The Writer’s Life: What happens when your writing routine stops working?

I’m home from traveling (thanks so much for joining me!) and I’m getting ready for the Colorado Flash Fiction Retreat with growing excitement. 

AND if I’m honest, I’m struggling to find my post-travel writing routine, trying to find my footing through the inevitable wobble of movement, summer, impending school schedules, and knowing whatever rhythm I manage to establish will probably have to change again as soon as the university calendar kicks in. 

Ug. Can you relate?

What happens when your old routine stops working? I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met who felt lost when their old routines stopped working. We beat ourselves up: I should have a routine. I should have a routine. Should should should: shame shame shame.

But there are three things I know about writing routines:

ONE: Writing routines ARE helpful for our creativity–that instinct to want one is valid. Our creative selves like some measure of predictability. It likes knowing you’ll be in the chair every day at 9 am, or 4 pm, and it also likes knowing you will be back in 23 hours to continue the conversation. And that consistency will also create a sense of continuity–never away from your work for more than 23 hours, your unconscious will help out in the off-time by continuing to puzzle on your ideas–so the more consistent you are, the more you will find yourself overflowing when you sit down to write each day.

TWO: The routine itself doesn’t matter, only the consistency matters. You can write in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, at night. You can write at home, in an office, on the couch, in bed. You can rent a hotel room by the month for writing, like Maya Angelou. You can do sit-ups and pushups while writing like Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve personally written entire books from 8-10 pm when everyone was in bed, others from 1-3 pm, others from 10-12 am, and even one from 4-4:30 pm every day while riding the train home from work (Going Short). Every one of these routines “worked” once the rhythm was established. 

THREE: The most important thing to remember–routines are ephemeral. A routine that worked great for a period of time WILL stop working, either organically or prompted by outside forces. Finding the right creative rhythm is a constantly changing process. My own writing rhythms are not only seasonal but also are influenced by the academic calendar, travel, kids’ schedules, holidays, workshops or retreats I might be teaching, even the amount of light! For instance: In the winter I walk first, then write–because if I’m not walking by 4 pm it will be too dark. In the summer, it’s too hot to walk until 7 pm, so I have to write first. This means I’m writing in the heat of the afternoon in summer, and in the dark evening in the winter. Very different processes!

These changes can be frustrating, especially when you’re attached to a routine, but I’ve learned to try and embrace the wobble. An important but overlooked part of establishing creative routines is going in knowing they are as ephemeral as a sunset or a shifting sand dune. As frustrating as this feels in the in-between, it can be a good thing. It can keep us shaken up in a good way.

If you are struggling with your creative routines, here are some questions to ponder:

Today, July 2022:

  • WHEN do you feel most creative?
  • WHERE do you feel most creative? In a quiet room? Out in the bustle? Etc.
  • What pockets of time are naturally available in your current day? 
  • Have you had successful routines in the past? Is it possible to mimic those? 
  • And if not, what else might you try? Think something unusual: early mornings, late afternoons, after dark, before sunrise, at the pool, on the bus…

Don’t forget that our biggest asset–our creativity–can help us reimagine and re-work our routines during these inevitable transition times, but it often takes a bit of experimentation, a bit of trial and error.

Whatever routine you decide to try, there will be an adjustment period. You may be constantly comparing yourself with the past versions of yourself. Keep showing up anyway and embrace the wobble: because once you get the perfect routine, something will shift and you will have to do it all over again. That’s just part of the messy, beautiful, creative life you signed up for.

So today, July 28, 2022, I’m writing at 8 am on my beautiful shady balcony. Two months from now, mornings on the balcony will be a much darker, much chillier affair, and 4 months from now it will be impossible. Summer mornings on the balcony are special and fleeting, so for the next month I will fully enjoy my 8 am writing on the balcony time.

Even a few weeks of a productive routine is a gift. So establish and enjoy the short-term routine that will serve you today and embrace the ever unfolding kaleidoscope that is a long-term writer’s life.

You got this!
xoxoxo Nancy

Fall Workshops Opening August 1

Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel (and Launch Your Big Idea)

August 22-Sept 2 (10 days, online asynchronous)

Early Access Registration opens August 1

Do you have a Big Story Idea brewing, but you don’t know where to begin? Is it a flash novel? Novella? Collection? A regular novel or memoir or a million other things? Sometimes not knowing can stop us from getting started. Sometimes the scope of it feels overwhelming. 

Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel is my signature course designed to help you launch your Big Idea. For 10 days we will envision, draft, collage and create the momentum for that large-scale idea you’ve been wanting to tackle. We’ll begin breaking it apart and making friends with the scope of it, and in that process of discovery you will find momentum, insight, excitement, and sometimes a total pivot–that’s okay! For 10 days we’ll get out of our own way–10 days and a flurry of words and ideas and encouragement and camaraderie–and when it’s over you will have the bones (at least) of a longer project and a much better idea of where to go next.

Whether your book is fiction or creative nonfiction, if you are drawing on the skills of flash forms–from collections to novellas in flash to flash novels–then this class will help you launch your idea into the world. Many, many flash novels and other books have been conceived, executed, and written from the seeds of this class. Maybe yours?

*Participants should have a basic understanding of flash fiction. Come with your big story idea and be prepared to shake up what you thought you knew. (This course may be taken multiple times. It is also the prerequisite/jumping off point for the Flash Novel Mastermind, a private, guided, 12-week community incubator to write yourself to the finish line of the first draft–see description below)

Full payment of $250 is required upon registration. This holds your spot, as workshops fill quickly.

Beautiful Flash Fiction II: Pop Lit and Flash Fusion (NEW)

September 5-9, 2022 (5 days, online asynchronous)

Early Access Registration opens August 1

The world is a constant and incredible source of inspiration–IF we are paying attention. In this brand new workshop we will engage with unexplored or under explored avenues of potential inspiration including pop culture, science, math, music, trends, politics, fashion and more to discover unusual angles and back doors into new ideas. We will continue previous conversations on what makes something beautiful, actively blur the distinctions between low brow and high brow art, and elevate the mundane to the miraculous. As always, come with an open mind and expect to play.

Taking a deeper dive into the concepts from Going Short, we will try a variety of approaches to the compressed narrative and you will generate your own original flash pieces. 

*This course is open to writers with all levels of experience in the form, whether you are brand new to flash fiction, a writer coming from other genres, or a veteran flasher looking for a dose of inspiration and some writing camaraderie.

You do NOT need to have taken Beautiful Flash Fiction I to participate.

Full payment of $175 is required upon registration. This holds your spot, as workshops fill quickly.

Flash Novel Mastermind: A 12-Week Guided Community Incubator

September 12-December 2

To embark on the journey of a book is to lose sight of the shore, to surrender to the story and the muse. Now imagine boarding that ship out to sea with like-minded others, colleagues on their own creative adventures but together, in community, with expert guidance and encouragement.

The Flash Novel Mastermind is a private, guided, 12-week community incubator for flash novelists and flash novels in process…a space of content, coaching, and camaraderie where we build on the momentum from Flash Flood while also finding a rhythm that will sustain us over the long haul of actually writing a book to completion.  

Whether your book is fiction or creative nonfiction, if you are drawing on the skills of flash forms–from collections to novellas in flash to flash novels–then this is the community and support you need to write yourself to the finish line of the all-important first draft–that solid and complete lump of clay that lets you discover, finally, what this story has been trying to say.

*The Flash Novel Mastermind is only open to those who have already taken Flash Flood

Waiting list opens August 1. Registration and full details available August 25

Everything is a Story: Reflections and photos from the 2022 Spanish Flash Fiction Retreat

From Nancy Stohlman:

Wow! The Spanish retreat was an incredible experience. The combination of novelty, space, time, and total immersion with other creatives, spending a week with your tribe, pushed and encouraged, detoxing from the usual distractions to enter that space of raw creativity is both deeply healing and deeply inspiring. On a retreat we remember that everything is a story waiting to happen.

writing (photo by Chelsea Stickle)

We had a wide range of amazing writers—from published to unpublished, brand new to flash all the way to flash veterans; we had a pair of friends reuniting from two different countries, a pair of sisters reconnecting in the yurts, and people representing California, Baltimore, Texas, New York City, Portugal, France, Spain, Qatar, and of course Denver, doubly represented (by Nancy and Kathy).

There was a group hammock, fiery sunsets, and (multiple!) spontaneous performances of the Grease soundtrack. There were massages and hikes in the Sierra Nevada mountains. And there were surprises of course, part of any good adventure. From the exploding chairs to the nudist beach to the historic heat wave that swept Europe during our retreat (!), all that material filtered through our bodies and onto the page. We risked both vulnerability and connection and we bonded and played and ate and wrote—a lot.

workshop (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)

And we were fed—oh yes. The food was as beautiful as it was delicious and all vegetarian. We were so inspired that we wrote a group poem (and sang a song!) to the many cooks and kitchen angels who spoiled us all week.

the food! (photo by Nancy Finston)

We were the first group of writers to visit House of Light, and they learned as much about us as we did about them—including the copious amounts of coffee and wine consumed (sangria happened!)—and we were delighted that the owners joined us for our final night reading.

Salon night (photo by Nancy Finston)

We reconnected with our writing and remembered that inspiration often comes at the crossroads between novelty and play. If we are too comfortable, or too serious, the words get stuck. After a week in Spain the words, ideas, and friendships are flowing!

I’m so grateful to my co-facilitator, Kathy, and to each one of the amazing writers who said yes to an Andalusian adventure. I raise my pen to all of you!

cheers! (photo by Nancy Finston)

From Kathy Fish:

The House of Light in Órgiva was a unique, magical space for us to gather. We were fed meals almost too beautiful to eat, we woke to birdsong, and ended our days with late sunsets bathing the hills in gold. Our group quickly gelled and became friends and encouraging cohorts. I found myself inspired by their energy and enthusiasm and all the beautiful stories they created, and cheered by the conversation and laughter at mealtimes and around the pool. The highlight for me was (as always) our salon night. The resident cats and dogs came around, too, as if they’d been invited or they were just curious about what us humans were up to. The readings that final night were superb. All in all, this retreat was an amazing experience I won’t soon forget. Thanks to everyone who took part.

workshop (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)

from Cheryl J. Fish:

From Cheryl’s blog: “Thinking about the flash fiction workshop I just experienced feels like a re-birth. So much of what I know about story was reinforced, and yet there’s much more to realize and expand into. In flash you don’t explain. Inunendo rules in fiction that comes in under 1,000 words. It’s an opportunity to prove less is more. After twice-a-day workshops and prompts with Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, and a wonderful group of writers from all over the place, I am ready to up my game in the micro and flash fiction worlds.”

the view (photo by Cheryl J. Fish)

From Philippa Bowe:

The Andalusian retreat with Nancy and Kathy was a delight from beginning to end. Workshops were enriching, enlightening, fun, creative, productive. Add in fabulous food, sunshine and company and you have an experience that, as a writer, is pretty near heaven on earth.

Writers and friends (photo by Chelsea Stickle)

From Pedro Ponce:

You will leave this retreat well-fed, rested, and, most importantly, inspired! Thank you Nancy and Kathy!

Workshop (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)

From Marina Pacheco:

I learned a great deal at the retreat. Nancy and Kathy were fantastic tutors who took me on a journey of discovery that resulted in handfuls of new flash writing for me.

writers and friends (photo by Chelsea Stickle)

From Dorothy Rice:

What a wonderful group you brought together! I had such a great time and I feel really good about the writing I accomplished as well. The stories I wrote are so different from what I usually do, and there was something very freeing in that.

writing with a view (photo by Nancy Finston)

More photos from our gallery:

Salon Night (photo by Kathy Fish)
The view (Georgiana Nelsen)
At the beach! (photo by Georgiana Nelsen)
Consultations (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)
the food (photo by Nancy Finston)
the beach (photo by Georgiana Nelsen)
Salon Night (photo by Cheryl J. Fish)
The light (Georgiana Nelsen)
food! (photo by Georgiana Nelsen)
Group Hammock (Georgiana Nelsen)
writing (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)
windows of inspiration (photo by Nancy Stohlman)
food with a view (photo by Nancy Stohlman)
Andalusian sunset (photo by Nancy Stohlman)
workshop (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)
salon night (photo by Nancy Stohlman)
Kathy and Nancy (photo by Chelsea Stickle)
Sangria and see you next time! (photo by Lizzie Woolfenden)

Next: August Flash Fiction Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado!

2023 Retreats will be announced in the fall—get on the waiting list for first access!

Help! I’m not writing: what do I do?

Help! I’m totally blocked and haven’t written a word in too long, except in my daily journal which is more morning pages right now. How do I begin again?

Thanks so much for this right-to-the-heart question. I know you speak for many writers out there. You are SO not alone.

And I’m not just saying, “High five sister, you’re not alone!” I’m saying I totally and deeply empathize, and you are in the normal albeit sucky part of the creative process. As heartbreak is to love, the fallow season is the natural yang to the high of creation. The only way to avoid it is to never create. 

So high five for being in the arena at all. Most people would rather pretend they aren’t creative than go on that insecurity roller coaster.

But yes, the “not creating” part of the process raises all our fears and leaves us shaky and off balance. That’s real. And I don’t have a magic answer, but I do have a couple of reframes and some suggestions that might make navigating this time a little easier.

First some sleuthing: Why are you in this fallow period? It didn’t happen without a reason. Sometimes if we can figure out why something is happening, it helps us have compassion and put things back into context. For me, this phase often coincides with the end of a large creative project or push. Maybe you just finished a project or you’re coming off a very prolific period? Maybe it wasn’t a creative project but one that still drew on your creative energy—the culmination of a large work or school project or event, a large purchase or remodel, or maybe even a life cycle shift—death, birth, divorce, retirement, relocation.

So if can be helpful to discover (this can happen in your journal!) a clear precursor to this non-writing period—if only to give yourself some grace and get out of the shame/blame cycle. Too often we beat ourselves up for not writing when there is actually a good reason.

BUT understanding why you are there doesn’t solve it, I get that. And here my advice is not magical either, but there is unfortunately no other way:

Eventually we have to take a baby step back into relationship with our writing. A BABY step—smaller than we think is even worth it. I often suggest journaling AS a first baby step, and you’re already doing that. Daily, even! How many stuck writers aren’t even journaling? Show of hands? My point. Journaling is a fantastic first step because we begin showing up for the regular practice of looping words into sentences and spending time inside the maze of our minds. 

Keeping baby steps as small and non-intimidating as possible is super important, so I suggest stepping up what you are already doing in your journal. You could write a letter to your writing and/or ask your writing some pointed questions. Or, to kickstart inspiration and get outer-focused again, you could spend an entire day noticing and recording the many beautiful, strange, unique things in your world. Or you could make a list of all the stories you intend to write someday–I love a good list and I find this process will very often pop a hot idea.

Outside of the journal, when I’m blocked or sluggish I like to reread favorite books. You know, THE favorite books that made you want to be a writer in the first place.

And then step away from the page and go see some art, visit a garden, listen to some music, and trust that your new ideas are coming, especially now that you have let them know you are ready.

Bottom line—don’t panic! There is nothing I trust more than the turning wheel of the creative process—fallow periods are always followed by fertile ones, summer follows spring—if you stick with it. So keep showing up and ask:

What is one tiny baby step I could take towards my writing today?
(Then take another one tomorrow.)

Wishing you overflowing creativity!

Do you have a question about flash fiction, travel, writing, the creative process, craft, the writing life…or anything else?

P.S. I’ve had SO much fun sharing my travels, writing inspiration, creative discoveries, retreat photos, food poisoning and more! I love sharing the adventures with you xo

First Stop: Spain–CHECK! (photo from Spanish Retreat Salon Night! Full retreat wrap-up with photo gallery coming soon!)
Next Stop: Bristol, England and the 4th Flash Fiction Festival!
August: Final 2022 Flash Fiction Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado!

Continue the adventures on:

Instagram and Facebook and Facebook Retreats Page 

Save the Date: Upcoming Workshops and Retreats

Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel
August 22-September 2

Going Short: Beautiful Flash Fiction Part II (NEW)
(can be taken independently of Part I)
September 5-9

(Details here. Registration for both opens August 1) 

The Flash Novel Mastermind: a 12-week incubator to get your manuscript across the finish line
September 13-December 2
(Pre-requisite: Flash Flood. Registration and all details Sept 1)

If you’re ready for some radical inspiration, a creative adventure to energize your spirit, and camaraderie with your creative community, then get on the waiting list for 2023 Retreat Early Access and announcements this fall!