Late last night, I wanted to leave myself a few reminders so that I could get started more easily this morning. I’m on vacation for a few days, and I’ve always found it easier to steal time for writing during the work week than to make it the centerpiece of the day. Funny how the mind works.
Anyway, in hopes that this might help someone else, here are some highlights from my list of reminders.
1. Define one small goal for the day’s session. Set an intention.
Sometimes you have a vague idea that you need to sit down, work on the book, solve every problem, answer every question, be a rock star. Who can live up to this pressure? Not me. I do much better with a simple goal. Take five minutes before working on your manuscript to set your intention for the session. The more specific, the better. Keep it small and doable.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about keeping a one-inch picture frame on her desk because it reminds her to think of the larger project as a series of short assignments. Just tackle one little image, one moment, one scene—essentially, just the amount of your novel that you can see in a one-inch square snapshot. Might be the moment two characters meet. Could be your progagonist crossing the threshold and entering that tenement hotel for the first time. Start small. If there is one little corner of the story you could work on right now, what would it be?
2. Act as if you are someone who can do this.
I don’t know who said this for the first time, but it helps. Whether you’re walking into a crowded social gathering or stepping in front of a podium to give a presentation, it helps to just play the part. In writing, you can strive to be the kind of writer who sits down and puts in your time every day. Roll up your sleeves and write pages. You don’t have to be in the mood to make progress. If this is what you want to do, do it. Pretend you’re not afraid. Do it anyway. Act with confidence and treat this like your job. Your attitude matters.
3. If you are afraid of something, write it down. Don’t let it control you.
When you do feel stuck or you feel the doubts about your project welling up, just put them down. Open a blank document. Give yourself a few minutes to let them come out. I make lots of lists. Really, Dave? I had no idea. I find that just giving myself five minutes to release the doubts and acknowledge the questions keeps them from having power over me. I’ll often schedule another five minutes to respond in writing to each issue I’ve identified. Believe me, this is not just some kind of goofy, new age exercise in navel-gazing. It will actually uncover foggy areas in your stories, identify areas that aren’t clear enough yet, character motivations you don’t understand, logical inconsistencies. What you’re doing is listening to your gut. Then you can come up with a plan of attack.
Is there something about your story you’re afraid to write? What is it? What’s freaking you out? It’s okay to let the questions brew in your subconscious until fully cooked. But at least know when they’re in the room, trying to get your attention.
4. Shake things up. If your usual routine and tricks aren’t working, break something.
Today I’m writing at my desk with the blinds open and the sunlight streaming in. Tomorrow I might write in bed at 6 in the morning before the kids get up. I have a favorite red Ikea chair in my living room that I’ll actually slide across the room so it’s next to my dining room table. I don’t know why, but this chair in this little nook on the perimeter of the room, is magic. But only sometimes.
The idea is to be flexible, because let’s face it, if you make your writing routine dependent on a single location or a perfect set of circumstances, then you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Point two is that sometimes intentionally screwing with your usual routine shakes up your thinking, stimulates you, makes you see things you might not have seen otherwise. I can’t write while listening to music. Or so I’ve been telling myself for years. Then I made a Spotify playlist with some moody soundtrack music, strings and cellos from Steve McQueen’s film, Shame, and I wrote while pumping this through my earbuds for a week or two. It was good while it lasted. Now I’ve moved on again.
5. Pay yourself one compliment about your writing. Recognize the good in what you do.
Writers at all levels deal with a lot of negative self-talk. Pretend you’re a good friend who wants to be a writer. Would you slam that friend with criticism and second-guessing? Or would you say, yes, my friend, keep going.
Let me model this. Here’s one I need to hear from time to time:
You have great patience and tenacity to come back day after day to work on this book even on those days when you feel it’s all a lost cause. Hats off to you, sir. Rest well tonight. Think about how much experience you’ve already gained in the past six months, how many good habits you’ve developed by becoming a daily writer.
Thanks, Dave. Now get back to work.