It lets me explore something I’m curious about, without any kind of pressure to make it great or squeeze some income from it, or do anything at all with it beyond the parameters of the project. 

My current exploration is called The Florilegia Project. It blends photography, reading as a sacred practice, and poetry. I do it every day, and—with the exception of the eight cross-quarters***—it takes about five minutes of my time. They’re five intent, focused minutes, though, during which I meet a small challenge and make a new thing. I do them in the early morning, and I love how they bring strength and shape to my day. Even if I’m sick, even when I’m traveling, even when I’m over-stressed or stuck for inspiration, they’re a guarantee I’ll create some art today. 

I have no idea what, if anything, this project will turn into, or what doors in the world or within my own self it may open or close. That’s a benefit too: the conscious invitation of ambiguity, mystery, curiosity into my life. Whether or not I can point to examples or measure the benefits, it’s clear to me that both Trail-A-Week and TFP have enriched my creative output, and my life generally. They do it slantwise, so that I can’t quite get a look at the precise effect. Like a sunbeam, and exactly as impossible to grasp.

Though seen in retrospect, there are a couple of things I can point to. My writing projects so far have laid down a bedrock sense of confidence in my own ability both to create and to learn new things. I wrote in an essay once, startling myself, that “I learn everything slowly, at the pace of a forest’s growth.” My writing projects have allowed me to go beyond that acknowledgement, and live daily into its deep, essential truth. They’ve made me more me.

When this present project wraps up, I’ll probably take some time to let it integrate. Or I might use it to fuel some creative goal I’ve developed along the way. And when it and I are finished accompanying each other, I will begin to imagine another collaboration. 

Because that’s what writing projects feel like to me: co-creation, between me and some independent idea, existing without entirely being until it breathed itself into me, and vice versa. 

I realize I’m talking about creative endeavor like it’s God. And I don’t want to limit the divine—but absolutely yes. Everyone who does art has encountered its essential Mystery. I like to capitalize that word; it’s shorthand for how vast the distance between Mystery and just mystery, the latter of which is something you can solve, and move on from. Writing projects are a regular portal to that capital-M Mystery. Their only requirements are: remain open; and do the damn work. 

I told myself I wouldn’t get too mystical here, but it turns out that’s another deep truth of mine, so belated thanks for buckling up and hanging on for the ride. But you’re already good at that, aren’t you? You’re here because you’re interested in the creative life, which is nothing if not a strange, unpredictable ride. 

I’m curious: what long-term projects fuel your creativity? If you haven’t done one, or it’s been a little while, what concept or color or style or weird-idea-totally-unrelated-to-your-art might you want to pursue? And what’s stopping you?

***

*When I was small, my family would recite narrative poetry around the campfire—Shel Silverstein, Robert Service, bits of Tennyson—and I’m certain they would have welcomed and encouraged my own compositions. I was writing them by age 8—but I was too embarrassed to try them out loud, even for a loving audience.

**That person is Sherwin Bitsui. If you are a poet and you have a chance to take a workshop with him, take it.

***Days that mark the turning of the seasons, such as Midwinter. These are the days I sit down with the more involved parts of the project. You can learn more here.

I Do My Best Work in My Cheapest Notebook

Kerri Sullivan is a writer from New Jersey whose work has appeared in The Billfold, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.

The bottom drawer of my desk contains a dozen notebooks I’ll probably never use. Some of them I’ve carted around through moves as far back as college. Some were given to me as gifts and others I bought for myself. There are notebooks with smooth pages, notebooks that lay flat no matter what page you open them to, notebooks that cost close to $20, and notebooks that came from other countries. They are much too nice for me to ever use.

My quest to find the perfect notebooks to help me execute perfect projects has taken me to stationery supply stores, Kickstarters, art museum gift shops, and bookstores. I thought the special notebooks I found in these places would not only inspire me to do great work, but also help me improve my writing practice in general. The kind of person who writes in a something that has gold-foil edges probably has impeccable handwriting and never makes mistakes or scratches out big blocks of words. There was a time when I thought that maybe I could be this kind of writer, for a little bit of effort and fifteen dollars.

I told myself I would save every fancy notebook I acquired “for the right project.” By now, I’m sure the right project will never come. None of my ideas will ever feel good enough for the notebooks in that drawer. They are notebooks in which I only thought I’d want to write, but I’m too afraid to sully them with my half-formed, imperfect thoughts.

It turns out that the notebook I actually want to write in is an unglamorous Mead Five Star notebook that I picked up for $2 at a pharmacy. Its pages are thin, not particularly smooth, and certainly don’t lay flat. It’s five inches by seven inches, making it not quite pocket-sized, but not too big to carry around, either. Its pages are lined, which is the one thing every notebook I’ve ever bought has had in common. I don’t think I could write on blank or gridded paper. I’ve noticed one key difference between this notebook and all of the others languishing in my desk drawer: I actually use this one.

I affectionately refer to this notebook as The Shitty Notebook and keep it in my purse at all times. Unlike the Moleskines and other status notebooks taking up valuable storage space, The Shitty Notebook is allowed to be a disorganized, dog-eared, barely legible home for all of my worst ideas. Because I don’t really care about the notebook, I’m unafraid to ruin it.

After years of chasing the idea of the perfect notebook, I’ve finally learned that the best notebook is not necessarily the most expensive or best quality or nicest-looking. The best notebook is the one I’ll actually use. I’m not the kind of person whose writing is improved by a notebook that sets me back twenty dollars. I’m the kind of writer who needs something a little more scrappy. Something unpretentious that doesn’t make me feel pressured to only fill it with good sentences. 

Another perk of The Shitty Notebook is the anonymity it allows me when writing in public. Since everyone does everything on their phones now, writing when other people can see me sometimes feels weird enough. I can’t even imagine writing in some fancy-looking notebook in public. That’s a straight up invitation for some nosy person to ask you if you’re a writer and what you’re working on and where can I see your work? But my notebook is small and unassuming. I can pull it out in front of other people—in line at the grocery store, in waiting rooms, on my lunch break—without attracting attention. I am just a person making a perfectly normal note, nothing to see here! No one will know I’m writing down a line that just came to me for the essay I’m working on about dead relatives or working out a joke about snack food. No one will ask me what I’m working on or try to claim a piece of my private work before I’m ready to share it. They’ll think I remembered something I need to pick up at Costco or that I’m jotting down the time of an appointment—they’ll think absolutely nothing about it.

I find that when I dedicate some time each day, no matter however small, to working a little bit on my writing projects, more ideas come to me than if I don’t regularly tap into this part of my brain. Sometimes this looks like writing down a few sentences in the notebook while I’m in my car, too early for work because traffic was lighter than I expected. In those moments, I make lists, notes, or jot down weird lines that came to me. I try not to censor myself in these moments. When I feel like those notes are actually starting to amount to something, I type them into a document and fill in around them until those scribbles become essays. So many of my favorite pieces of writing started as scraps of thoughts hastily written down into notebooks. If I only carried around expensive notebooks I was too scared to use, I would lose so much. 

Maybe one day instead of a drawer of empty, pristine notebooks, I’ll have a drawer of completed Shitty Notebooks, scribbled in and torn up, crammed with words on every page. Notebooks that might not look like much, but they served their purpose as a place to put fledgling ideas. Notebooks that were the origin for things that went on to turn into polished, finished essays. 

At the end of this month, I’m moving to the first apartment where I’ll be living alone. It’s small, and I’m going to have to be thoughtful about what I bring with me. It might finally be time to let go of my drawer of “someday” notebooks in favor of being able to utilize the storage space. And with them, I’ll let go of the idea that the nicer a notebook is, the nicer the words I’ll put in it will be. 

I Went on a Self-Directed Writing Retreat and Here’s What Happened

Emma Pickering is a Canadian writer, entrepreneur, and avid tea drinker. Visit her book review blog or check out her online clothing shop, The Moody Maiden.

Whoever came up with the idea of writing retreats is a genius. As much time as you want away with nothing to do except write? It doesn’t even have to be writing—it could be anything. Yoga. Mediation. Art. Taking time away to specifically work on your passion, whatever that may be, is the stuff of gold for anyone with a creative outlet. It’s a valuable, precious experience.

But until earlier this year, I had never been on a writing retreat. The ones I’d heard about always seemed so expensive, or involved applying for a spot that was difficult to get. I figured for me it was an elusive endeavor to be lived vicariously through those that could afford to do it. 

And then, one day back in early April while I was absently working away at my part-time job, it hit me: I could just do my own writing retreat! Duh! 

That night, I sourced an Airbnb that was a three-hour drive outside of my city and booked it for eight days in May. I had a month to go until the retreat, but had no clue how to run one.

So I began planning. 

Prepping for the Retreat

My current goal as a writer is to submit as much work as possible to different magazines, so I knew going into the retreat that I wanted to focus on creating new material and editing old material.

Because of this, I did not do the typical novel-writing retreat. Instead, I focused on poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction since those genres would allow me to create multiple short pieces in the relatively short amount of time that I had. It would also allow me to have a larger selection of work to pull from after the retreat when submitting to magazines. 

Tailoring the retreat in this way is the main reason why it was so effective for me. That’s the beauty of a self-directed writing retreat—you can design it to meet your specific writing needs and goals!

The first thing I did was research literary magazines for open submission calls, themed submission calls, or writing contests with free or very cheap entry fees. Some of the best places to find these types of things are Freedom With Writing, Authors Publish Magazine, Submittable, and Literistic.

For any calls I was interested in, I made note of the due date (if any), the reading fee (if any), what they were looking for, the theme, what they paid (if anything), and the limitations for word count and number of submissions. 

Personally, I like to keep all of this info on physical individual pieces of paper for each submission call that I then keep in folders labeled “Submission Calls with due dates,” “Submission Calls with no due dates,” and a current “Work Plan” folder where I keep submission calls I currently want to work on or that have upcoming due dates. 

If a submission call or deadline comes and goes and I didn’t end up submitting to it, then the piece of paper for that submission call gets moved to a folder labeled “Past Submission Calls/Potential Prompts” for future inspiration. 

I know this process is a bit old-school and probably a waste of paper in the end, but it really works for me as I’m a tactile person and like to have the option to lay everything out when I’m looking at it—and you just can’t do that with electronic records! If you like this filing process but prefer electronic, I recommend using Asana to accomplish the same thing digitally. They have a free plan.

Once I had a solid base for the places I wanted to submit to, I then focused on prepping my mindset for the retreat. I did this by creating a list of questions going into the retreat that I wanted to explore such as:

  • What kind of writer am I? 
  • What is my planning process? How do I brainstorm?
  • What topics/themes/genres are easy to write and why? Which ones are difficult?
  • As a writer, what are my personal themes? What do I want to explore and keep coming back to? What am I obsessed with?
  • Do I listen to my writing instinct? For instance, do I try to force a story out? If yes, does it work well? Or do I end up staring at a blank screen for three hours? If it feels forced, do I abandon it instead? 
  • If it’s easy to get a story out, what is it about that process that worked?
  • What, if anything, do I do to get into the writing mood?

All of these questions were geared towards bringing self-awareness to what I was doing on the retreat, which is something I’ve not really done before when it comes to my writing. Usually I would just sit down, start writing or outlining, and depending how things were going I might get distracted or spend too much time looking something up. I never sat back and thought, “Whoa, wait a second. I am doing a writing thing right now. That involves a whole process. What is that process for me?” I wanted my retreat to have not only a creative element to it, but a meta one, too.

The last thing I did was set rules for myself to follow. I decided that on the retreat, I could only do stuff that related to writing. So I could write, edit, read, research writing stuff, or, if I wanted to take a break from reading and writing, I could watch YouTube videos about books or writing. I also tried to not go on social media and set a daily screen time limit for my social media apps. 

There’s one other thing that I did that I highly recommend doing if you’re on a budget. I created a meal plan and then made pre-cooked, prepackaged frozen meals that only needed to be thawed the night before and microwaved when ready to eat. I did this for two reasons. First, because having to eat out everyday for all of my meals was simply far too expensive. Second, because even though I had access to a kitchen and could cook, I didn’t want to be wasting valuable time cooking and washing pots and pans when I could be writing. 

Once all of that was set up and May rolled around, I packed up the car with my laptop, clothes, and frozen meals, and hit the road. 

Here’s what happened. 

I changed my outlook of writing

Within the first day of the retreat, I immediately began seeing writing as more of the business that it is and less of the guilty pleasure/purposeless hobby I’d always felt it had been for me.

Writing creatively is a form of artistic expression first and foremost, and yet I’d always felt guilty for doing it because it can be very hard to validate that what you’re doing is worthwhile. Shouldn’t I be doing something more fruitful with my time? Why am I bothering doing this when it’s probably not even good and no one will read it? All of those insecurities that I’m sure any writer can relate to weren’t just insecurities for me; they were perspectives too, of my own writing and of writing in general.

But literary magazines need readers to read their stuff, right? So they need content. They need your work. They need writers to send them their stuff. They will pay you for it. And that’s what business is. Having those folders full of submission calls were like little work assignments for me to accomplish. They gave me direction. There was something at stake now, in a sense—something to work towards. 

One magazine had a “Fear” themed submission call. I had something to say about fear, so I submitted work to them. Another one had a “Fury” themed submission call. I had lots to say about fury. 

Suddenly, my creative energy and my personal experiences were being turned into material that these places seemed to be calling for. Another place wanted micro fiction under 100 words. I could do that for them. Another wanted poetry of a vivid dream-like nature. Perfect, I would try my hand at that. I began researching the difference between pitching vs. submitting and how it was more business-like to pitch (I’ll touch more on this later). All of these tasks reframed how I saw writing and I figured out in a way that was meaningful to me why and how writing can be a business.

Submitting to all of these places didn’t mean I was going to get accepted by them, of course. But that’s not the point; the point is that I now had the incentive to create new work. And the more material you keep creating, the more you practice, the better you get, and sometimes that’s all you need to want to keep writing, even if the publishing part doesn’t come until later. 

I became a better editor

There was a short story I wrote about a year and a half ago that has been through several drafts and I knew I wanted to do something with it someday, but I didn’t know what yet. The retreat was the perfect time to address it.

In my list of submission calls, there was a free contest requesting short stories on any topic from anywhere in the world. I felt this short story I’d written would be perfect for it, but their word limit was 4000 words. And the short story at the time was almost 6000 words long. 

So I spent one afternoon sitting in a café doing a huge overhaul of the short story. Killed my darlings, as the saying goes, and chopped the story down to just under 4000 words. Doing this process made me such a better editor.

The story was originally written in first person, but I ended up converting it to third person to add some much needed distance. I kept sentences and thoughts relevant and concise so that they served the story and not me, the author. It truly made the story better overall. By the end of it, I didn’t feel I’d actually lost any material that I was really sad to cut out, which makes me wonder what it was doing there in the first place. 

And in the end, the story ended up making it to the short list! If that’s not validation, then I don’t know what is.

I got to stretch the poetry legs I didn’t know I had

Poetry is my weakest genre. I don’t know a lot about it and have always found it intimidating. Every poem I’ve tried to write felt clichéd and amateurish; I didn’t know how to access that place of poetic inquiry that seems to come so naturally to some people. 

But within my submission call assignments, there were free calls for poetry—which meant I had nothing to lose and only experience to gain. So I had a day where I ended up writing eight new poems. And I didn’t hate them! Which was totally a new feeling for me with regards to my own poetry.

I’m not really sure what exactly it was that made me feel differently about my poetry than I had before. Perhaps I was older and wiser, or becoming more artistic. What I do know though, is that having those assignments helped immensely. I didn’t feel self-conscious about writing a poem—like, who do I think I am trying to be all poetic and deep? For once I didn’t see it that way. I saw each attempt at a poem as a potential job offer (again, going back to the business outlook). 

My new poetry-writing process may have also helped, too. I used a blank journal to handwrite the poems first. I felt it gave me more freedom in the creating process, less distraction, and more room to connect to my mind, feelings, and setting. And unlike handwriting fiction, committing a short poem to the page by hand isn’t as daunting as a first story draft. Once I felt okay with the poem on the page, I typed it out and edited it from there.

I know poetry will be the hardest genre for me to publish, but again, incentive to even do it in the first place is progress. And so far I have received helpful and even positive feedback on four poems that I submitted to Furious Gazelle for their Fury theme. They offer $10 critiques that you can purchase when you make your submission. So whether they accept your work for publication or not, they’ll at least give you three lines of feedback for each poem. 

Continuing with the theme of thinking of my writing as a business: I would consider paying for this critique a business investment. This submission process allowed me to become more involved and invested in my poetry than I ever had been before. 

I became more aware of my strengths and weaknesses

Taking a whole week away to focus on just writing really puts into perspective what you’re good at and what you suck at. 

For instance, there was a submission call from Stormy Island Publishing that wanted short stories of the romance-fantasy genre. I actually never completed this assignment because I found out that it’s very difficult for me to write romance or fantasy, let alone both of them combined together. And this caused me to reflect on why those genres are weaker for me. 

I came to the conclusion that my feminist identity kept clashing with what I knew about the romance genre, that is, the heroine has to choose between a guy and her career, or choose between two guys, or doesn’t feel fulfilled in the story until she ends up in a relationship. I wanted to subvert the typical romance clichés but felt I couldn’t if that’s what the magazine wanted.

Then there was the fantasy element. I’m not a huge reader of fantasy because I find the worlds overwhelming and the books intimidating to commit to because they’re so long, and I can be a slow reader if I’m not into the book I’m reading. Having all of those thoughts about the fantasy genre while trying to write a fantasy short story was not helpful or productive. 

On the other hand, I learned that I’m actually not bad at pumping out fiction that’s fewer than 100 words, even in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. I did this for The Arcanist’s microfiction call. I found that centering the story on a pivotal decision that the protagonist must make within those 100 words was the perfect formula for creating a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end, which is what The Arcanist wanted. I’d never attempted microfiction before because it seemed impossible to fit a story into that amount of words, but having the time on the retreat to really think about it led me to create three full stories all exactly 100 words. 

Whether or not The Arcanist publishes those three stories, realizing I have a skill in creating microfiction was valuable enough. It’s the type of skill that could come in handy for a lot of things, like other microfiction calls or using it as a tool to plan out pivotal moments in a novel. 

I learned how to create a personal essay pitch

On the retreat, I finally had the time to do a deep dive research session into submitting personal essays. Some of the places I was interested in submitting personal essays and articles to were Catapult, The New Yorker, Bustle, Longreads, Glamour, Allure, Vox, Marie Claire, The New York Times Modern Love Column, and Elle.

My research began with looking at each magazine’s submission process to see if they had anything to say about what they were looking for. Some of them wanted pitches; some were okay with receiving a full draft.

Writing a personal essay pitch was new territory for me. An editor at Catapult specifically has a Google doc about what he is looking for and what he wants in his pitch. I also found a really good article on Catapult’s website about pitching versus submitting and why you should pitch first. 

Essentially, if we’re looking at writing as a business, pitching first makes a ton of sense. You’re trying to sell yourself, get the job, entice them to want to see more. Reading a full first draft is a big commitment for an editor, and there’s no guarantee they’ll like it. You may just end end up wasting their time and making them frustrated, and then you feel bad, too. No one’s happy.

A pitch, on the other hand, is meant to give them the same glimpse into the piece without the time commitment. Plus, if you pitch first and they like it, they may have a specific way or angle they’d like you to structure your draft.

For this particular personal essay I wanted to write, my plan had been to write the first draft on the retreat. I knew it would be difficult to write this particular essay I had in mind, so I kept putting it off. But once I did this research and realized maybe I should actually be writing the pitch first instead, that’s what my new task became. 

Following the Google Doc’s pitch requirements, I wrote a pitch for the essay—and it helped immensely. First, it helped me distance myself from the material, which made it way easier to work on the essay without writing the essay. I now had this rigorous outline to follow and wasn’t allowed to get too in-depth into the piece itself. Second, the pitch allowed me to finally organize the material I’d wanted to write, and the process massively clarified the direction I want to take the essay in. When I do go to write it, I’m going to have a way better idea of how to draft it. 

I remembered why I like creative writing so much

One of my assignments was to create a short story for Jolly Horror Press for their themed submission call of Accursed Item. This magazine wants comedy horror. I wasn’t really familiar with writing that genre, but I went to another café one day and came up with an initial starting point (a witch who sucks at being a witch), and went from there. 

I had no idea where the story was going or what would happen, but I spent a few hours just completely making it up on the spot, finding plot where there was none before. Every spontaneous paragraph built off of the previous one, and eventually a story started to form on the page and developed. 

I think as creative writers, we can agree that this is the crux of writing at its strongest. You can have a story planned out and the themes chosen and plot points decided, sit down to write, and still feel stuck. That day though, I was truly in a place of pure imagination and was genuinely having fun just making up a bunch of nonsense that began to form a story. 

How to make your self-directed writing retreat effective

If you are thinking of doing a self-directed writing retreat, I recommend doing the following: 

Plan, plan, plan

Do the prep work and tailor the retreat to meet your goals and needs. It’s self-directed—you can literally do whatever you want at the pace that’s right for you. Leave the heavy, intensive writing research for the retreat (like researching essay pitching), and do any preliminary research before the retreat (like finding literary magazine submission calls) so that you have more time on the retreat to write.

Set intentions

Go into it with intentions, not goals. Having goals is too competitive and stressful, and may just lead to procrastination if you’re viewing the retreat in terms of “goals to accomplish.” When it’s over, if you find you haven’t met those goals, you may feel like your retreat was a waste of time. 

So I gave myself intentions instead. I intended to work on poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, editing, and researching pitches. I didn’t set any goals like, “must write at least 10 poems,” “must write at least 15,000 words,” etc. I just set intentions and stuck to them, and that in itself was an accomplishment.

Choose your genres

Decide what genres you want to focus on. Will you work on a novel? A short story collection? Poetry? Being specific about what you’re going to work on will help give direction. On my retreat, I did at one point find it tempting to want to switch gears to work on my novel, but because I had already established my intentions to work on the other genres, I stopped myself and stuck to what I was there to do. 

Change things up

I developed a routine for each day: get up, make tea, have a quick easy breakfast, begin working, go to a café in the afternoon, take a YouTube break in evening with dinner, then research or write some more. But I made sure to change up my location and activities throughout that routine. 

I visited a new café everyday, did yoga, went for a walk in the forest, did some window-shopping, read a book. I don’t recommend working on writing the entire time because you’ll just get drained. So know when to take those activity breaks and switch up the routine. 

Is a self-directed writing retreat the “WRITE” choice for you? 

If you have any kind of serious intentions about your writing—whether it’s seriously wanting to get published, or seriously wanting to finish a book, or just seriously wanting to write more and figure out your process—a self-directed writing retreat is the best first step you can take.

Perhaps the lack of structure of a self-directed retreat intimidates you. Or maybe the freedom to make it your own is highly appealing. All I can say is planning out and executing my own writing retreat was one of the best things I ever did for my writing. 

What Becoming a Runner Taught Me About Being a Writer

Georgia Heath is a hard-working creative with a flair for engaging content. She can normally be found reading, drawing, or running around Victoria Park.

For a long time, I lived my life firmly believing that I was Not a Runner. “Look at me,” I would joke to friends, gesturing in the vague direction of my legs and torso, “I’m clearly not a runner.” Apart from a few humiliating years of physical education at school, I avoided sports at any cost, sitting by myself on a towel instead of playing volleyball or cricket at the beach, citing the wrong shoes or an aversion to mud to avoid football and running, and once just falling dramatically to the ground to avoid attempting to catch a tennis ball thrown by one of my sporty cousins.

In my first year at University I started going to the gym on campus (by myself, and only to the women-only section), and occasionally rock climbing with my sister, but a few short and sweaty attempts at the treadmill were enough to convince me that I was still—definitely—not a runner. 

Then, about four years ago, I began running. At first I was trying to impress my sporty boyfriend but I quickly began trying to run further and further distances, just to see how far I could actually go. The first time I ran a mile I celebrated like I’d just run a marathon, and I gradually increased my distances until I was comfortably running 10 or 15K around my local park, speeding home from work to put on my running shoes and overtake the other twilight pavement-pounders (who, in their defence, had no idea we were racing). 

In the early days, I spent a long time practicing and thinking and googling and figuring out how to become a runner. I bought an armband for my phone, Bluetooth headphones and special socks, I listened to podcasts and read the forums, I even changed my diet after reading a few persuasive blog posts, but, in truth, I was still terrible at running. Dragging myself slowly around the park every evening and returning bright red and dripping in sweat, I was waiting eagerly for the magical moment that I would be transformed into ‘A Runner’. Then, one day, I discovered the big secret that runners have been keeping this whole time. The unspoken and closely guarded knowledge that slips into your brain somewhere between the 5th and the 50th kilometre.

The secret is this. It doesn’t matter if you’re slow. It doesn’t matter if you’re shit. It doesn’t matter if you’re sweaty and red and out of breath. You don’t even have to enjoy it. As long as you do it. As long as you don’t stop. As long as you are running, you are already a runner. 

As soon as I figured this out, I started training harder than ever before. Released from the pressure to be good, or to be the best, I was finally able to just run. I ran when I wanted, I ran for fun, I ran to release stress and to feel the rain soaking me to the skin, to give myself time to think, and to get out of the eyeline of my ever-growing laundry pile. When my sporty boyfriend broke up with me, I ran all the time to clear my head and to feel my heart beating and to remind myself that even though my life was crumbling around my ears, I was still alive. I wasn’t running with the goal of being the best or the fastest runner, but I did get better, and I did get faster. 

Finishing my first 15K, sweaty, red, but absolutely elated, I practically floated home in the evening light, screenshotting the stats on my running app and texting them to my sister, ‘who would have thought it?!?!?’ It was like a miracle. I was finally doing something that I had always believed I couldn’t do.

Eventually, during one of my ‘time to think’ runs, I realised that I had been waiting a long time to ‘become’ a writer. I had been waiting a long time to be good enough to be published, or interesting and relevant enough to write the important, world-changing work I longed to write. I had been thinking and trying and waiting and wasting my time, and practically the only thing I hadn’t been doing was actually writing. 

I had been writing as much as I could, of course, but hesitating for hours on end deciding whether what you are writing is good or important enough is the same as standing on your doorstep in your running shoes worrying about how fast you are going to be, or how long you can run for. So I began writing. Prolifically. Reminding myself that it doesn’t matter if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s sloppy, or dull, all you have to do is write. Everything else will follow. 

For the next few months, I focused on writing without hesitating. I didn’t allow myself to deliberate and second-guess, sharpen my pencils, shuffle my notebooks and complete hours of ‘research’ on the internet, I just sat down and wrote what I wanted to write. More importantly, I wrote what I needed to write. Some days I wrote long rambling journal entries and other days I found myself effortlessly producing pages and pages of smooth, polished prose. I wrote some serious articles, some film reviews and a few silly pieces just to make my sister laugh. I ended up writing some things that I’m really proud of, and a lot of things that ended up on the cutting room floor.

When I was at University, the day before the deadline for an essay I hadn’t yet started writing, I would sit cross-legged on my single bed, balance my laptop on my damp windowsill and force myself to type. Every now and then I would throw my hands up and collapse backwards onto the bed (cursing myself, the essay and the ill-advised night out that had landed me in this situation to begin with), but then I would force myself to sit right back up and continue typing. If I typed for long enough, and wrote enough terrible words, eventually the words became less and less terrible, and by midnight I would have an essay to submit. Somewhere along the way I got a double bed, stopped going out on weeknights, and forgot how to be a terrible writer. Allowing myself to write badly again gave me the freedom to experiment, to get my ideas onto paper, and, most importantly, to edit and improve my own work so that my good ideas weren’t lost under self-criticism and self-doubt. I learnt that, just as you have to allow yourself to run slowly so that you can run faster later, you have to allow yourself to create imperfect work so that you can create better work later. 

And there was a lot of imperfect work. But also a lot of great work. I could have spent my whole life researching and reading and planning and thinking, but in the end, all I really had to do was write.

Not long after pitching this piece, I injured the metatarsals in my right foot and I had to stop running for a few weeks while they healed. Complaining down the phone to my Mum one day, she urged me to take up swimming for a while. “I can’t swim,” I moaned. “I’m a runner, I’m not a swimmer.”

But yesterday, I retrieved my swimming costume from the back of a drawer and I went to the Lido, (I bought another swimming costume because I’ve had mine since I was twelve and that thing did not fit me anymore), I steeled myself and stepped out onto the tiles, I climbed down the ladder into the freezing cold pool, hesitated for just a second, and then pushed off from the side. “I’m swimming,” I told myself, “and as long as I am swimming, I am already a swimmer.”

How I Used Dungeons & Dragons to Build My Creative Practice

Erin Rodgers is a… okay, forget this 3rd person stuff. *I* am a social, fun, go-getter who loves to connect others while connecting with them. But I wasn’t always this way.

I am hiding, making my body as small as I can as I cling to the side of a clammy cave. I feel ice-cold shots of panic shoot through my stomach. They push outwards until they fill my whole body. My throat is dry, and I know if I were to use my voice it would be thin and reedy.

The coldness of the rock behind my back makes me want to shudder, but I must remain completely still. It is the only way that I can escape the fire-breathing dragon waiting outside of the cave, ready to consume me whole.

My only hope is to gather my wits, summon my inner strength, put my shield out in front of me and sneak past the beast to freedom.

Boy, I sure hope I can escape my latest impossible predicament in my mysterious futuristic-but-also-medieval village. Or at least manage to put on real pants and leave the house in my real life in Toronto, Canada.

Hi! As you might have guessed, I am not actually a hero facing down dragons in a mythical world.

Though, from what I gather about the most recent season of Game of Thrones, that is also possibly kind of overrated.

Instead, I am just a regular old writer/performer and storytelling coach. Well, perhaps not regular. Much like the main character in a fantasy novel, I am one in a long line of people with a destiny. However, my destiny is not to save a village from dragons. It is instead to fight intense anxiety and depression but still write and create.

Honestly, compared to many other people I know I got off pretty lucky in the life complications department. However, mental health, specifically dealing with my fluctuating levels of anxiety and depression, took a major toll on my life throughout my twenties and a large part of my early thirties.

I was an awkward and uncomfortable young person who evolved into a more awkward and incredibly uncomfortable adult. Someone saying the wrong thing, or something I took to be the wrong thing, could be enough to send me spiralling for days.

I would not leave the house for anything but work and spend hours by myself watching hours of movies or reading books.  There’s no Under the Volcano about being addicted to avoidance. But although I wasn’t consuming substances, I was doing major damage to my personal relationships, creative life and mental health.   

Thankfully, eventually, I got help. I found medications that worked. Also, I don’t want to brag, but I went to a lot of therapy. Like a lot of therapy.

I also discovered the power of story.

The thing about spending what is likely years of my life escaping reality into the world of TV and movies is that I have become very aware of the way a good story can change your perspective. Through movies, TV and books, I’ve travelled the world, found and lost love, and saved the day.

When I was at my worst, I would imagine myself being rescued by the characters that I admired most in the fiction I had been devouring.

Years later, I would find myself at a table playing a role-playing game with some friends. One of my greatest secrets is that I mostly don’t like board games. I basically think they are a great way for friends to get into confusing fights over rules that no one should care about.

Because of this, for years I had avoided tabletop gaming all together lumping it in with screaming matches I had witnessed over games of Trivial Pursuit (the game with a warning right in its title).

However, role-playing games offered me an amazing strategy to deal with the anxiety I experience on a daily basis both as just a regular human person and as a person who does creative stuff for a living.

In games like Dungeons & Dragons, you create a persona. This persona has certain powers, certain abilities and very specific strengths and weaknesses based on rules of the die. Much like our own brains. 

When playing a tabletop game, I could be a character very much the opposite of my real-life personality. I could explore how it felt to be braver, stronger, wiser, etc. My friends and I were having magical adventures and creating stories as we went along.

I loved it.

In fact, I loved it so much I started wondering how am I how I could bring this sense of play and endless possibilities it into my own life. How could I turn myself into the brave and wise characters I had played in the game in my real life without moving far away and starting all over—or, God forbid, getting into CrossFit?

In Chris Hardwick’s book The Nerdist Way he described using Dungeon and Dragons character sheets to find your strengths and weaknesses and build on them. It was a great system, as I found that gamifying the elements of my personality made things feel less personal and embarrassing. What is the charisma of the Erin Rodgers character? What are her levels of wisdom? Who are her bonds with? What are her flaws and how do they affect gameplay, aka her life?

When I was able to look at myself more as a character like any other I had played, suddenly things that had humiliated me before — my inability to follow any kind of physical directions, my very occasional and completely unpredictable high level of dance ability — were merely aspects of my character that moved the story of me alone.

Getting it all down on paper — or, more accurately, character sheet — allowed me to take stock of what I liked and didn’t like. And made the things I didn’t like seem more possible to change.

But it was the next step that took things to the next level for me. I found role models (real, fictional, or historical) and broke their traits down too. What were the things I admired most about them? Which of their strengths did I wish I had? What did they have in common with each other? 

Throughout the process, I focused on depersonalizing the experience. I looked at these different figures — and myself — as a game designer or writer would. It wasn’t a matter of comparing myself to these other people and punishing myself for being “lesser than” (a common thing I do when feeling depressed). Now I saw that all of the characters, including those whom I deeply admired, had strengths and weaknesses.

In fact, mapping things out on paper made me realize personal strengths I had not realized I had and reminded me of past successes. This had the hidden benefit of giving me written “proof” of these successes, which I can now review when I have tough days.

The next step was to map out what I wanted my future story to sound like. What adventures I wanted to have and what success looks like to me, the person I had described on that character page.

I was also able to start creating specific challenges to work on the elements of my personality I didn’t like. Or things I had observed in other characters that I would like to improve on. Having visualized and written down on paper what I wanted my future to be, what story I was working towards, I had a much better idea of the specific skills that I needed to adapt.

My personal character sheet is a little different than the classic Dungeons & Dragons one. There is a space for non-perfectionist work ethic. To build that skill I set myself a goal of writing every single day even if it turned out to be terrible writing. By gamifying these changes as missions, everything felt less high stakes. Instead, these changes took on more of the air of fun I experienced sitting around a table with my friends, sharing a giant all of Cheetos as we created our fictional adventures.

Change is still slow, but as anyone who loves D&D knows, no game is ever going to go quickly. Adventure ebbs and flows, change builds, and a whole lot of it is based on a roll of the dice (and unfortunately, some built-in challenges and inequalities).

But now, my knowledge of myself and my journey is much more defined. So I work every day to do my best, keep my personal “character” wants and needs in mind, and move forward from adventure to adventure. I (mostly) no longer fantasize about a hero coming to rescue me. Instead, I am the main actor in my own adventure. Even when the adventure is just putting on pyjama pants and going to do my laundry.

How to Work Creatively on Family Trips and Vacations

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.

When I went full-time freelance, I assumed that one of the benefits of freelancing would be the ability to spend more time visiting extended family and friends, since I could just “work from wherever.” In reality, working while simultaneously visiting family is… more complicated than I thought.

I’ve heard great things about working while traveling and living that digital nomad life, but it hasn’t worked out so well for my own trips and vacations. I’ve had to figure out when to fit work in and when to just take the day off, even if it hurts my payday. A lot of this effort has to do with figuring out my rhythms, so it may not be the same for you as a creative worker, but finding your own rhythms is probably a skill that you’ll be able to put into practice as well.

Experiment 1: Staying with family and working

My first effort involved visiting my in-laws for a four-day trip, assuming I’d find time to work. I was wildly unrealistic, telling myself, I’ll be able to wake up at 6 a.m., work for two or three hours, and then join the rest of the family for a long and exciting day of family togetherness.

There are many reasons why this didn’t work:

  • This family stays up late. I failed to account for the fact that I’d have to peace out to sleep before the card games and campfire stories really got going. I don’t need to shut the party down every night, but I also didn’t want to be the person who left early to go to bed; it looks too much like I’m sick or unhappy or something.
  • I don’t really want to get up before 6 a.m. and make coffee and start working instantly; I don’t even do this at home. I have managed it a couple of times while traveling (including on this trip) because of deadlines that I couldn’t change, but it wasn’t a smart move. It certainly didn’t help me get into a creative groove.
  • Even if I did wake up early, I wouldn’t get that much quiet time before the rest of the household got up; this family somehow wakes between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. even after a big night, so I would have very little private time for writing even if I stuck to my schedule. 
  • By making these unrealistic demands on my time, I got impatient and frustrated with every aspect of the rest of the day. This was arguably the worst result: when my family took understandable amounts of time to decide what to do, or ended up lazing around for an afternoon rather than making an ambitious plan, I couldn’t enjoy it with them because I felt “behind” in my work, and all I wanted to do was find a corner where I could work in peace. This was an awful feeling and made me feel like a workaholic… which I was being.

I resolved to do better, but I also accepted a truth for these kinds of trips: I can wake up 30 minutes early or whatever amount of time I need to finish last-minute deadlines, but otherwise, when staying in people’s homes and being offered time to spend with them, I am going to accept that this time is fully allocated for togetherness.

Experiment 2: Staying in a hotel near family and working

We just had a family reunion with a group of relatives that we don’t see that often. Due to the large number of people coming, many of us stayed at a hotel a short drive away from the relatives who were hosting, giving us our own private spaces in addition to the common spaces we shared for most of our meals, game playing, and chat. This trip went so much better than the previous family vacation, partially because I tried not to have super high expectations for how much I was going to work each morning (I aimed for 90 minutes, not three hours), but also because I built a structure that worked for me. 

Here’s how it went:

  • This side of the family had many more young children, so when the parents of the group decided to turn in, I eased myself out of the group early as well. I slept more and better, because I’m just fundamentally not a night owl.
  • I woke early (between 6 and 7 a.m. each day) but didn’t rush anything: if I wanted to go for a swim first, I did that, but if I had a good creative idea first, I did that. I let my husband sleep in and I never made plans with the family until after 10 a.m. 
  • This way, I got at least my 90 minutes of work in during my best brain-hours of the day, but I didn’t pressure myself (while on vacation!) to wake up and instantly work.

While I cannot always stay in a hotel or a separate space from family, it made me realize that if I want to get work done while I’m on a trip, I need my own space. Ideally, this space needs to be completely separate from the family gathering, so I don’t feel like I’m making the whole event “less fun” by sneaking away to work on my laptop.

Experiment 3: Visiting a new city with a friend and working

I also recently took a vacation that was peak vacation/work. My friend and I were on the same page: we wanted to see a new city but we also wanted to make a big dent in big creative projects we were working on. We booked a cheap apartment rental for a week, flew to Austin, Texas, and bought groceries to cook together to keep the costs down. Here’s how we made the trip serve both our work and our vacation goals:

  • We figured out our priorities together: what would make this most relaxing for each of us would be waking up at our own pace, exercising, writing for a block in the morning and a block in the afternoon, eating fresh food, and going to see something inspiring/interesting/creative every day. 
  • We aimed to have around four hours per day devoted to writing, but the rest of the time we went for walks, tried every kind of taco we could find, talked about our projects, watched movies, and went to art museums and local theater performances. 
  • It ended up being a very inexpensive vacation, but four hours a day of work felt great, not like a sacrifice: we’d both chosen to work on our least monetized projects, which meant we were really making a dent in work we otherwise rarely got time to prioritize.

This was my first experience that really felt like being a “digital nomad,” and it was really fun and freeing. While I cannot necessarily implement this method of combining work and play on family trips, it made me realize that, if given the opportunity to exercise my creativity while also seeing new things, I really enjoy balancing work and vacation this way.

All in all, I still have things to learn about avoiding being a workaholic, but I think that you can still prioritize your creative work during trips and vacations if you know what you value, realistically estimate your own bandwidth, and take advantage of having your own space. Knowing how to fit in work during a trip can also help you keep your freelancing goals on track, especially during those times where a family visit is more of a necessity than a vacation. You can’t always “work from wherever,” but you can learn how to turn “wherever” into a place where you can get work done.

Read Laura’s previous guest post on how volunteering helps her creative practice.

What I’ve Learned From 40 Years of Freelancing

Stephen Kennedy creates photography that can’t be ignored. His portfolio includes clients like Wells Fargo, Ford, and Johnson & Johnson. His career is founded on four defining principles: simplicity, commitment, experience, and trust.

In August I’ll start my 40th year as a freelancer. If you’re wondering what has changed since 1980, the answer is almost nothing. In a business based on relationships and demonstrable skills, it’s the same as it ever was.

Even after all these years, it’s not any easier or harder. I don’t have to hustle any less. Luckily, there are far more ups than downs. From the very first day until now, I continue the ongoing labor of love: get work, and strive to stay relevant.

Like a lot of creatives for hire, I thought getting work and getting noticed would get easier as time passed. As with my childhood dreams of flying cars, robot butlers and teleportation, most of what I had hoped for was a fantasy.

There’s a natural progression for most freelancers that goes like this: pitch yourself, get considered, get the gig, do the gig, deliver the work, and wait for the process to start again.

Early on, I was under the impression that mere excellence alone would mean that the phone would ring every day. What I didn’t understand was that I existed on a spectrum of problem solvers and that every problem didn’t need me as the solution. Part of this has to do with being a specialist in my field. That reduced an already small marketplace for my work but it also allowed me to charge more for my expertise.

The other part of it has to do with the human nature of people who hire freelancers. Nobody wants the same thing every time. Variety is the spice of life. Just like you don’t eat at the same restaurant every time you dine out, you’re not going to get hired for every assignment.

The logical way around this is to simply find more people who are willing to pay for what you do. This will require a substantial effort at networking. It will also require marketing and promoting yourself for as long as you want to keep working. This is daunting to even the most experienced freelancers but it really works.

The good news is that much of the heavy lifting can be systemized, though you’ll always need to keep your hand on the wheel. My business is sustained by a small group of people who have very specific needs that I’ve proven capable to fulfill. The members of this list hear from me every five weeks in the form of a mailed letter, phone call, or face to face meetings. The letters I mail are hand signed and contain a signed artist’s proof that I printed myself. I make sure that meetings and phone calls are brief and efficient.

This is exactly how I have always promoted myself. Certainly, it’s easier now then it was when I first started. Much of the ease has to do with improved office technology. Things like my dual tray laser printer, digital contact data, word processor templates, and the ability to make fine art prints for less than the cost of an espresso.

I know a lot of freelancers that think mass email blasts and social media posts negate the need for my traditional marketing strategy. I believe that’s simply not true. As long as people still open postal mail, still allow me to meet with them, and still like personalized communications, I’ll keep it up.

There are many paths to the same creative destination of making a living as a freelancer. Here are a few things that have worked for me and for my most successful friends and industry peers.

Conduct yourself in a way that makes it easy for someone to send the next project your way. Remember the first time you used Netflix and realized that you’d never ever have to pay another Blockbuster late fee? That’s what I’m talking about.

A little discipline goes a long way. This applies to both art and craft. Freelancers can’t wait around for inspiration to strike. That’s why it’s so important to work on systemizing your creativity. This means doing something pertaining to your career every day.

Be yourself. This might be the hardest thing to embrace. Once you’re over the hump with this one, your life will get a lot easier.  

Standardize your creative output. People who hire you based on your portfolio or previous projects don’t want something different, let alone a surprise from left field. The exception to this is delivering exactly was expected and also including a little something extra that might be just the thing that the client never knew she needed.  

Use the belt and suspenders method. An experienced freelancer will always have a backup of every mission-critical tool or process needed to deliver an assignment.

People that hire you are not like you. They are employees and you are a hired gun. They aren’t spending their own money. They measure success using different metrics. Don’t forget that all of your clients secretly want to be you!

No news is good news. If you’re waiting for adulation for what you just delivered, you’re doing it wrong. Assume that your delivered work is just fine unless specifically told otherwise. I promise you that if the work didn’t measure up, you’ll hear about it right away.

There are many ways to prosper as a freelancer and these suggestions are intended to make it just a little easier. Of course, things are constantly changing. For me as a photographer, there was a profound change in the early 2000s with the shift to digital. But that’s simply an improvement in the craft and efficiency of delivery. The same goes for cloud services, Photoshop, email, and mobile phones. They’re not entirely new things, just updated versions of file cabinets, airbrushing, postal mail, and two-way radios.

A photographer like me still has to “be there” to create or capture. That’ll always be the case regardless of technology.

Real change is rare. I still go to my assignments in a car. My main tool is still a camera with interchangeable lenses. I still use a reporter’s notebook to store my notes and I still use a golf pencil to write because even today pens can leak in pockets.

Sticking with what works when your reputation is on the line is never a bad idea. It’s also worth noting that your client’s reputation is on the line every time you get the gig.

Focusing on relationships and having a business model that mimics The Golden Rule will take you almost anywhere you want to go in the freelance world.

Keeping Track: Freelance Writing With ADHD

Francine Carrel is an editorial professional with over a decade’s experience. Francine can usually be found at her computer in Bury St Edmunds. Failing that, seek her in the local coffee shop. She’ll be sitting by the window with a red pen and a pile of proofreading.

I have ADHD and I write from home.

That sentence is enough to draw concerned, “is-that-a-good-idea” expressions from most people I talk to. It’s fair enough. Freelance writing isn’t the safest career option for anyone, let alone someone with a known tendency to go off joyriding with the fairies.

But… well, I like it. I enjoy the creative freedom and the endless possibilities offered by every day. I like swanning off for a coffee break at 3 p.m. and working on articles at 2 a.m. (the two are possibly connected).

I’d been thinking about taking the plunge into self-employment for a while. Then redundancy kicked me, prematurely, into the pool a few months ago. Here’s how I’m coping.

Background

I’ve worked as a writer and editor for over a decade, since I was 16, mainly in structured, full-time roles on magazines and websites.

Time management and distraction have always been a problem, although my coping mechanisms improved over the years.

In my teens and early 20s, I would let a workload swallow me until, hours before everything simply had to be done, the adrenaline would kick in and I would do a fortnight’s worth of work in a night (I’ve never experienced the adrenaline-filled daily deadlines of a news room, although it’s on the bucket list).

Later, under the guidance of a very clever editor, I learned how best to direct my creative energy.

Boring admin tasks became interesting if I spent time working out how to automate them. Insurmountable wordcounts became manageable in smaller chunks. Ideas were freely ping-ponged across the desk — and the good ones evolved.

Most importantly, though, everything was tracked and filed. My folders spawned sub-folders, my checklists were manifold, my spreadsheets gained sentience.

These complicated systems, known to us late-diagnosed people as “coping mechanisms”, slowly turned work from something anxiety-ridden to something enjoyable.

ADHD

I was diagnosed with ADHD about a year ago, at the age of 26. It was a great relief. I wasn’t broken; or, if I was, it was in a way that I could learn how to fix.

I’d been incorrectly diagnosed with, and unsuccessfully medicated for, anxiety. It’s a common story for women with ADHD.

ADHD is a controversial disorder. Lots of clever people believe that it is a mislabelled grouping of more tenuously related symptoms. Many more people (not so clever) think it’s just an excuse for laziness.

If only! Unfortunately, ADHD means that everyday things take a lot more effort.

Why? Well, ADHD affects an offensively large section of behaviour called executive functioning.

Executive functioning, when it’s, er, functioning, helps you plan, keep track of time, pay attention and — importantly for this article — bolsters your working memory and helps you think creatively.

Not-working memory

Working memory is the temporary storage system in your brain. It keeps track of the fleetingly relevant information that needs dealing with.

If you’re interested, there are lots of complicated scientific theories about working memory, illustrated by charts with labels like “phonological loop”.

But it may help to think of working memory as RAM, rather than disk space.

Everyone, disorder or not, has experienced failures in their working memory. Ever opened the fridge and forgotten what you came for? Forgotten a sentence as you spoke it? Gone to the shop for milk and come back with tinned sardines, a bag of frozen peas, three types of cheese, and no milk?

Having ADHD is an infuriating series of those events which, added together, can lead to serious problems in a person’s work and personal life.

One of those problems is a stymying of creative work.

This is a controversial statement in some circles, as ADHD relates to creativity in many ways. Rapid-fire connections spawn ideas and out-of-the-box thinking in a way many find enviable.

But while my brain has always rattled out 3,000 ideas a minute, most of the good ones evaporated before I could do anything about them. Even when I sat down to a writing project I was excited about, I would forget what I was thinking halfway through a sentence or look up the etymology of a word only to fall into the Wikipedia abyss.

Medication

With my diagnosis came a prescription for Elvanse (Vyvanse, for those in the States). The stimulant, which has an unintuitively calming effect on people with ADHD, was a revelation.

I could sit down and write for hours at a time without wanting to bounce my forehead off the screen. I could keep track of if-this-then-that problems. I could pay attention when someone explained something!

But while my meds have been a great help, they’re not a magical fix. I’ve had to continue evolving my coping strategies. They’re numerous and frequently tweaked. Even so, I still stumble (this article, for example, will hit the inbox of the graciously patient Nicole Dieker a day past deadline).

The parts of my work life that I’ve shared have been received with a sort of horrified interest — and, from many self-employed creatives, a request for details.

Tracking is only one part of my coping strategy, but it is the most relevant to the general population. So, I hope that this is useful both for those of you with ADHD, and those without.

Keeping track

One of the persistent lies I tell myself is “I will remember this”. That might be a task, a password, a birthday, the time it took me to do something, where I put my glasses… you get the picture.

I’ve recognised this flaw since my diagnosis and have started tackling it the only way I can — by taking all that stuff out of my mind and sticking it into spreadsheets, lists and notebooks. This has proved invaluable.

Time tracking

I never liked the idea of time tracking. It seemed micro-managey and unnecessary; not to mention guilt-inducing.

My, ahem, particular style of working includes hours-long diversions and rabbit holes of tangentially related research. It comes together in the end, usually, but it doesn’t look pretty on paper.

My last editor insisted on it, though, and I came to see things his way.

Time tracking, from his point of view, wasn’t to keep tabs on the staff. Rather, it was to get an accurate picture of how long certain tasks took.

This was vital on a magazine, and it’s proved just as important to freelancing.

Guesswork is deadly to deadlines. Humans display a touching but unfortunate tendency towards optimism when it comes to time.

We go by how long we think a task should take, rather than how long it took last time.

Last time, we reason, we had that Dropbox disaster to deal with; and then Windows started updating halfway through the sync. Plus, we’ve learned how to streamline the workflow. This time, our task should take half as long.

Bollocks will it.

If issues arose last time — be they tech, tardy contributors or natural disasters — they can happen again. You should assume they will.

By looking back on the past (say) ten repetitions of our task, we can make an educated, data-based estimation of the hours it will take next time.

An added benefit of time tracking is the slap in the face. Seeing your time spent on billable work vs time spent faffing about with website tweaks, admin and “short breaks” — all in trackable, trendable, analysable units — can be alarming.

Don’t beat yourself up over the results, though. Just look for ways to change the trend (see “problem solving”, below).

I don’t use any app for time tracking (although I’m very happy to receive suggestions). I have a colour-coded spreadsheet, which I use to mark half-hour slots. Any less is unhelpfully granular; any more ends up being vague. Your mileage may vary, but I highly recommend staying away from units of less than 15 minutes.

Output tracking

I like to charge per word written/edited, or per job. It stops the awkward conversations with clients that begin, “This should only take you a couple of hours, right?”

However, I’ve always found it easier to visualise earnings by the hour. I’m contrary like that…

So, I designed a couple of trackers on Google Sheets. Different tasks take different amounts of time and effort, so I wouldn’t recommend keeping everything on one sheet — especially if you offer several services (e.g. writing, line editing, and proofreading).

Input for each sheet:

  • Price charged for job/milestone/1,000 words
  • Target wordcount

Input for each session:

  • Date
  • Start/finish time
  • Start/finish wordcount

Output:

  • Words written/edited
  • Minutes spent writing/editing
  • Words per hour
    • Per session
    • Average for job
  • Hourly rate
  • Words until target
  • Estimated hours needed to reach target

You can see mine here, but I recommend tweaking it substantially to suit your own work.

Earnings tracking

Urgh. I hate this bit. But it spirals out of control very quickly if you ignore it.

For all matters taxation, I suggest investing in accounting software, even if you’re running a very small operation (Freshbooks is my favourite, but there are merits to all the main players). If you can afford it, I suggest investing in an actual accountant on top of that.

But for your everyday “what am I earning” tracking, a little spreadsheet again does the trick. Mine has a new page for each week, five columns and a tally for:

  • Hours worked
  • Billable hours worked, and on which job
  • Money earned per hour worked
  • Average hourly rate
  • Total earned weekly

If things start looking ropey (e.g. my hourly wage is appalling, or I’m working 14 hours a day), I can cross-reference with my time tracking sheet and try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

As well as this, I keep an easily checked sheet of how much I’ve paid into the joint account (for rent and bills) and how much I’ve paid down my credit card (which I now do not spend on, under any circumstance!).

Habit/life tracking

This is less essential than the other three categories, but far more interesting.

I started tracking various health and mood metrics when I was given ADHD medication. My heartrate, weight, food intake, sleep, and med efficacy all interacted in a way that tickled my fascination and hypochondria.

For instance, the tracking helped me to realise that my medication works far better if taken after a breakfast high in protein and fat. Apparently, that’s not the case for everyone, so my tracking gave me insight I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

I’ve since added a few more trends to keep an eye on:

  • Weather (Sunny/Rainy/Overcast; Cold/Warm/Hot): I get up earlier (and thus achieve more) when it’s sunny; I end up doing more deep, problem-solving work when it’s rainy; and I’m bloody miserable when it’s cold
  • Exercise (Yes/No): Yoga, more specifically. It’s one of the few activities that quiets my internal chatter, and it seems to have a positive effect on my work
  • Productivity (1-5): Not easy to track objectively, so I give myself a score out of five each day
  • Mood (1-5): Ditto
  • Dog (Home/Not Home): The dog goes to work with my husband three days a week. Unsurprisingly, having her here decreases my productivity
  • Socialised (Yes/No): See ‘isolation’, below
  • Cycle (various): I use Clue to track menstrual/hormonal stuff. This is particularly important for women with ADHD, as our cycles affect how well our meds work

For this type of tracking, I do have a favourite app: Exist. You can make custom tags, which is invaluable for strange-living creative sorts. It also works out correlations and trends.

Conclusion

As you can imagine, all of this gets a bit tedious once you’re past the fun setting-up-spreadsheets part (well, it’s fun for me).

Unfortunately, I don’t have a fix for that — being your own boss means you’re in charge of your hours and creative direction, but it does mean that you’re also in charge of all the rubbish stuff that your old boss did. Like, for instance, shouting at you about deadlines and productivity. (Note to self: do not shout about your deadlines. It upsets the dog.)

It’s not for everyone. It might not be for me forever. I can see myself heading back into more structured jobs one day.

But for now, as I finally learn how to work well, it’s the perfect environment.

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.