Posted On September 17, 2012 by Print This Post

Ozone and Squelching Shoes: What Unexpected Thunderstorms Can Teach About Protecting the Work – Jan O’Hara

I’m so pleased to introduce Jan O’Hara. Becke introduced me to Jan a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve been following her blog, Tartitude, and her columns on Writer Unboxed. 

Creating stories about imaginary characters sounds like a pretty cool gig. But sometimes we need more than chocolate and fairy dust for inspiration. Do you procrastinate, wallow in self-doubt or lose sight of your goals? Wonder if you’ll ever see your name on the cover of a book?  

Today, Jan will address methods to overcome counter-productive behavior.

Welcome, Jan!

So you’re not writing as much as you’d like—perhaps not at all–and whereas you used to blame lack of time, the need to make your family a priority, or inadequate equipment, you’re past that now. In moments of painful self-honesty, you know you could overcome these obstacles.

Maybe you’ve acquired a case of creeping cynicism about the publishing industry. Maybe you’ve lost confidence in your voice or vision. Whatever the case, the real trouble originates between your ears. Your thoughts whisper, “What is the point?”

To find answers, I’d like to share a helpful parable I heard in an audiobook by Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. (I wish knew the title, but that was lost long ago when I gave the audiotapes to Goodwill.) Then we’ll pull its lessons into writing.

The Parable

Imagine that you’ve gone to stay at a cabin in the woods with the goal of working on your writing. One afternoon, as you’re taking your daily constitutional, you’re caught by an unexpected storm. You alter your direction for home, but the wind whips your clothes and you’re so wet, your shoes squelch with each step. Thunder crashes around you and, while you’re fond of the scent of ozone, a few lightening strikes come too close for comfort.

After a miserable hour, you see the cabin ahead with its promise of a hot shower and drink. But your troubles haven’t ended, for the shutters weren’t firmly latched. Now your work table is water-stained and your seat cushion drenched. Your formerly tidy papers whirl around the living room, chased by the ashes from last night’s fire.

Faced with such a scenario, most of us would embark on the following course of action:

  1. Close and shutter the window
  2. Restore order
  3. When venturing outdoors in the future, make advance preparations.

Both the content and sequence of choices are common-sensical, yes?

Now, where the wind and the chaos are placeholders for intrusive, destructive thoughts, let’s look at the correlation to writing. We’ll also consider some resources which can help keep the brain a hospitable place.

Close the Window = Stop Admitting External Sources of Discouragement

There’s a common belief in the writing world that a real writer must be able to create in all circumstances, that grit and character are enough to get one through. Certainly, we’ve all heard book-creation stories that are nearly as mythic as the actual manuscript.

I myself once wrote a blog post while crouched in manure-fragrant mud at an equestrian event. Ann Aguirre’s husband was in the intensive care, yet she still met her deadline..

No one would dispute that tenacity and willpower are helpful qualities to a writer.

But listen to long-term pros in any field, or listen to people who’ve achieved and maintained huge behavioral changes–such as quitting smoking, starting running, obtaining remarkable weight loss–and you’ll hear a language about more than courage.

They speak of self-care, starting by cutting out external sources of discouragement. These people learn to shut out the emotional storm. They pay attention to what fuels their energy and what saps it, then actively lessen exposure to discouragers. (Sometimes wholesale, but often only until their willpower and equilibrium is restored.)

What that might look like in writing:

  • Do your creative, vulnerable work first thing upon rising or before letting in the outside world. (You might disconnect the modem when you go to bed and reconnect after you’ve written your words; use an internet blocker; write with paper and pen.)
  • Limit your exposure to publishing news by finding curators you trust, then read only their material. You want to be informed but not overwhelmed.
  • Consider a weekly social-media sabbath, or go dark for longer.
  • Notice the “emotional temperature” of writing communities and seek out the ones which embody hope and empowerment. (When you’re strong, be one of those voices!)
  • Avoiding sharing your work with the people who push your insecurity-buttons. Seek out critiquers who are honest, but encouraging.
  • Watch for emotional vampires in your personal and professional life, because negativity in one area easily permeates another.

Feeling guilty for limiting contact with people and situations that you know aren’t good for you? Read this dramatically titled article, which contains pertinent neuro-science: How Negativity and Complaining Literally Rot Your Brain

Restore Order = Use Tools to Counter Negativity

You can’t banish negative thoughts altogether, of course. (Just as one wouldn’t want to banish wind and rain.) They’re part of the human condition and in some instances are protective, prompting us to take precautions we otherwise wouldn’t.

You can’t or won’t want to banish all negatively-inclined, suffering individuals, either. Doing so would make for a society of selfish people, if one could rightfully call it a society under those terms. For that matter, who hasn’t had periods of negativity? But for the grace of god, and all that.

However, you can learn a system of inquiry which diminishes your vulnerability to painful thoughts. The single best tool I know in this category comes with advantages: it’s free and endorsed by the psychologists in my life, because it’s a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. (CBT has been proven to treat depression as well as medications in some studies.) It even has an app.

How does such a tool function? In essence, you learn to question your troublesome thoughts and decide for yourself if you actually believe them.  

Interested? Check out Byron Katie’s The Work, with which I have no affiliation.

Other books and practices I can recommend:

  • Write a daily gratitude list.
  • Set small, consistently achievable goals, then notice and celebrate your progress, however minute.
  • Activate your endorphins with exercise.
  • One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer
  • 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins by Jason Selk

Make Advance Preparations for a Storm = Prepare for Future Days of Negativity

A Writer’s Emergency Hope Kit is the literary equivalent of heading out on a hike, knowing that you’ve shuttered the windows and have a windbreaker in your backpack.

It’s a simple but powerful tool, but beyond the scope of this article. If you’d like a grounding in the principles, feel free to visit this more detailed post, which I wrote for Writer Unboxed: This Product Prevents Literary Wedgies. Good for Multiple Uses.


Now, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite methods and resources for countering negativity?


Author Anna Campbell visits the RU campus on Wednesday, September 19th. 


Bio: Jan O’Hara discovered the importance of hope during the time she provided birth-to-death healthcare as a family physician. She lives in Alberta, Canada, with her long-suffering husband (The ToolMaster) and two children (Molly and Frank.) You can find her on Twitter; at her citrusy blog, Tartitude; or at Writer Unboxed, where she contributes monthly columns to their blog and newsletter.


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50 Responses to “Ozone and Squelching Shoes: What Unexpected Thunderstorms Can Teach About Protecting the Work – Jan O’Hara”

  1. Hi Anna,

    With writing, you have to take the good with the bad. I’m revising a manuscript for submission. I’ve deleted so much of it, I’m debating why I wrote it in the first place.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 17, 2012, 7:28 am
    • Sorry I meant Hi Jan

      Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 17, 2012, 8:35 am
      • No worries, Mary Jo. It’s Monday when brains are expected to be scrambled. I’d answer to “Bob” if you call me that and think nothing of it. 😉

        Revisions take a lot out of a person, don’t they? Because I don’t know you, and I’m no good at detecting tone online, I’ll offer two comments: If you’re venting, I’ll offer a nod of understanding. I like editing, but those thoughts often occupy my mind. If you’re super frustrated, you might try doing The Work on the thought “my efforts until now were a waste.”

        Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 9:37 am
  2. Morning Jan…

    Oh I’m a huge sucker for negativity. Sometimes it fills up every waking moment I swear…yet I keep plowing through. I did hit a wall that lasted about 7 months and I simply couldn’t shake myself free of it, but I’m finally coming up again into the blue sky. =) It’s SO HARD to shut out all that negativity – I’ll check out the sources you recommend though….

    thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 17, 2012, 8:11 am
    • It’s hard not to complain, particularly when our culture tends to validate and elevate victim-stories over the alternatives. One need only look at the news to know it’s an uphill walk.

      To make it harder, sometimes a person has to live in a cabin with swirling papers in order to decide they can shutter the windows. I’ve been there and done that, and I often revisit. 😉

      Hope you’ll find those resources to your taste!

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 9:43 am
  3. Great post! I particularlly need the advice to shut the window on social media, emails, etc before writing. I get sucked into all that busy work & lose writing time.

    Posted by Larissa Reinhart | September 17, 2012, 8:33 am
  4. Ah, Jan. 😉

    Me it’s social media and comparing myself. Do I have tools for it? not really. I’m working on not focusing on others. I keep telling myself their journey is not mine. Most days it works.

    Another great post, Jan!

    Posted by Michelle Beattie | September 17, 2012, 10:15 am
    • I hear you, Michelle. Comparison is a killer, particularly because the impulse is to shut down and guard oneself, which doesn’t work so well in the social arena. 🙂

      I think we all have to determine what works for us personally and not be pushed into a vehicle that’s cool but not “us.”

      Thanks for coming by and commenting!

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 10:55 am
  5. Your comment about self-care really hit home and it’s so true. The ones who lost the weight and kept it off – while they talk about the temptations, they don’t linger on them – they talk about their inner strength and their goals – what it took them to get to where they are now.

    I have to remind myself of that daily – what my goals are and what it’s going to take to get there. That’s the only way I can be successful on a daily basis.

    Posted by Steena Holmes | September 17, 2012, 10:15 am
    • I agree, Steena. “Eyes forward”, and all that. The point of looking backward is to see what we’d like to change for the next attempt, not stay stuck in “if only’s” and “I should have knowns.”

      Ask me how I know. 😉

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 11:02 am
  6. You are soooo right. This absolutely works.

    I struggled to write after long absence; habits created on hiatus were counterproductive and deep-rooted. The only way to reclaim discipline was to trick my body & mind with a new schedule. Now I rise well before my local world awakes, and enforce better habits without distractions–no social media, just me and the blinking curser.

    I’m still getting used to it, somedays I’m awfully tired, but the good and steady progress adds to my daily gratitudes. 🙂

    Posted by D. D. Falvo | September 17, 2012, 10:16 am
  7. A wonderful blog. Thank you, Jan and Jennifer.

    Posted by Roxy Boroughs | September 17, 2012, 10:36 am
  8. All I can is that this post speaks to me exactly where I am and I need to do all three of these things. Thank you!

    Posted by PatriciaW | September 17, 2012, 10:53 am
  9. I know I’ve said it before, but I love your daily gratitude list idea. It’s amazing the difference it makes in your outlook. 🙂 Thanks for the lovely post.

    Posted by LynDee | September 17, 2012, 11:04 am
    • LynDee, I’m a shameless idea-grabber. Do you remember the book “Simple Abundance”? I never managed to complete it, but the philosophy worked for me all those years ago when I was in practice, and life came with a ton of daily challenges. I experimented and knew it worked before the Positive Pyschology movement came along and shored it up with evidence.

      Thank you for letting me know if/when I help!

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 11:10 am
  10. Jan,

    Please know that I read your wise words at the best possible time to help me keep doing what I love–writing. It’s amazing how easily I talk myself out of my passion, or give others that kind of power over me.

    I know who will top my gratitude list tonight!

    Posted by Kimberly HdM | September 17, 2012, 11:37 am
    • Aw, Kimberly, I’m thrilled if I could help.

      I didn’t write fiction for twenty years, so I have some sense about the pain involved in denying oneself something so fundamental. It’s a hard place to live.

      Wishing you clarity and peace to act in your own best interests.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 12:27 pm
  11. Such a practical and yet lovely post, Jan. (And I love the parable.) Your posts always give me so much to think about, and this one is no different. Thank you!

    Posted by Liz Michalski | September 17, 2012, 11:44 am
    • Thich Nhat Hahn’s a pretty amazing man, Liz. I suspect you’d enjoy what he has to say. At a difficult time, I tramped a lot of miles with his voice in my ear. This is one of a few lessons that have stuck.

      Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this. I appreciate it.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 12:30 pm
  12. I agree with so much of what you’ve written here but would like to add that productive times are such an individual thing. I’m only good at writing first thing in the AM when I’m already on a roll. I do most of my best work and my hardest problem-solving late at night. Something about the dark and the quiet really works for me.

    Posted by Lisa Brackmann | September 17, 2012, 12:00 pm
    • I totally agree, Lisa, about working to one’s own biorhythms. I love the morning, but I have a second burst of energy just before bed. I’m not sure what that’s about, except I think my mind knows it’s “do or die” time, silencing the other voices that would interfere.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 12:32 pm
  13. Jan, it’s such a treat to see you here! I always love your advice, and your wisdom, and how you make it so workable. 🙂 I’m feeling doubly inspired after reading this.

    Posted by Donna Cummings | September 17, 2012, 12:01 pm
  14. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jan on Jennifer Crusie’s Cherry Forum several years ago. Since then we’ve met in person at RWA National in 2009 and I almost made it to Jan’s home in Canada – so near, and yet so far! She lives in a breathtaking area – I’m hoping to give that another shot one day.

    Jan has been a constant source of support and encouragement with my bumpy ride as a writer. Besides being a great friend, she’s also brilliant!

    Thanks for a fabulous post, Jan! I read this and knew it was a keeper: “But sometimes we need more than chocolate and fairy dust for inspiration. Do you procrastinate, wallow in self-doubt or lose sight of your goals?”

    In my case, you already know the answer to that question – I’m a world class wallower! This topic hits very close to home, since I’ve been in a slump all summer (maybe all year) due to my apparent inability to get a house packed up for a move and put words on paper. Like you, I have friends meeting deadlines while helping kids with homework, dealing with serious health issues – even death of a family member – and much more complex moves than mine. I know I’m slacking and I really miss the day-to-day challenge of writing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this it’s the importance of getting a few words down every day. It’s all too easy to lose the muse otherwise. I know I’ll get my groove back and rediscover the fun of writing – I’ve missed it. I’ve even missed the hard parts. My time away has left me with a mistrust of writing skills, to the point I’m almost afraid to start over.

    Lately I’ve had the urge to start a new story, which is seriously the LAST thing I need to do, with so many others needing revision. I’ll have to see how that goes, but at least the keyboard is calling me!

    Thanks for the encouraging words and for the mental image of you blogging while knee deep in mud. Too bad no one caught it on video – it would have gone viral on YouTube!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 17, 2012, 12:08 pm
    • Becke, that brilliant bit you quoted is from Jennifer, LOL, not that I’d mind taking the credit. I appreciate you guys thinking of me and inviting me here. RU is such a solid place!

      Ah yes, the Cherry Forums, where we fomented mayhem. Good times.

      As for your writing, I had a period of 4 months or so where I didn’t compose a thing. Not a blog post, a silly poem, and especially not a word of my WIP. Yet I fell in love with it when I returned. While I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow me route, I can say that I learned more about *why* I wanted to write about certain things, what gave them staying power. I think my novel is better for that understanding.

      Perhaps that will be true for you when life is more settled.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 12:39 pm
  15. Thanks for your timely words, Jan. I’ve taken to rising two full hours before the rest of the household to write my words. And I’m learning not to talk to ANYONE about my story. I’ve enough trouble dealing with my own negativity without taking on everyone else’s.

    Posted by MK Stelmack | September 17, 2012, 12:39 pm
    • Moira, I’m tight-lipped about my books, too. They sound small and insignificant if I speak about them, which they might very well be, but if I don’t get them done, none of us will ever know for sure, right? LOL.

      Two hours ahead of everyone? Good for you! I find the earliest hours are the best for working without that Self-Doubt Monster.

      Go get ’em, M. Thanks for stopping by.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 12:43 pm
  16. Hi Jan!

    You are most certainly welcome to the chocolate and fairy dust opener! 🙂 After I put up your post, it took me two days to come up with an opening worthy of your brilliance.

    I love the idea of the Writer’s Emergency Hope Kit. I re-read favorite books by authors who write in the same sub-genre to keep me motivated. Sometimes, I’ll listen to soundtracks from favorite romantic comedies or watch a sixties romcom with Rock and Doris.

    I have hit the wall a few times this year, but I would like to think I’ve come a long way since the days when I felt paralyzed by the “rules” and worried about things like using sentence fragments.

    My biggest obstacles are: 1) Recognizing that my writing time is important. That it’s not something that gets pushed aside whenever there’s a another must-do task.

    2) I’m super critical of what I write, as I should be, but I have a tendency to over-think things and revise and revise. Someone once said changing the story makes it different but not necessarily better. True enough. But knowing this about myself adds another hurdle.

    We’re thrilled to have you on RU today! Thanks so much.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 17, 2012, 1:47 pm
    • I love Rock and Doris! Rom com’s form a major part of my Hope Kit. (When Harry Met Sally, anyone?)

      “Super-critical”, IMHO, is not a good place to be. There’s “willing to learn” and “improvement-seeking”, but those are a different state of self-critique.

      The other thing I’ve noticed, and I don’t know if you’d agree, is how often I don’t really know what will make a story worthwhile for others. I’ve enjoyed Lisa Cron’s book for that. I think I’m focusing on the more important things.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 2:22 pm
      • “When Harry Met Sally” is another favorite as are “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”.

        Yes, I often wonder if my story is worth anyone’s time. I worry that the reader won’t “get it” or that the plot is too simplistic or complicated. One thing I’ve learned is that if I feel the need to add more plot twists, then I have issues with the premise of the story and need to rethink it.

        Will check out Lisa Cron’s book. Thanks!

        Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 17, 2012, 3:23 pm
  17. Early morning? Hmmm. I find that the older I get the longer it takes to fully wake up, but then again, this might help. I usually jump start my writing by fooling around on blogs and social media sites. : )

    Posted by robena grant | September 17, 2012, 2:05 pm
    • Robena, that works for a lot of people, and if you’re writing words and not disappointed in your output, then for goodness sake don’t experiment! *Some* of us do well to get the words on the page first, when freshest from sleep and less-altered by the world. Whatever gets the job done, right?

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 2:24 pm
  18. Sometimes I find there’s a definite lull in the writing. Fortunately this usually turns out to be just a pause while the inner writer figures out some salient detail like who the protagonist really is for the current story. The trick is following up on that AHA moment when you discover ‘Lazlo’ isn’t it. (I don’t use character names like that so it’s my token example.)

    Otherwise it’s all too easy to get lazy and take a far longer ‘break’ than called for.

    Posted by Phyllis K Twombly | September 17, 2012, 2:41 pm
    • This has definitely happened to me, Phyllis–the need for a creative pause. At one point I tried to push through it. Now I work on something else and give my subconscious time to figure the puzzle out. As you say, the trick is to pick it up again, and not let nerves take over.

      PS: What’s wrong with Lazlo? (Kidding, in case you don’t know me by now.)

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 3:23 pm
  19. Hi, Jan,

    It’s good to read your post so I don’t feel so alone. A few weeks ago I was SO down about my writing and had almost stopped writing completely. One day I realized I was following too many agents and blogs, all giving contradictory advice. I was paralyzed by too much advice. The next day I cold-turkey stopped following all of them, figuring there’s plenty of time to follow once I’m closer to being published. Almost instantly I felt less stressed and began writing again a day or two later and haven’t looked back. It’s great to have the Internet as a resource but there’s just too much noise out there online sometimes!

    Posted by Linda F | September 17, 2012, 3:03 pm
    • Linda, based upon my three years or so of observation, most people go through a stage of feeling overwhelmed with advice, particularly as it *is* contradictory, or is sufficiently broad that it doesn’t apply to one’s situation. That’s part of the learning: to know enough to function and to know where to find answers, but to protect the writing.

      Sounds like you made a great call already. 🙂

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 3:41 pm
  20. Jan is multi-tasking today and answering comments on the RU blog and on her column at Writer Unboxed.

    For grins and chuckles, check out her other post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 17, 2012, 3:31 pm
  21. Great post Jan. You always provide great food for thought. I followed both of your links for more info, but then I came back to thank you for the post.

    There are negative people in my life, one in particular who sounds more and more like own his mother every day. Irony is, her negativity used to drive him crazy. I like your suggestion of asking him what he can do to fix a problem, but when its something like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I just change the subject to something positive.

    Posted by Amy Jo Fleming | September 17, 2012, 4:16 pm
    • Amy Jo, thank you for your sweet comment!

      If you follow that link to The Work, the interesting thing you’ll discover, or have confirmed in case you’re already noticed it, is how much we project *our* stuff onto others. So we get annoyed at the people who seem to embody the very qualities or thinking we most dislike in ourselves. It’s neat stuff! I could describe it forever, but I’d encourage you to watch a video of her doing it, and see how effective it can be.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | September 17, 2012, 5:19 pm
  22. A big thanks to Jan for being our guest today and many thanks to everyone who dropped in and commented!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 17, 2012, 10:12 pm


  1. […] protecting your work. This is probably not what you think it is. Lovely post from Jan O’Hara. Check it […]

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