In this seventh episode of The Mindful Writer, I chat with Ellen Jayne, about the challenge some writers experience in finding time to write and how she learnt to overcome writer’s block.
Before I introduce you, let me update you on my writing journey. I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Norfolk where we stayed in a woodland retreat. The weather was perfect, warm, but surrounded by trees we had plenty of shade. I sat on the porch of our lodge reading and planning my next novel. Wrestling an idea into a cohesive plot can be frustrating until it all comes together and then joy.
I am still at the stage of feeling frustrated. I have to remind myself that this is part of the process. I had several false starts to The Forever Cruise and was on the verge of giving up on the idea altogether. Fortunately, a writer friend listened to my fragmented thoughts over a leisurely lunch last summer. After talking the story through with her I returned home and scribbled down the outline in 35 chapters – a line for each. Sometimes you just need to talk it out. Another writer friend who works in computer programming calls this rubber ducking. I much preferred talking to my warm, and generous friend than a rubber duck but apparently, that can work too. Evidently time for another lunch.
We all experience vexation at some point in the writing process, whether it is finding an idea that excites us, plotting and planning, feeling stuck midway, or that chapter that just won’t flow. This is the topic of our conversation this week as Ellen Jayne shares her experience. So, let me introduce you.
In this chat with Ellen Jayne, poet and blogger, we share:
Five ways to be more productive
And some helpful resources.
You can listen to the podcast here:
or read the transcript below:
Deborah: I’m delighted to welcome Ellen Jayne to the mindful writer podcast, because I have been following a blog Pointless Overthinking of which Ellen is the co- CEO. It’s an excellent blog, and I shall put a link in the notes so you too, can read it. It’s a community of thinkers and writers about understanding the world we live in. It’s a really inspiring blog, and it’s got over 27,000 subscribers. Ellen is also a poet, and you can find her poems on Poems and Prose blog as well. So, lots to share with us. I am delighted to welcome you, Ellen.
Ellen: Thank you for having me.
Deborah: So, my first question is, how did you come to be part of Pointless Overthinking? And tell us a bit more about it?
Ellen: Yeah, sure. So, I came to be part of Pointless Overthinking at a time, when I wanted to start a new chapter in my life. I wanted to use my free time for more fulfilling purposes, rather than just browsing through social media. So, at this point, I had a blog for a few years prior; I started it when I was studying abroad in London, and then kept it when I moved to Spain then and Italy. I had just moved back from Italy. And I’m wanting to prioritise things that were going to help me achieve my next big goals in life. And part of that was making more meaningful interactions on my blog.
So actually, the first day of this practice, I commented on my now co CEOs, posts, and he answered something like, ‘Thank you for your response, I can see that you’re a very critical thinker by nature, and we’re looking for more writers. So if you’re interested in joining our team, please feel free to email me.’ So, I was. I guess I’ll just explain a bit, when I say more of a meaningful interaction, I mean, something that is more than just ‘oh, great job on this post. I really liked what you wrote, but really taking the time to get my thoughts out there and give some great feedback and just more connections like that. I was really excited to find a connection in the first day that I started this practice. So, from there, I sent in three articles that I wanted to be posted on our blog of Pointless Overthinking. And if the readership took well to them, then I would be able to join the team. So thankfully, our readers were very welcoming to me. I sent over three articles that were called, I’ve studied abroad three times, and I’ve learned nothing. And then also American students abroad: Culturally savvy or road to tragedy? and then The unattainable open mind. So, yes, the readership took very well to them, and I joined the team got my own credentials, and the rest is history.
So, I’ve been co-managing the blog with my colleague, Troy Hedrick, and we have a team of 13 talented writers. A lot of us live lives as professors, pilots, playwrights, life coaches, and we come from all over the world, including Hong Kong, Kenya, Turkey, and the list goes on. So really grateful to be a writer alongside such inspirational and intelligent, open-minded people. We have meetings a couple of times a year. And it’s just great to have gotten to know them. And we’re all truly here to connect with our readers and make this world a little bit less of a lonely place.
Deborah: Absolutely inspiring. It’s an amazing project, I was so pleased to have discovered it, as you say, the team of writers are excellent. And they’re all very different in their approaches.
Ellen: A lot of us have different topics and philosophy, and different life lessons. Those seem to be pretty heavy topics on our blog. But I know the main thing that we all love is being able to connect with our readers. I have quite literally been in tears many times, just from some of the comments from my readers, and it really is fulfilling to me and helps me feel like I’m working towards my purpose here in this life. And I’ve just been so grateful to have been a part of it.
Deborah: Fantastic. The blogs that I read that have been by you are very much about the about writing practice, you wrote one on, There’s no such thing as writer’s block, which is something that I know listeners, fellow writers will identify with. Some people experience it but you say, There’s no such thing. Can you explain a bit about that blog? And why you say there’s no such thing?
Ellen: Yeah, sure. So, I guess a few months ago, I would have disagreed with the title of the post, I thought I suffered pretty bad, or a lot, from writers’ block, like many others, I’m sure can relate. But after reading Seth Godin book it’s called The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, it really changed my perspective. So, writer’s block is something that I’ve personally described as the metaphysical Muse that causes us to create out of the blue. It’s a fantastic feeling. It’s when you start creating, and you keep on creating, start writing, you don’t stop writing right until midnight until you’re low on sleep for the next day. But it’s worth it because you are full of words and ideas. But unfortunately, those involuntary instances of inspiration have been far too few to be a professional writer. So historically, I have put off writing until I’m in the right mindset, until I have an evening with no plans, until I finished everything I needed for the day. And especially until I feel like I have an idea that’s good enough. So, you can see the dilemma. professional writers can’t wait all that time to be inspired, you have to get work out and you have to create. You can’t always wait for the Muse, you don’t have the time.
So, something that I’ve practised is that I write every single day, no matter what – for the past four years. It’s really been part of my subconscious. And it’s not necessarily that I’m sitting there and busting out articles, full articles or full poems, but I am always writing different ideas that I have throughout the day. Sometimes I’ll hear a different word, either in conversation or from a book I’ve read and I’ll just write that word down, because I feel some sort of inspiration from that one single word. So, I’ll jot it down in my notes, and either on my phone or on my laptop, and then I’ll come back to it at a later time. I have a 30-page working document of poetry lines on my laptop. And I also have just notes, and notes on my mobile phone.
Another routine that I have, that I try to do weekly – I am fortunate enough to have a great environment here in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have the mountains, and nature has always been very inspiring for me. It’s inspired the movement of romanticism from the poet’s Wordsworth and Keating, back in northern England, which I’m sure you’re aware of in the Lake District. They were all very inspired by nature. And I feel the same inspiration from nature. So, one of the things I really love to do is go on a hike, a solo hike by myself, and I’ll take a good book and my journal up there as well. So, I’ll start by reading and get some inspiration. And then I’ll go into writing and I always feel like I have the best ideas up there. The best words and lines of poetry, and ideas for articles, and for my novel, come to fruition while I’m sitting up there all alone surrounded by so much beauty.
Deborah: I didn’t know that you also wrote a novel, – you’re writing a novel.
Ellen: Yes, it’s just been in the background for a few years, but my priority is my poetry collection, and then the articles on my blog. So that will be on the backburner for now.
Deborah: Excellent. I agree with you about getting out into nature to help stimulate creativity. I live by the sea, and I go for a walk by the sea pretty much every day that, like you, are where I get lots of my inspiration. I think when you’re calm and you’re relaxed, that’s when the ideas come. Stephen King says ‘the boys in the basement doing their work’ – working through your plots and ideas, even when you’re not aware of it. And when you’re relaxing, they come to the fore.
Ellen: Exactly. I think that’s why so many people love nature. And also, you get so many ideas when you’re able to relax and not think about the next thing that you have to do during the day.
Deborah: I too try and write every day. When I’m writing a novel, I have to write every day to keep myself in the plot. And I’m so eaten up with telling the story I have to write every day for myself. I can’t not write. But you wrote another blog about Should you force yourself to write? So, let me ask you about that. Do you think there are times when we should break from writing? Or should we make ourselves sit down every day regardless?
Ellen: I think that is a great question. And I think the word that I have an issue within that question is forcing yourself. I don’t think that you should ever force yourself to write because I think more so the most important part is to have a healthy relationship with writing. But I do think it’s very important to create on a scheduled basis, and if you can to write every day. So, if I had to answer I would say No, you shouldn’t force yourself to write but you should write every day. Forcing yourself to write seems a bit too draconian for me. And you need to have good writing habits to be a writer. I think you should make it a daily habit. And maybe if it’s not the next thing you do, maybe take some time and decompress, do something that refills your cup. For example, you can do a monkey mind journal where you just write whatever’s on your mind, then maybe some ideas will come to fruition in what you are actually looking to write about. But I would like to share a quote from one of my favourite writers about this topic. He’s actually a poet from Portugal and South Africa. So, he says,
We may think the book that we will write will be bad. But even worse will be the one we put off writing. At least the book that has been written exists.Fernando Pessoa.
Deborah: Absolutely. That’s a good one. I always say when you’re writing the first draft, it’s just you telling yourself the story. You just need to get your story down. And writing is all about rewriting anyway. But what would you say to listeners who are struggling to find the time to write perhaps they’ve got a story they want to write, they want to be a writer, but they think ‘I haven’t got the time’ – they’ve got a young family, they’re working full time? They just can’t find it. They’re not seeing it as a priority. How do you find the time when you’ve got a very busy life with lots of demands on you?
Ellen: Yeah, that is a great question. If you have a busy life, I think one of the main things is finding some free time to write and trying to make it a daily habit, whether that’s sitting down for longer chunks of time and just mapping out your story and where you want to go. And then maybe for five minutes a day, you can just touch on it and revise it a little more and more each day. But I think it’s important to have that writer’s mind and be able to work on it each day and make it a priority because it is something that’s important to you, and it is important for you to get your story out there.
Deborah: Absolutely. I think, especially – and this sounds a bit of a sexist thing -but I think especially with women, because many of us are carers, whether we’re caring for older parents or for children, babies. We often put everyone else’s needs before our own.
I’ve spoken to women who’ve said, ‘I don’t think my husband would like it if I disappeared to write.’ Or ‘My family would think, you know, I’d feel selfish if I shut the door and ignored them for a time to write.’ And I think you’re absolutely right. If you’ve got it in your heart, something you want to do, you should be true to yourself, and you should find time and you should honour your wish and your dream and make that time. You will be a better person, a better family member, a better wife, a better mother. You’ll be able to care and love those around you better when you’ve loved yourself and honoured what’s in your heart – to fulfil that wish.
But actually, finding the time you need, not everybody has the luxury of having an hour or two to set aside. But I’ve had times when it has been a challenge. My father died last year, he had dementia, but I was the main carer for him. And I was working and I was writing. I went through a period where I was so stretched with all the things I was doing that I found little moments to write. So instead of having a two-hour slot, I would have 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there, it would be anywhere and everywhere. I would find a little slot to write. And it’s amazing with the 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there, how much that writing adds up to over the course of a week. But I think the first thing is recognising – if this is important to you – to do it. You know, to self-care and to follow that through. You can always find a bit of time.
Ellen: I think that’s a brilliant idea. It’s definitely something I wanted to bring up as well, because it’s very true, we don’t have two hours every day. I’d be lucky if I found two hours on the weekend days. But I think you have a brilliant point with finding the time and the 20 minutes here and maybe 15 minutes there. I think one of the struggles with that is you might have a hard time getting into the zone of writing into the, you know, mindset of writing. Because writing has always seemed to me to be a bit different than my logical practical, day to day self. I kind of like to be more relaxed. And one of the things that has helped me get into the writing zone faster, to make more use of those 15 or 20 minutes, is doing some grounding practices. They can be meditative practices, or anything that really helps you be in the moment. Working with your senses is something that always helps ground you. And for example, something that pertains a little bit more to writing for me is I will sit in the moment, and I’ll think of five different adjectives that describe the environment around me. And they can be anything. I’m not looking for brilliant words, or great adjectives. I’m just looking for any words that come to mind, no judgement. And I’ll just jot those down. I’ll be more in tune with the environment around me. Sometimes I’ll describe all the unique colours that I see, I’ll go through the rainbow of colours. So, for example, I’ll see a red glass over there, or an orange towel over there. And that is something that helps me feel grounded sooner, and then I can start writing sooner so I can make more use of that time.
Deborah: Excellent. It’s letting all of that noise in your head – all the must do’s, should do’s out – so, that you can then go into your inner self, which is where the writing comes from.
Deborah: I heard some good advice; I’ve forgotten where from but it’s stuck with me. So, I’ll share it anyway. And that was when you’re sitting at the computer, perhaps you’re writing something and you just cannot find the right words to say, it just doesn’t feel right. The advice I was given was, ‘That’s because you don’t actually know what you want to write yet.’ You think you do. You go to your computer to write a blog or you’re writing a chapter and it’s just not coming out, right? You haven’t done enough reflection to really understand and get underneath what it is you really want to say. So, stepping back from the physical writing to really tune in and understand and explore what you want to say is another way – then to come back to your keyboard and flow through.
Ellen: Yes, I love that. I think that’s a great idea to just pause for a moment and think about what you really want to say maybe map it out or try to understand the final point of where you want to go – the final destination.
In terms of different tools that could be used – because I have many times been sitting at my laptop and just been stumped for words. But in terms of other tools that I use that have been very helpful for me, is always having a thesaurus open, a dictionary as well. I have Rhyme Zone, which is a website that gives you all of the different words that rhyme with a certain word. And then I also have a random word generator site open as well. And those four sites really help me open up my mind to different words, and use a greater array of vocabulary in my writing as well. And I think it helps me a lot sometimes because I’m really looking for that certain word, especially with poetry. You are limited to how many words you can use. It’s not like prose. And when I find that one – that one word that is, that just fits just right, it’s almost a euphoric feeling. And I feel extremely satisfied when I find it. And actually, that is the tagline of my poetry blog. So, the finest part about poetry is the accentuated emphasis of the individual word, the epitome of less is more.
Ellen: Thank you.
Deborah: I’ll just give a plug for another thesaurus source. I have this source open on my computer when I write – and there’s a book. The Emotional Thesaurus and The Conflict Thesaurus, both by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman.
And it means that if you were looking at anger, anxiety, affection, all the different feelings, it has all the different ways it might be described, what the physical sensations will be, what the facial expression might be. So, you don’t always have ‘she sighed,’ or ‘he shrugged his shoulders.’ We all have our favourites for describing an emotion and this gives alternative suggestions.
Ellen: Wow, that’s genius. I would love to read that.
Deborah: I will put it in the show notes. But if you Google the Emotional Thesaurus or go on Amazon, you’ll find it. Yes, it’s very good.
Ellen: That’s brilliant. I’ll look that up. Many times, I am describing a character or somebody in one of my poems, and I feel like that would be very helpful. So, thank you.
Deborah: We all have our favourite words; we keep on using the same expressions.
Ellen: Exactly. That’s why sometimes – like throughout the day, if I hear a different word that describes somebody, or in a book that I’m reading, if it’s a great character trait that I’ve seen described, that I haven’t used before, I’ll jot it down. And I think that’s another important topic to stress as well. When I started writing, I was very scared, almost I would say, to sound like a different author – sound like another author, to not sound like myself. And to seem like I was copying another writer’s style. But the truth of it is we are all an amalgamation of our experience in the environment around us and of other artists around us. There’s a book called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. And I think that topic is also very near to my heart, because we are all just the impact of the influences of the environment around us. So, if we can kind of let go of the judgement of being grouped like somebody else, I feel like we can really bloom and blossom into our own author’s voice that we want to hear.
Deborah: And trust it. Trust your voice and the story you have to tell. Because sometimes we’re so busy criticising – all that noise in our heads. You try to be different, then you start criticising yourself, ‘I’m not fitting in enough.’ ‘I’m not enough like this writer or that writer.’ But we are, as you say, we are all unique, a combination of different experiences and the things we bring from our journey. We all have our own story to tell. So, trust your story, and trust the journey.
Deborah: Thank you so much, Ellen, you’ve shared some wonderful words of wisdom. I will capture these in the show notes, along with links to anything we’ve mentioned. But I’m going to finish the show by asking you to read one of your beautiful poems. So, we’ll sign off with your poem.
Ellen: Awesome thank you for having me
Lots of great tips there. To summarise:
- Try and find a writing schedule/routine even if it’s 15 – 20 mins here and there.
- Use grounding techniques to get into the zone faster e.g. using your senses, describing what you can see, smell, and hear.
- Spend time in nature where you can relax.
- Honour what is in your heart, By making time to write you will be able to love and care for those around you better as you have first taken care of yourself.
- Be kind to yourself. Do not force yourself to write but develop a healthy relationship with writing finding time in a way that suits you without judgement.
The resources shared:
The Emotional Thesaurus, by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman.
The Conflict Thesaurus, by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman.
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.
Please get in touch to share your tips. If you too are struggling to plan your WIP maybe we can act as a rubber duck to one another!
So, until next time… look after your beautiful self and trust the journey.
You can find all episodes of The Mindful Writer podcast here: https://themindfulwriter.buzzsprout.com
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