The Happiness Advantage – Don’t set a goal without it!

Last month we explored the topic of happiness, and how we can regain the joy of writing we felt when we first started writing. We can boost happiness by establishing a few simple daily habits--very important, because we can think best when we’re happy. Because we naturally store negative events in a deeper, more permanent way than positive experiences, there is a dismaying propensity to embed the negative ones. We can overcome that by investing extra effort to focus on our good experiences.

Are you happy? How do you feel right now? Anxious, worried, with the ol’ inner voice whining and complaining?

Shawn Achor, head of Goodthink and author of The Happiness Advantage, talks about how we have been fed the life formula of “Success First, Happiness Second.” If we can just get published, we’ll be happy. If we can just get a higher advance we’ll be happy. If we can just win the Golden Heart or the (fill in the blank Award), we’ll be happy. If we can just lose twenty pounds, we’ll be happy.

It’s a formula that doesn’t work, because as we achieve one thing, we set the bar higher and keep chasing that next goal. The formula keeps repeating in our heads, eroding that delicate happiness state for which we worked so hard.

Achor says we’ve got it all backwards. We should not be gaining success to be happy; we should find happiness, which will help us to succeed. Happiness and optimism, she says, is what fuels the success! Positive brains are more motivated, efficient, and creative. Achor quotes John Milton from Paradise Lost: “The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Think of that. Your mind is beautiful. Powerful. Are we focusing on the joy and rewards of writing, or are we hung up on the difficulties, the competition, the stress, or lack of appropriate rewards?

* * * * * * *
“The Mind is its own place,
and in itself can make a heaven of hell,
a hell of heaven.”

* * * * * * *

Don’t worry, be happy. And how do we get there? And stay there? We needn’t become non-stop zombie smile fanatics, but think of the boost we get from talking to an optimistic, happy person. Like some giant, woot-woot magnet, that type of person attracts people, and their happiness is contagious. Short of hiring a talented clown as a full-time body guard, though, how do we “get” and “stay” happy?

In a Denver Post interview with Achor, he gives some suggestions. If you’ve read something similar before and forgotten it after you walked away from the magazine or newspaper, don’t walk away now. Read these tips. Re-read them, and think about how you can integrate some of these behaviors and methods, so you can be happy, and then be successful.

Three Acts of Gratitude. Just two minutes a day, write down three new things for which you’re grateful. Do it for 21 days. The frequency and repetition are powerful because you’re training your brain and, in doing so, will begin to see the world with fresh, happiness-inspiring eyes. Achor warns about generalities, because they don’t work. Rather than “My health,” my kids, my home,” etc., be specific: “I’m grateful for my daughter because she called to ask my opinion. What I think matters to her.” Or, “I’m grateful because I was alert and caught the fine print in that contract, before I signed it.”

The Doubler. Again, for two minutes a day, think of one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours. You’re a writer, so I know you can provide details about it. This can double the most meaningful experience in your brain. Doing it for 21 days will help your brain connect the dots, and you will begin to see and feel the meaning that runs through your life.

The Fun Fifteen. 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day is, Achor says, the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant. With successful completion of just 15 minutes, your brain records a victory, which carries over into your next activity.

Breathe. For two minutes become conscious of your breath going in and out. Fill your lungs, be aware. This has been proven to raise accuracy rates and increase levels of happiness. And drops stress levels.

Happiness, Achor says, is a huge advantage in our lives. When the human brain is positive our intelligence rises. We stop diverting resources to think about anxiety.

Our creativity triples.

More next month. I’ll be asking you if you tried the Three Acts of Gratitude, the Fun Fifteen, and the Breathing. Give it a try, and let’s meet again next month and compare notes.

My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.

That Fleeting Magic

By Colleen Oakes


It happened last night, in the middle of a long day of writing, editing and brain-storming.  My writing buddy  and I had hunkered down for a five hour session of hammering out the problems in our respective novels. Seriously, it's such a perfect working relationship that it's a little scary.  This is how we do it: first, the good - then, the bad, which takes about five times longer than the good.  Peter's voice needs work. Damien needs feelings.  Comments range from "I LITERALLY hate your mountain range" to "I don't like or respect sexy aliens" Back and forth and back and forth it went.

At the end of our session, I was struggling with the ending of my current novel. It's a very complicated climax, with a lot of specific plot devices that have to happen just at the right time, in the right order and getting that order just right is terribly tripping me up at the moment.  I'm nowhere near the end, but I need to have my ducks in a row to proceed from this point on. I've arrived at a place in the story where I need to know origin stories - and the endgame.

So, we were at Udi's eating delicious pizza and humus when it happened.  At that point we had spent about 5 hours dissecting and editing and I was running over the plot for my novel out loud, in my head, and chasing down every thread that occurred.  To me sometimes, the best way to figure out where a story is going is just to push it down every possible dark alleyway and see what comes out. I was missing something from the climax.  I knew that something KEY was missing.  So we were running over scenarios, one by one and then I had it. A sliver of an idea.  A tiny sliver, a slip of a thing, a whisper of something big.

We discussed it.  Then, our voices rose, and started overlapping. We followed the string into the dark alley and kept following it. We started getting excited and then, we were yelling and high fiving and I'm pretty sure the table behind us thought we were totally drunk seeing how we were talking magic and pirates and musical instruments.

It was a moment, just a moment of pure creation.

Afterwards, even on the drive home as I recapped it minute by minute to my VERY lucky husband, I was still buzzing, my skin feeling like it was on fire, my brain alive and awake and flooded with adrenaline.  When you write with that kind of inspirational heat that is as rare as an eclipse, the story flows out of you like water, the best kind of drowning.

Sometimes people ask me why I write.  Most of the time, it's because I like sipping on a hot beverage and simultaneously trying not to bang my head against a keyboard. But when it's magic like this, it's a job that is so much more than a job. It's creating a living and breathing thing that can surprise, delight and frustrate you.  Honestly, it's a lot like parenting.

And when that inspirational lightning strikes, and your story falls into place like an elaborate puzzle, it's one of the best moments that a writer can have.

It might only happen once or twice a book, but when it does, it's pure, unfiltered ecstasy.


Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person's creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.

Keep Your Eyes Open

By Yvonne Montgomery

Yvonne MontgomeryAs I draw near the end of my current project, A Signal Shown, Book Two of the Wisdom Court series, I’ve reached one of my favorite phases of writing a novel, what I call the Gifts from the Universe stage.

All writers are scavengers, gratefully and greedily snatching what we can find to flesh out the narrative. We eavesdrop on conversations and watch interactions among strangers, squirreling away precious bits and pieces to adorn our stories. Everything is grist for the mill, and someday that episode will find its place in a story, said Louis L’Amour. The man knew writing—and writers.

What I’m talking about is a little different. When you’ve been eating and breathing your work in progress, you come to a state of hyper-awareness. Perhaps it’s an inevitable tip into creative madness, maybe just a turn of the kaleidoscope making everything you encounter take on the characteristics of your particular focus. I prefer the idea of a generous, creative force presenting me with extra elements of completion for my manuscript.

One pre-dawn morning this week I was lying in bed and I saw a small triangle of light overhead. As I watched, the light skimmed across the ceiling and disappeared. Undoubtedly it was a stray shaft of light from a car driving through the alley.

But my novel is about a haunted place where strange happenings are eroding the comfort of its residents. The light floating along the surface of the ceiling set off my imagining another room where the moving glow was a sign of an eerie presence. The scene I wrote later in the day informed the chapter I was working on, and it had a little extra chill to it because of what I’d seen and felt that morning.

As I’ve mentioned my work lately, some people have generously related shivery anecdotes of otherworldly events I’ve found both evocative and worth stealing. (Of course I always ask their permission.) I’ve stumbled across reminders of ideas I’d forgotten, resurfacing now when I need them the most. A few weeks ago my grandchildren badgered me into watching a kid-TV show with them, and an element of its story let me see how a point-of-view shift in my narrative would enrich one major character. Pure gift.

We RMFW members are well aware of the creative community resulting from interaction with fellow writers, from attending critique groups, from combining our energies in conferences and educational programs. With each novel I’ve written, be it mystery, saga, or metaphysical thriller, I’ve had the additional, lovely experience of being a part of a realm in which those inspiring energies surround me. Whether generated in my fevered mind, lobbed my way by benign writing partners in the ether, or as a result of the overwhelming desire to be done with this book, I take great pleasure in these Gifts from the Universe. Their appearance truly means I’m nearly at the end of telling myself this tale. Before long the fervor of its creation will subside and I’ll be looking for another story to write.

Keep your eyes (and ears and minds and hearts) open to the creative gifts available to us as writers. They’re all grist for the mill.


Montgomery_Scavanger Hunt Yvonne Montgomery lives in an old three-story house in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill. Its nooks and crannies and odd noises in the middle of the night have inspired her latest works, Edge of the Shadow and A Signal Shown, Books One and Two of the Wisdom Court series, to be e-published in early 2014. Her e-books are widely available, including at Amazon, B&N Nook, iBooks, Kobo.

Yvonne is the author of two mysteries, Scavenger Hunt (aka Scavengers) and Obstacle Course, and co-author of Bridey’s Mountain, a Colorado saga awarded the Colorado Authors League Top Hand Award for Best Book Length Fiction of 1993.

For more information, please visit Yvonne's website, Writer in the Garret. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.