How to get out of writing jail.


Many years ago, I was trying really, really hard to write my second book. My first book had taken me 10 years to write, and then, unexpectedly, it was accepted by a publisher and selected for a prestigious literary prize. This experience changed the course of my professional life and career. 

I worked really hard to write my first book, and I was really lucky that it was noticed and picked. And in the years that followed, I was gripped by internal pressure: I felt that I needed to write a book that would surpass (or at least match) the literary success of my first book. 

Or else.

Or else what? Honestly, I didn’t even know: I was just terrified. The truth was, I didn’t like working really really hard on my writing, trying to make myself sound literary and smart and cool. It was making me miserable. 

When I began telling myself this truth, I did so quietly, at first, just in my journal. I want writing to feel like freedom, I wrote. I just want to write and be Sarah.

Eventually, one day at our shared co-working space, I whispered my truth to a dear friend I’ll call TJ. “I want to write a novel that is fun to read,” I told her, looking over my shoulder to be sure nobody else was listening. “And… I want to have fun writing it.”

TJ raised her eyebrows at me, as though I’d just admitted that I wanted to go skinny-dipping at the public pool. She understood the illicit nature of my confession. TJ herself was in MFA recovery, having left her program before her thesis defence. She’d gone rogue, and was now writing phenomenally funny and smart personal essays. She was even publishing her writing herself, online, with no agent or publisher, like some dangerous creature raised by wolverines!

Now maybe you aren’t one of those writers who is always struggling to create under the tyranny of constant assessment. Maybe nothing makes you more delighted than writing the next chapter of your novel, because you know that when you’re having fun, you’re on the right track. If that’s the case, I am genuinely thrilled that you aren’t in writing jail! I can’t wait to read what you’re writing, because your delight is probably spilling into your words, sentences, and scenes, which will likely make your book a delight to read.

Back then, I was in writing jail. And to get out, I had to start listening to my true nature. 

I signed up for a six-week class with life coach Martha Beck called “The Integrity Cleanse,” and in those six weeks I learned how to recognize that a lot of the stuff I was telling myself about my writing wasn’t true. 

I’m going to share one of her exercises here, a favourite of mine that I’ve modified slightly for writers.  


  1. Think about a time someone was lying to you, and you knew they were telling you a lie. Picture them in front of you, lying.

  2. Feel the lie hit your body. How does it feel? Describe where it lands in your body, or what it looks/smells/sounds like. (For me, a lie feels like my skin is heavy, thick, and tight. My throat feels compressed.)

  3. Jot those descriptive words down on a Post-it note, and title it “NOT-TRUE.”

  4. Next think about a time someone told you the truth, the deep, whole truth. And you knew it was true as they said it to you.

  5. Feel that in your body. How do you feel? Describe where in your body you feel it, sense it, or know it. (For me, the truth feels like cool clarity, my chest is light and free, my throat is open, and I have this sparkly feeling at the top of my head.)

  6. Write those descriptive words down on a second Post-it note, and title it “TRUE.”

Now you have a personal compass you can use to help you write your next essay, book, or scene! Use these feelings to steer you into the truth. Even if you don’t understand what the purple dress means, or why it has to have green ribbons on it, your body will tell you — because whenever you try to write it a more reasonable colour, like yellow, you’ll get a feeling listed on your “NOT-TRUE” note.

It’s like playing “warmer/colder” with your work in progress. 

Eventually, you won’t need the Post-it notes anymore. You’ll know how to follow the truth by heart, and write what you really want to read, not what you’re telling yourself that you should write. 

And when you’re writing from that place — where you feel free, open, loose, and alive (maybe, like me, you get that sparkly feeling at the top of your head too) —  you will find yourself in deep enjoyment, the hallmark of the flow state. 

If your creative flow is a river, following the truth is how you will release the logjam.

Writing my second book wasn’t always easy, but I did have a lot of fun writing it! I started from scratch and wrote Radiant Shimmering Light with those two Post-it notes stuck to my desk. When I felt the sparkles at the top of my head, I knew I was on the right track. 

If you like the sound of this exercise, I recommend you read Martha Beck’s new book, The Way of Integrity. It’s an in-depth guide to this process, beautifully described through Dante’s Divine Comedy. As soon as I finished it, I promptly started reading it again.

I’m on another integrity cleanse now — as I write this, I’m starting week three. Following truth isn’t just the way we can start writing in flow, but the way we can start living in flow, too. 



Photo credit: Sharon Pittaway on Unsplash

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Sarah Selecky

Yes, Steph! It's funny that this should be such a revelation to us, since we know that we love the writers we love because they are so uniquely themselves in their voice and style. And yet, taking up space as ourselves does feel transgressive. It *is* transgressive, for women writers particularly. Kelly Diels recently reminded me that women haven't been socialized to believe that we should take up space, or get attention. Breaking out of that container is wild. Being yourself in your writing is freedom.
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Heather, Kristin, and I were just talking about this yesterday. They showed me that no matter my way of writing, even though it makes me feel like an outsider in the world of writers, it’s valid, and any other way for me would be writing jail. Now I feel that TRUE feeling!! So much so, I can literally, and awake, smell the place I’m writing.
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Sarah Selecky

Of course! I'm glad it resonates with you, Margaret. <3
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I love this! Thank you so much, Sarah!
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