6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make to Protect Creativity

6 Lifestyle Changes I'm Making to Protect My CreativityLife creates art. Life also devours art. For nearly ten years now, I have been a full-time writer, and yet it wasn’t until this past year that this truth fully came home to me and forced me to realize how important it is for committed artists to take steps to protect creativity.

As someone who notoriously attacks life in tenacious ways that inevitably end up injuring me (e.g., repetitive stress injuries in my wrists from computer work), I have always had cause to accept the idea that “the thing we love most is what kills us.” However, I’ve always skated rather tenderly around the adjoining idea that “we all kill the thing we love.”

For the last ten years, I have obsessively pursued my writing not just out of love of it, but also out of ambition. The powerful need to prove myself to myself and to others has driven me to reach my goals and to achieve success in just about every way I could ever have dreamed of. I am proud of this. I would not take back one moment of it.

But the time has come in my life when I must also face the truth that the ambition has grown beyond its purpose as a vehicle for the art and is in danger of overtaking my life.

This is, I believe, a moment almost every successful artist must eventually face.

What You Don’t Always Hear: The High Cost of Success as a Writer

Last summer was a watershed year for me, for many reasons. I experienced some things and made some choices I never saw coming. They were life-changingly difficult—in no small part because they forced me to face realities about myself, the life I have built as an artist and an entrepreneur, the successes I have gained, and the prices I have paid.

Prior to any of that, someone shared with me an “inspirational” quote along the lines of:

If you don’t get out of bed this morning and pursue your goals, you will never find success and you will never be happy.

I found myself thinking: “Yeah, but I’ve done that. I’ve been 100% committed to my goals every day of my life. I’ve gotten out of bed, I’ve pushed myself, I’ve faced my fears, and I have achieved my ideas of success. I’m a full-time writer who has won awards, sold hundreds of thousands of books, and been published in five languages.  So… why am I not happy?

It was the beginning of a year of soul-searching. Most of what I found was so frightening I had a hard time looking at it, much less admitting it. The fundamental core of it all was that my pursuit of success was this close to killing my love for the very thing that had started it all in the beginning: my art.

More than that, it was taking over my life. Anxiety and stress had been gnawing away at me for years, repressed down to deep dark corners. I would get panic flashes when I had to check email in the mornings (even though 90% of it was positive), and I would get increasingly anxious when I wasn’t able to check it every hour or so (just to make sure everything was still positive).

I was stretching myself incredibly thin: saying yes to everything from course creations to speaking engagements to editing gigs. I had started out hungry and eager; now I just felt like I was clawing to keep up.

I was feeling the pressure to write my fiction faster and leaner, to publish more often, to write genre series. To make money, money, money—even though I didn’t really need more.

Once upon a time, this kind of obsessive focus came naturally. But after ten years, the grind was wearing thin. I was burnt out, my attention span was fragmented, and I was searching for answers to questions I didn’t even want to admit I was asking. Then life hit like a train—and, with it, numbness, grief, exhaustion, emotional collapse, depression, and even more anxiety.

But also clarity.

This last year has easily been the most difficult of my life. And yet I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It forced me to finally take the time to just stop. Everything but the bare essentials (this blog, previous commitments, and my outline for Dreambreaker) screeched to a halt. I finally had the time and space to evaluate my life up to that point, where it was going, where I wanted it to go, and the steps I needed to take to get there.

6 Ways to Protect Creativity

It’s taken me a long time to write this post, for two reasons:

1. I had to go through the lessons life was teaching me and process them enough to be able to look at them objectively.

2. I had to figure out how these insights—which have been very specific to my own life, experiences, and personality—could be shared in a way that would be applicable to everyone else.

A lot of what I’m about to share is totally opposite to what you hear preached from every corner of the Internet. For example, a few weeks ago, I was searching for printables I could use as artwork in my office. One sentiment I ran into frequently was “Hustle.” A year ago, I would have snatched that up, proclaimed it to be me, and probably had it tattooed on my forehead. Now, that idea just feels… wrong.

Don't wait www.apairandasparediy.com

That said, I want to note a quick caveat: although I am about to encourage an awareness of cause-and-effect and advocate for a less ambitious mindset, I am not in any way discouraging big dreams and a strong work ethic. What I am wanting to share is a view from the other side of the fence, which I feel is not often talked about.

1. Count the Cost of Success

We all want success. We all want to be rich and famous. But few of us look at the big-name author or the Hollywood star and consider the downsides of their lifestyles. There are always downsides. As I like to say,

You never get nothin’ for nothin.’

The actions you take now to achieve a dream will change you forever. One thing I had to face was that the person I had always thought I would be was not the person my life had created. I had to grieve that person and embrace the reality: both the successes and the limitations.

At the end of the day, success brings many rewards, but it is also, always and ever, hard work. Sometimes that work is uplifting and empowering; but sometimes you let it suck you dry trying to give 110% until the day you wake up and realize you’ve given away more than you ever had to give.

Protect your life. Protect your health. Protect your relationships. Protect the art itself. Success isn’t worth any of them.

Bird by Bird by Anne LamottTrue, there’s no reason you can’t have your cake and eat it too. But that requires foresight. Don’t sacrifice the joy of the journey to the lure of the destination. It’s like Dorothy running away to emerald Oz, only to realize her heart was at home in Kansas all along. Or as Anne Lamott so forthrightly put it in Bird by Bird:

I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.

2. Embrace the “Starving Artist” Mindset

It’s the dream of every writer: make enough money off your writing so you can quit the pesky day job and stay home to write all day long. But when you turn your art into a business, the business has an insidious way of taking over. It starts slowly. You think: “Wow, if I could only write a little faster, put out a few more books a year, stay up a few more hours, fight through a little more back and wrist pain, make my readers a little happier, make a few dollars more, I’ll have made it.”

The problem is “making it” is never enough. There is always another mountain to scale, always another sacrifice to be made, always a little more money needed to put more bounce in the safety net of your life’s savings, always one more 5-star review to be earned before you’re finally a success.

It’s frighteningly easy to lose the forest for the trees. As author and artist Jennifer Garrett recently shared on Facebook:

I think I’m realizing how intense I’ve become about wanting to be productive in my work, which is not bad in and of itself, but I think there’s rarely a time when I truly do it just for myself anymore—it’s nearly always to either ultimately produce something or to learn more, and while those things are super important and I love doing them under normal circumstances, [I] realize that, even though I’ve set aside a lot of my workload in recent weeks, I am still approaching what little I am doing from a subtle mindset of “needing to accomplish something worthwhile with the time I have….”

We hear a lot about “prosperity for authors” these days. I think that’s great. Certainly, I have been blessed in many of the ways authors dream about. And yet, I now find myself returning with gusto to the idea of the “starving artist.” I am learning to divorce myself from the idea that my writing is fundamentally about earning money. I am learning to pare down my workload to only the things that are truly needed to either maintain my business or to achieve the goals that make me personally fulfilled.

One of the chief questions I had to face was: Would I rather be a starving artist or a successful businesswoman? I knew my answer, however frightening.

3. Stop Over-Achieving

Yeah, I admit it: I’m proud of being an obsessively organized, focused, will-powered, workaholic over-achiever. Granted, part of that is just my personality. I always loved Noel Coward’s joke that:

Work is more fun than fun.

People often ask me: “How do you do it all?” The truth is simple: no life outside work. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked, “So do you have any hobbies?” and my only answer is, “Umm…”

It’s true this kind of drive will get you places. Success absolutely requires dedication, concentration, and sacrifices. There’s a time and a place for it. But man cannot live on gasoline alone.

Overachievement—in itself—really isn’t something to be lauded. It’s an extreme, not a balance. As such, it cannot be maintained ad infinitum without major consequences.

Don’t be an overachiever. It’s kind of like being a bull rider: they look cool from afar, but they spend their lives hobbling from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment and then right back to the arena. Instead, seek balance. Choose reasonable goals and reasonable timelines and work at your own pace and in your own way. Don’t feel pressured to meet other people’s unreasonable standards.

4. Live in Your Season

One thing about living at your computer in an obsessive fog is that you don’t always notice the change of the seasons. I mean this both metaphorically and literally. Last year was the first year in maybe forever when I actually watched the seasons change. I look back on it and what I see in my mind’s eye are the vivid greens of summer, the falling gold of autumn, and the peaceful white of winter. That year, despite its struggles, is beautiful to me in ways I’ve never really experienced before.

When asked about how I’ve maintained the workload and the pace I have for the past ten years, I’ve often joked about “willpower, old boy, willpower!” But the problem with this is that it forces you into a place of tunnel vision in which you are repressing your own needs and emotions. You’re not flowing with life; you’re just stuffing it away.

I am now learning to stop focusing so relentlessly on the goal, and instead to look around me, to remain aware of the moment, grounded in my body, and attentive to my emotional needs as they’re happening. For example, so far this year, I have read only 37 books. For someone who has read over 150 books in past years, this is a shockingly low number (it puts me on pace to read just 49) . But this year, instead of sticking to a religious schedule of reading at certain times of the day, I have instead tried to listen to what my body and my emotional state really want. I made a list of things I enjoy doing and which I can do help me relax and enjoy life when reading just isn’t doing it for me:

  • Go for a walk
  • Watch a movie
  • Sit or lie down quietly
  • Nap
  • Take a bath or shower
  • Color in an adult coloring book
  • Surf the Internet
  • Go shopping
  • Go for a drive
  • Go out for coffee
  • Eat
  • Clean the house
  • Cook
  • Talk
  • Sing

I am slowly growing better at listening to myself, and, slowly, it is helping me return to a more balanced and in-tune way of living.

5. Cut Back on “Fake Life”

Can’t live with the Internet and can’t live without it.

This is especially true for authors these days. We sell our books on the Internet, we manage our publicity (via our websites and blogs) on the Internet, and we attract and interact with our readers on the Internet.

And yet, the Internet is, I believe, one of the single most destructive forces in our lives. For all its good, it also destroys our attention spans, distracts us from meaningful activities and real-life interactions, and increases stress.

My sister talks about how her “mommy brain” never shuts off until her two toddlers are asleep. It’s the same for me and the Internet. I am never at more peace than the moment when I shut down the computer for the day. When I can’t access the Internet, I am calm. The moment I know I can access it, the back of my brain starts nagging at me to check email or to make sure my website hasn’t somehow imploded on itself during my brief absence.

George Saunders commented on how writing a book allows him to access a “higher version of myself” in ways that interacting with social media does not. He said:

I just noticed the difference in how my mind was working in these two different modes…. how much more anxious and hopeless and less generous I am in [interacting with cable news and social media]. The energy is more antagonistic and defensive.

With every passing year, I make a stronger commitment to toning out the Internet’s static. I used to start my day by looking at news headlines on MSN. No more. I have shut out the mainstream media more and more adamantly every year, and I have never once regretted this. Do I feel uninformed? Absolutely not. If anything, I feel more centered and able to take responsibility for my own beliefs and choices about the social events that actually impact my life.

I am also trying to figure out the balance of maintaining a social media presence without letting it take over my life. I have large followings on both Facebook and Twitter, which is awesome. But it also means interacting on these sites could easily consume my entire day. They epitomize “Internet brain,” with their rapid-fire notifications and short status updates. The second I open Facebook in a new tab, I can almost hear that same bustle you hear in a major airport.

I haven’t found a perfect balance with this yet. I’m still committed to maintaining my social-media presence, because I still believe it’s important to what I do. But because it is also one of the biggest stress triggers for me, I’m committed to giving it a “back burner” place in my life where it can’t claim the majority of my daily focus.

6. Stop Writing

Whaaatt??? Stop writing? But isn’t the whole point to get back to the writing?

For me, yes, it definitely was. But sometimes that means stepping away. My writing is still every bit as much a priority for me. Indeed, I have focused on making the fiction more of a priority. But I have also learned to relax a little.

For all that we preach about “treating writing like a job” and “writing even when it’s hard,” writing should be, first and foremost, a pursuit of joy. If I’m not enjoying the writing on a consistent basis, then something is wrong. This gives me more space to let my writing nurture my life, rather than sacrificing my life to my writing schedule.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my current WIP has been the best writing experience of my life to date. I’m writing slower, I’m not beating myself up when I’m too distracted or stressed to write—and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

I’m looking beyond my writing. It is no longer the be-all-end-all of my life. I am seeing life itself and looking for ways to experience it more deeply and authentically, and I am trusting that my writing can only benefit as a result.

***

Perhaps the greatest insight I have been given through my recent experiences is that “striving” (aka working like an obsessed hamster) and “surrender” (aka embracing the beautiful order of life’s chaos) cannot live simultaneously. Indeed, they are explicitly antithetical.

The old vision of success served me well enough in the past, however short-sighted it may have been. But it is time to set that old vision aside. My new vision of success looks a whole lot more like living in harmony with the life God has given me, rather than trying to conquer it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever feel like you have to protect creativity? What do you do? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Awesome post. Good to know you are taking time to live your own story.

  2. Rebecca Hill says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. I think this is a problem in working life generally, not just writing full time. The ability to take stock of where you are and what you’ve achieved is incredibly hard, and it’s too tempting to focus on the next step, the next goal, and feel anxious that you haven’t achieved it yet.

    It’s so important to pause and appreciate what you have. That certainly doesn’t come naturally to me – i’m driven by self-critique which makes me strive to always do better, but that’s at the expense of self-acceptance. It feels conceited to tell yourself ‘good job’ when you achieve a goal so your mind immediately re-focuses on the next one.

    Writing is my hobby, and my mental escape from a stressful legal career. People probably see me as at the top of my game – I probably am, but because i never take a moment, i’m never happy but i always move the goalposts! I guess i just wanted to say your post applies to every kind of job – employed, self-employed, whatever.

    I think it’s really important to evaluate life to see what’s important, and to compartmentalise. I try to live life with non-negotiables, like time with my husband, which i will always give the highest priority. It stops things from running away too far from you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think it is so hard for most of us to live in the present. We’re always moving forward, projecting into the future–and usually worrying about it. It’s almost cliche but no less true for that: the present moment is all we have, and we waste it in obsessing about the future.

  3. I appreciate your transparency. I started feeling pretty burnt out in my writing a couple of years ago and started to pare back on contracts. Then my three-year-old grandson almost died in a horrible accident and spent 2 months in the hospital and 2 months more in rehab, during which time a new grandson was born at under 2 lbs and the shortness of time, and spending it in ways that REALLY mattered came to me in glaring, glorious surrender. That summer, spent almost entirely in hospitals and doing no writing, aside from a round of edits (as I’d literally submitted my last contracted book the day of the accident) was the most precious of my life. In the year since, I’m surprised that I’ve actually written 3 books and enjoyed it! But I more or less gave up blogging and most social media and most of the writer groups email lists. And I rediscovered some of the crafts I used to do a lot. But first and foremost, I daily prioritize being available mentally and physically for my hubby, children and grandchildren and close friends.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So sorry to hear about your grandchildren. I hope they’re both doing well now. But, yes, it’s amazing how we let life slip away from us during the good times. It takes the bad times to put it all in perspective.

  4. This was a *fantastic* post. I love the fact that you included your personal experiences as well. I think all writers can relate to your story and struggle to stay creative and keep going. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I’ve read a lot of your blog posts, and, in fact, reading your guides to outlining and structure revolutionized my writing life a few years ago and enabled me to accomplish what I needed so that I’m now an indie author. Whenever I get stuck or feel like something isn’t working on my work-in-progress I come back here and read up, which is what led me to your site today.

    This is the first time I’ve ever left a comment here, but I felt like I had to. This post really moved me a lot. As a Christian I have often seen over the years how other Christians are learning the same things I am, just in different ways, and that just speaks to me about God’s faithfulness to teach His children no matter where we are or what we’re doing. He is so good like that.

    Recently this has been an ongoing struggle for me, too. I’m not even successful (yet!), but I recently got a lot of mailing list subscribers through an Instafreebie promo, and suddenly I feel so much pressure I can’t even think straight. And, like I said, it’s not even success! But what it is, for me, is a *taste* of success. A taste of how easy it is for me to fall back into fear of man and people-pleasing instead of focusing on God alone.

    I’ve seen this same theme crop up among other authors, entrepreneurs, and ministries around the web the last few months. It seems to be a common issue among all of us. We’re on the cusp of something huge and God is telling us that we can’t handle what He is about give us until we learn to let it go and just relax at His feet.

    My big problem is that I make things into moral decisions. Instead of thinking, “I want to do this, so I’ll do it,” I think, “I want to do this, but is it ‘right’?” Like, on a day off, I think, “I want to watch a movie.” But then I think, “But is that lazy? Is that irresponsible? Am I squandering my time? I have a million things to do! I can’t afford to spend time watching movies!”

    Then I get all stressed and end up not doing anything at all because I’m worried that I’ll make the wrong decision. Or, sometimes worse, I’ll make big plans and then not even start them because I’m so convinced that I might fail. So what if I fail? Failure is just another form of learning! I know this, but somehow I get paralyzed.

    Like I said, I think it’s probably related to the fact that we’re on the cusp of something big. But, like you so eloquently and personally said, the big things aren’t what matters. Only God can satisfy.

    These verses in the NLT version of Psalm 127:1-2 always both convict me and give me hope:

    Unless the Lord builds a house,
    the work of the builders is wasted.
    Unless the Lord protects a city,
    guarding it with sentries will do no good.

    It is useless for you to work so hard
    from early morning until late at night,
    anxiously working for food to eat;
    for God gives rest to his loved ones.

    The more “successful” we become, the more sentries we add trying to guard what we think we’ve built. But it doesn’t matter. Only God can build something that lasts, and when He does the building all we have to do is rest.

    Anyway. I’m good at saying stuff like that and not so good at living it. But I really, really appreciated the honesty of your post and it was what I needed.

    Thanks for being willing to share your insight with us.

    Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

  6. One of the biggest mistakes we make as humans is to think that BEING flows out of DOING. The truth is that DOING flows out of BEING. And BEING means abiding in the Vine that is Jesus Christ.

    Blessings,

    MaryAnn

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your hard-earned wisdom. I have struggled with perspectives on perfectionism and my writing taking on a feeling of dread rather than joy. The blessings of talent and skill and knowledge slip so easily into the trap of What I Should Be, What I Should Do, What I Should Accomplish. It sucks the joy of creating right out of your life like nothing else! Your writing advice has helped me tremendously, and I sincerely wish you all the joy your writing can bring you.

  8. I’ve always gobbled up everything you’ve ever written but it’s also always been very evident that you write while running on a treadmill while cleaning the house while planning a trip. Whatever you’ve just been through, those moments of clarity are so damn powerful – use them. You so awesome, thanks for this blog post.

  9. I love this post. Thanks so much for sharing and for your honesty.

  10. Kaky McLendon says:

    This is one of the best pieces on the writing life I’ve ever read. It’s one I’ll read again and again so I can keep my balance. “My new vision of success looks a whole lot more like living in harmony with the life God has given me, rather than trying to conquer it.” Wow. This is exactly the conclusion I’ve come to myself in the past two years. Thank you for sharing so personally and eloquently with us.

  11. As always, your honesty is refreshing. Too often I feel like the truths of a “successful” writing life are swept under the rug in favor of the Hustle mentality. All things take hard work, but we don’t have to lose ourselves in pursuit of the things that bring us joy. I think the part of this post that stuck out most to me was:

    “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my current WIP has been the best writing experience of my life to date. I’m writing slower, I’m not beating myself up when I’m too distracted or stressed to write—and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

    It’s huge to realize what actually works when we’re bombarded with so many messages about choice and sacrifice. I think the most important part is that second sentence—giving yourself grace when you just can’t do it right now is a healthy and necessary part of being a creative.

    Hats off to you for 1) coming to all of these conclusions and 2) being willing to share them with all of us.

    And if you need to skip a blog post here and there, I for one will totally understand.

  12. Linda Binkley says:

    Thank you for taking the time and putting down so much good information. I am a recently retired 73 year person who has wanted to write all my life. I am working on so many projects in my mind. Always complaining I never had the time to write. Now several health situations have made me quite my job,finially, and now I have no excuse. The information you gave I will read and reread often. No More Excuses. Thanks

  13. I’m a published writer myself, and I have been struggling since being published with so many of these same things. This is an article I definitely needed to read. Thanks so much for posting it.

  14. I have finally started looking up from the screen every 45 minutes, maybe even getting up and going to the kitchen for a glass of water or a piece of fruit. The days I chain myself to the keyboard are the times I have insomnia that night and an achy back and wrist. I try to go to a swim class at the Y to get away from the writing and be more social. I have also found satisfaction in channeling my creativity into more physical pursuits like making jelly, gardening, playing the piano and sewing. They almost bring as much satisfaction as writing.
    You are so wise to step back and gain a different perspective and realize that constant striving is not a definition for success. Living and loving are as important as using our God given talents. As Thornton Wilder puts it, we saints and poets have mastered the art of realizing life while we live it.

  15. Well, you see, this post has been bookmarked and on my “TO DO” list for some time. I’ve been too busy to read the post and listen to the podcast until now. I was not expecting a post like this from you, it surprised me.

    It also made me realize that I’ve been not stopping to smell the roses in my daily routine of life. Spring and summer of this year flew by for me, I can’t tell you much about them, but my stack of papers and notes show me I’ve had my rump in the chair and my mind on the computer project stuff… like, WAAAAAAAAAAAY too much. I wake up exhausted, I go to bed exhausted. ENOUGH!

    So, thank you KM! This post was a breath of fresh air, and we all need more fresh air, IMO.

    Sounds like you’re happier now! That’s good. 🙂

  16. K.M.,

    I’m glad you are starting to find balance in your life. There is still much beauty to be found in life despite the evil that exits. I loved your list of activities to relax and to relieve stress. I’m sure many other writers will be happy with your insights from this post. Thanks much for taking the time to translate your insights to ways we can all understand.

  17. “Why am I not happy?” — Humans aren’t designed (if that’s the right word) for happiness, but for survival. Life is 5% joy, 5% grief, and 90% maintenance,

    “saying yes” — Billionaires spend most of their time saying no.

  18. You haven’t mentioned children, or other family obligations as part of the juggle.

    I just found out that Elon Musk has five kids (shared custody).

  19. Heather Relation says:

    I cannot tell you what a blessing this post was to me! You helped me make a defined goal – to finish writing my novel for the joy of it, and for my sweet daughter who begged me to write it. I started getting all wrapped up in how I was going to do it “perfectly” (funny, I know) and sell it, becoming the hero of our household….but also one of the things I did after the presidential election was I deleted my Facebook account because just being on there (with a limited amount of friends mind you) – it was seriously stressing me out. I have no idea how I will “reach my readers” while not driving myself insane with social media…but that doesn’t matter right now! My job right now is to just joyfully write this novel for my little girl…even if she’s the only one who ever reads it. I’m going to give the rest of the journey over to God 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/protect-creativity/ Sometimes in life you have to take a hard look at things, where you’re going, where you’ve been. Success means something different to all of us. This post is about making sure you don’t lose what’s important to you (family, friends, etc.) while in pursuit of the dream. I think we can all learn good lessons from it. I want to be a success, but in truth, I don’t even know what that really means other than having others read my words and feel touched or inspired in some way. […]

  2. […] we can lose our creativity, our reason for writing, and even our health. K.M. Weiland lists 6 lifestyle changes you can make to protect creativity, Jennifer Probst practices writing naked, Benjamin Thomas reminds us that in writing, it is the […]

  3. […] there are times when you can’t see the wood for the trees. At those times this post about protecting your creativity may help to keep a sensible […]

  4. […] Helping Writers Become Authors: 6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make to Protect Creativity […]

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