Angel Talk

August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments

A guest post by Melissa Ballard:

I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.

Translation: I’m checking Facebook.

I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.

“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”

“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”

She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”

“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”

Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”

“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”

“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”

“Well, right now, I’m composting.”

Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”

“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”

Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”

Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”

I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.

It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.

I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”

Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”

I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.

“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”

Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.

Perhaps I imagined her.

As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:

Forget expectations.

Just write.

And, finally, I do.


Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at

NaNoWriMo: On Getting Out of Your Own Way

October 31, 2016 § 5 Comments

Guest blogger Sarah Sennott Cyr reflects on the opening of NaNoWriMo (for novelists, but nonfiction writers have been known to ride along):


Sarah Sennott Cyr

Natalie Goldberg calls it monkey mind. Steven Pressfield labels it resistance. Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as fear. Regardless of the name, the concept is the same: it’s the thing that stands in the way for so many of us wanting to accomplish a writing goal. It’s why only a small percentage of the predicted 500,000 people who sign up for NaNoWriMo – which begins tomorrow – will nail the 50,000 word count by November 30.

The idea relates to creative pursuits – writing, painting, sculpting – but it can be applied to any self-motivated endeavor, like losing weight or launching a business. It’s the voice inside you that casts doubt on your ability to execute your dreams. It makes excuses – so convincing at times – to block you from putting the necessary time and effort into accomplishing a goal. You know the voice. You need more sleep. Come on, just hit the snooze button. Sound familiar?

“Most of us have two lives,” writes Steven Pressfield in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

Maybe you thought you were alone in your struggle. I know I did. I seriously thought I had some rare disorder – inherited from my mother, of course – that kept me spinning out anytime I set my eyes on a big life goal. But when I began seeing this pattern where creative giants were pointing out this apparently not-so-rare disorder, it dawned on me. I’m not alone. (In fact, yay! I’m in the company of brilliance.) And the empowering part: I have the ability to get out of my own way.

What drives us to self-sabotage? To give up on the novel we’ve written halfway, the memoir we so desperately want to write. Fear. “Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “This is all totally natural and human. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.”

At the heart of what she teaches, both in books and workshops, Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) arms writers with some of the most effective tools I’ve come across to address fear and doubt. Her rules for writing practice give a structure to follow that organically burns through any resistance. Set a timer for ten minutes. Keep the pen going. Write first thoughts. No editor or critic. Go for the jugular; if it’s scary, dive in.

Goldberg labels our fear monkey mind, borrowing a concept from Buddhism. (Her 40-plus years of Zen Buddhism practice are the backbone to the writing style she teaches.) Goldberg envisions monkey mind physically living in the right hand corner of her forehead. “Finally what happens is, we shut up and we listen to this monkey mind as though it were God and we let it run our lives,” says Goldberg in the audio book she co-authored with Dosho Port, Zen Howl. “We have this true heart that wants to write and instead this little mechanism that follows us around, we listen to and it keeps us from what we want to do in our life.”

To combat monkey mind, Goldberg has created the sweetheart, a voice that lives in the opposite corner of her forehead that encourages her anytime monkey mind starts acting up. “She says, it’s OK, keep going, sweetheart. Finish and then you can have your cheese sandwich.” A spin off from Goldberg’s imagery, I give my monkey a banana anytime I sit down to write. That’ll keep her busy.

Of all the authors I’ve read who touch upon this subject, from Goldberg to Gilbert and everyone in between, there’s a theme that runs through the solutions they propose. Work. Discipline. Applied effort. It’s by getting your butt to your desk – or wherever you write – at whatever time you’ve allotted and sticking to that commitment, over and over and over again. No excuses. OK, if your daughter needs stitches, bring her to the emergency room. But bring your notebook with you. The fun part? When you do this, you’re rewarded with that magical feeling of divine inspiration. Not every day, but often. Somerset Maugham once said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

So what are you doing reading this article, and what am I doing writing it? Go write.


Sarah Sennott Cyr’s work has been published in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan and ARTnews. Two years ago, Cyr began a writing practice inspired by Natalie Goldberg. She now leads workshops based on this practice for writers, artists, and others.

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