Featured Writer on Wellness: Todd Mitchell

Filed in Writers on Wellness by on March 26, 2015 • views: 812

DSC02127Time is the biggest challenge I face.

Oddly enough, I often feel like I have too little and too much time. The reason is this: I need large blocks of time (90 minutes or more) to get into the proper mental space for good writing to happen.

But instead, I have all these little chunks of time between other duties and demands. So I have enough time to write, just not in the right places.

My goal is to manage my time better by saying “no” more to protect my writing time.

But to the outside world (even to myself sometimes), it looks like I have plenty of time to do other things. As a result, my writing time quickly becomes fragmented by small tasks (writing letters of recommendation, responding to emails, planning classes, paying bills, setting up school visits, book promotion, checking Facebook, searching for images of squirrels, etc…), and before I know it, all my writing time dissolves into the bustle of the day and vanishes.

Exchanging the Chair for an Exercise Ball

One of the biggest changes I’ve made, and something I frequently recommend to writers, is sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair. When I used to sit in a chair to type, I could last only a couple hours before my back was a throbbing pillar of pain. Now that I’ve grown used to sitting on an exercise ball (and using better posture), I can spend 7-8 hours a day at my computer.

The other thing I do to keep my sanity is run and exercise.

Typically, I’ll write until I feel stumped, then I’ll go for a run. During the run, the solution will often come to me (that’s why I like to run with an iPod, so I can record voice memos).

I also work out on an “American Ninja Warrior” inspired obstacle course I built under my deck. I used to simply do a ton of pushups and pull-ups, but doing too much of the same exercise caused injuries for me. Now I use the course I built (see video below) to keep my routine more varied and interesting.

If I don’t know what a character is going to say or do, I’ll go outside and do a few circuits on the course. Always when I come back to my computer, my mind is refreshed and more creative.

The Biggest Emotional Challenge: Self-Doubt

Doubt. As the narrator in Lori Moore’s short story “How to Be a Writer” puts it when someone asks the main character if writers ever get discouraged, “Sometimes they do and sometimes they do. …it’s a lot like having polio.”

There was a time when I honestly didn’t get this joke. Now, I’ve waded through so much doubt and discouragement as a writer that I’ve come to embrace doubt as a necessary part of the creative process.

And, when I feel that all my doubts might be justified and what I’m doing is absurd or ridiculous, I remind myself of statements Paul McCartney made in a recent interview about how he often feels like he’s not accomplished enough, and isn’t good enough.

Apparently, doubt never ends, no matter how successful you become, so why not accept it and move on?

Mantras that Help in the Face of Self-Doubt

I have certain mantras I keep returning to when I find it difficult to continue to create in the face of doubt or discouragement. Here are a few of them:

Write your own book.

I tell myself this any time my mind starts playing the comparison game. The comparison game is poison. It’s death to creativity. No matter what you do, there will always be someone or something else you can compare yourself to that will make you feel rotten. So just write your own damn book and don’t think about what others have written, or what others are doing, or how successful others might seem to be.

Enjoy the process.

I tell myself this to remind myself that writing isn’t about publishing, or popularity, or awards, or some other elusive, fleeting goal that is bound to disappoint. It’s about the process of creating. Every stage of it. Every glorious step of it—even the steps that are riddled with doubt or wrought with struggle. I try to love it all. What better thing to do than spend a day wrestling visions down onto a blank page?

Get weirder. There’s no one left to please.

This is how I give myself permission to not worry as much about what other might think, and to write the stories that come to me as honestly as I can. The artists, writers, and people I admire most are those who ventured out on their own path and often met with resistance. But I’m so grateful to them for having the courage to do so. By taking risks and feeding my weird, I try to remind myself to do the same.

It Doesn’t Get Easier

Last year was a pretty dark, difficult year for me. Maybe it was turning forty. Maybe it was feeling like I hadn’t lived up to my potential. Maybe it was working seven years on a book that never came together, or realizing my career wasn’t where I wanted it to be.

I took some steps to change all that—some external, and some internal steps that have paid off. Externally, I applied for new jobs and was able to find better ways to use my expertise as a writer that allow me to feel more professionally validated.

More importantly, though, internally I shifted my expectations. Rather than thinking about what I should have accomplished, I try to think about the wonderful things I get to do (like this interview). I practice daily gratitude by mentally listing all that I’m grateful for.

It’s funny. Looking back, I thought publishing my first book was the hardest, until I had to struggle with publishing my second book (it took five years to revise it). But that was nothing compared to publishing my third book. And don’t even get me started on all the difficulty I’ve faced with my fourth book…

The point is, it doesn’t seem to get easier for me. That’s why I try to focus on the process, and enjoy every step of it.

The One Thing That Has Kept You On Your Path: Purpose

I think that the popular notion of “success” or being “successful” is a dangerous illusion. If you think that “getting there” will make you happy, you’re setting yourself up for serious disappointment. Just think of all the incredibly “successful” people who are still miserable (perhaps even more so, because they don’t have the illusion of success to cling to anymore).

For me, what keeps me going is a sense of purpose.

Whether I’m successful at it or not, writing is what I must do. I don’t know why I feel this compulsion, but I believe in it. I believe that stories shape the way people think and act.

Our whole society is organized around stories. Money is a story. Government is a story. Religion is a story. By saying this, I don’t mean to reduce these things, but to emphasize how incredibly important stories are. I even heard a historian say yesterday that stories are what make us human.

Most of the big problems we face now—nuclear proliferation, war, species extinction, climate change, social inequality, etc.—are human caused problems. And human caused problems have human solutions. It’s my hope that, in seeking out new stories and writing those stories with compassion and honesty, I can be part of creating the foundation for positive change.

I’m not saying that fiction should be didactic. On the contrary, I think real change is created through grappling with the complexity of existence, rather than giving simple answers. So it’s not always easy to see a direct connection between stories and positive actions. That’s why my belief in stories can sometimes be a hard belief to hold. And that’s why things like the encouragement of friends and family, and letters from readers who have been positively influenced by my books, are so significant to me.

I think the challenges we face as a society demand new stories to help us better understand them, and to help us see what we can do to heal them. In whatever small, unknowable, mysterious ways, I want to be part of this healing process.

Advice for a Young Writer: Perseverance Is More Important Than Talent

Know that perseverance is more important than talent. Know that doubt, rejection, and struggle are all part of the journey.

Stories are often about transformation in the face of adversity, so embrace adversity. Welcome the struggle. Enjoy the journey. Follow your bliss. Write your own damn book.

Get weirder, there’s no one left to please. You’re doing exactly what you need to do.

* * *

Todd Mitchell is the author of the young adult novels The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press, Colorado Book Award Winner) and Backwards (Candlewick Press, CAL Book Award Winner), and the middle grade novel The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, Colorado Book Award Finalist). He’s also a writer for the graphic novel A Flight of Angels (Vertigo, YALSA Top 10 Pick for Teens).

In addition to his books, he’s published several short stories, essays, and poems in national and international journals. Currently, he serves as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University, and fiction faculty at Antioch University in Los Angeles. He lives in Fort Collins with his wife, dog, and two wily daughters. In the picture above, he’s feeding his youngest daughter to the crawfish. (grin)

For more information on Todd and his writings, please see his website, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Backwards 2Backwards (for ages 12 & up): At the moment Dan’s life ends, the Rider’s begins. Unwillingly tied to Dan, the Rider finds himself moving backwards in time, each day revealing more of the series of events that led to Dan’s suicide.

As the Rider struggles to figure out what he’s meant to do, he revels in the life Dan ignores. In his second novel for teens, Todd Mitchell turns time around as the Rider attempts to fix the future by changing the past and experiences the joys and heartbreak of living backwards.

Available at Amazon.

SECRET TO LYING 2The Secret to Lying (for ages 14 & up): James was the guy no one noticed—just another fifteen-year-old in a small town. So when he gets into an academy for gifted students, he decides to leave his boring past behind.

All it takes is a few harmless pranks to invent a new James: fighter, rebel, punk. There’s just one thing awry: he’s starting to have vivid dreams of being a demon-hunting warrior.

As he’s drawn deeper into his real-life lies and his dream-world conquests, James begins to wonder: What’s the price for being the coolest guy around?

Available at Amazon.

thetraitorkingcover 2The Traitor King (for ages 9 & up): Darren and Jackie Mananann have always known there was something a little strange about their family . . . but it isn’t until an unexpected presence propels them into a fantastical mystery that they discover how truly unusual and eerily powerful the Mananann family is.

One of Darren and Jackie’s uncles has disappeared, and in order to save him they must unravel all the clues and signs that surround the Manananns’s deepest, darkest secret—a secret that spans two very different worlds.

Available at Amazon.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Love the below-deck Ninja course! I like to get outside for a walk or run when I feel stuck…but I have to remember to bring a notebook or index card with me in case inspiration strikes while I’m away from the house!

    • Colleen says:

      Isn’t that video awesome? I think Todd needs to go into business and build one for all of us! (ha) Thanks for stopping by, Cheryl!