The Unplugged Writer: Take a Writing Retreat Day

When life was simpler—before smart phones and Facebook—writers retreated easily from the world to pen their works. Virginia Woolf didn’t have to remember to silence her Beyoncé ringtone or do her daily blog post in order to build her platform. She simply retreated, and wrote. (She did, of course, have to procure a room of her own . . . but that’s for another post.)

I’m not saying that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers didn’t need discipline to get themselves to write. Even these early writers could find a tempting distraction. (Think opium and Henry Miller’s frolicking between the sheets.) But today’s writers have all that and more, the biggest distraction being one click away—the Internet.

A number of years ago, wanting to flee the distractions of the modern world, I tried to find a suitable hideaway for a writing retreat. (I’d done this a few times, and my writing output had been phenomenal.) But the reality of my limited finances at the time kept hitting me in the face. I could not find a hotel or retreat center within my price range, and, it being November, it was too cold to go camping (writing while shivering makes for illegible penmanship). So I asked myself: “What is it about going away that makes my writing so productive?” The answer was this: No one knows where I am. (This was pre-cell phone—at least for me—and pre-Internet-connection away from home.) Simply put: When I went away to write, I was unplugged.

So, I thought, what do I have to do to be unplugged at home?

The following day, I set about answering that question. I bought groceries enough to last me through my retreat (so I didn’t have to talk to people at the store or be bothered with the “chore” of shopping). I changed my outgoing message to let people know I was on writing retreat. (I didn’t mention it was a staycation. Let them think I was out of town!) I unplugged my Internet connection and my television. And I decided that my only obligation each day of my retreat was to write for four hours. Nothing else was mandatory. Think of it . . . I had only four hours out of each 24 where I was obligated to do anything. Thus, my writing retreat was not only productive in terms of literary output but it was also restful, and fun. I took long walks, made paintings and collages, stared out the window, essentially did whatever I was moved to do (outside of my four hours of writing). And because my mind was so free of outside distractions, the ideas that were seeded during my writing hours continued to germinate during my nonwriting hours. (I always took a small notepad and pen on my walks and almost always needed to use them.)

My stay-at-home writing retreat was so wonderful and so productive that I adopted a once-weekly writing retreat day, a tradition I followed for about a year. Every Wednesday evening, I changed my outgoing voicemail to say I would return calls on Friday morning. My extreme discipline with unplugging each and every Thursday delivered extreme productivity, and extreme luxury. I craved the benefits of these retreat days so much that the discipline was not at all challenging. In fact, it didn’t even feel like discipline; it felt downright indulgent.

So, why do I no longer have Unplugged Thursdays in my life? I suppose I feel the weight of more responsibility these days—more editing and writing and coaching to do, more emails to answer, more blogging and posting. . . . I just feel unpluggable. But I have a hunch that this “unpluggability” is, on some level, an illusion. I mean, what would really happen if I didn’t answer the phone or go online for one day? Would the world stop because I haven’t logged in?

I do realize that people who have children or jobs where others’ lives are at stake (e.g., ER doctors or psychiatrists) are not necessarily in the position to unplug for a full day, but even they could arrange to unplug for a morning, or for an hour.

So, my invitation to you is to Just Say No to cyberspace . . . just for the day. Tell your Facebook friends that you have very important business to tend to . . . and then shut down your Internet. Commit to a certain amount of time at your computer or notepad, but be sure to have down time surrounding your writing time. (Muses love down time.) Ask your spouse or roommate to support your need to retreat. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t send any texts. Don’t turn on the television. Let the silence envelope you . . . and see what happens. Then please tell us all about it!

I will surely be joining you soon in the land of the Unplugged.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

 

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month? That’s right. Every November thousands of slightly crazy people all over the world (200,000 last year) participate in this month-long novel-writing frenzy. “The goal,” says the NaNoWriMo web site, “is to write a 50,000 word (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.” But wait, fingers off that keyboard! You can’t start before November 1. You can prep (i.e., outline, make notes, etc.). But the NaNoWriMo guidelines say you’re not allowed to actually start writing the novel before the “starting gun” fires.

Some of you may be thinking: “Oh, that’s not for me. That’s for veteran writers with several books under their belt.” Not true. Sure there are lots of experienced writers who participate. But NaNoWriMo is actually perfect for the individual who has always wanted to write a novel but is too daunted to actually begin.

“Because of the limited writing window,” says the web site, “the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.” The site goes on to say, “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.” Perfect for breaking the meanest of writer’s blocks!

There’s even plenty of support and community surrounding NaNoWriMo. Just check out their web site (below); there are forums, groups, and ways to share the experience.

Have I ever participated in National Novel Writing Month? Hell no! (My body hurts just thinking about sitting at the computer for that many hours.) But if you think you can do it without hurting yourself, then go for it! It’s certain to get you past any writer’s block.

So, get yourself ready. NaNoWriMo starts in just 4 days. But don’t forget to sign up!

To Sign up for NaNoWriMo: http://www.nanowrimo.org

To read more about NaNoWriMo: http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/about/whatisnano

For the guidelines: http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/about/hownanoworks

The Timer Is Your Friend

 

A few years ago, a trusted mentor (a well-established writer and generally wise woman) told me: “Write for twenty minutes a day . . . period.”

“What?” She had to be joking. I knew my own writing process; I’d been writing for many years. It took me an hour just to warm up. The good stuff didn’t start happening until the second or third hour. “There’s no way I’m going to write anything of value in twenty minutes,” I said, and I explained my writing process to her, thinking she would drop this tack and come up with another that suited me better.

But she pressed on, insisting I give it a try. I had come to her in a quandary. I wasn’t writing at all. I had a particularly full plate at the time, editing and coaching other writers, and didn’t feel I had any energy or creativity for my own writing. Every time I tried to get back to my own project, my paying work received less time and attention than it needed. Ultimately, I would end up ditching my own writing again in order to catch up with my “day job.”

The cycle kept repeating. It began to seem an impossible juggling act.

So I took my mentor’s guidance and tried writing for a measly thirty minutes a day (yes, I’d negotiated an extra ten minutes!). After trying this out for a couple of weeks, the same thing happened that always happened. My energy poured into my own writing, and my other work suffered.

I came back to my mentor for further guidance.

“Did you stop when the timer went off?” she asked.

“Well . . . no,” I confessed. “But I kept getting on a roll . . . and you don’t want to interrupt a writing flow, right?” I had ended up writing for an hour or two each time.

“Stop when the timer goes off,” she said. “If you’re excited about what you’re writing when you stop, you’ll be excited to sit down the next day to pick up where you left off.”

So, I tried one more time. I had been “granted permission” to make some notes when the timer went off, so I wouldn’t lose track of the good ideas that were bubbling up, but other than that, I intended to obey the timer.

Well, the following weeks, and months, brought quite a surprise. I got to learn that my writing process was not as fixed a feature of my personality as I’d thought. I wrote four chapters over those few months, writing for only thirty minutes a day, five days a week, and usually producing less than a page in each sitting. In this slow-and-steady manner, I finished the first draft of that novel (and my paying work didn’t suffer for it).

Sure when I read over those chapters at the end of those months, they were a little rougher than something written in a series of three-hour sessions. But they were written, which was much more than I’d been accomplishing with my prior tack.

Now when a client or student tells me, “I just don’t have the time to write,” I ask: “Do you own a timer?”

Writing from Your Body?

 

If you’re a writer, there’s a good likelihood that you’ve spent at least a little time (if not a huge amount of time) procrastinating. Maybe you’ve even experienced “Writer’s Block”—which is kind of like procrastination that has taken up residence, with seemingly no recourse for eviction.

Have you ever wondered why writers are so plagued by procrastination, or why there’s even such a thing as “Writer’s Block”?

Unlike dancers or painters, we writers rely on the verbal centers of the brain to craft our work; this brings us up into our head . . . and the head is where the infamous Inner Critic lives. A lot of writers don’t see the connection between the Inner Critic and their procrastination or their “Writer’s Block,” but as far as I’m concerned, the Inner Critic is the man behind the Writer’s Block curtain; he’s orchestrating the whole show, making you sharpen every last pencil before you can sit down to write (and you haven’t used a pencil in decades; you write at a computer!).

In my experience, writers seem to suffer more severely from procrastination or “Block” than any other kind of artist. We writers just hang out a little too much with our Inner Critic (remember, our Inner Critic lives in our head).

When we’re writing we can’t just turn off our mind entirely; we need those verbal skills to form sentences and paragraphs. But we also need to fly under the Inner Critic’s radar if we’re going to actually get anything out onto the page.

So, how do you stay just enough in the mind to write, but not so much in the mind that the Inner Critic takes over? It’s a delicate balancing act, one where sensory awareness plays an important role.

Many of the writers who come to see me are stuck in their heads, duking it out with their Inner Critic. They don’t realize that all they have to do is duck. . . . down into their bodies. But just inhabiting the body doesn’t work if you do it in a mindless way. You can go kickbox for an hour or run up a mountain. But if you don’t tap into your sensory experience while you’re huffing and puffing, you may not be any closer to your writer’s flow when you come down the mountain.

So, being solely in your mind brings you perilously close to your Inner Critic, and being solely in your body can take you away from accessing your verbal centers. Thus, a secret route to inspired writing is to be in both your mind and your body at the same time. This is worth repeating: A secret route to inspired writing is to be both in your mind and your body at the same time.

But how do you do this? The simple answer is: You watch your body’s experience with your mind. You pay attention to your senses. It’s the sensory experience that is the bridge between inhabiting your body and inhabiting your mind.

So, the next time you feel stuck or find yourself engaged with your Inner Critic, go for a walk . . . and pay attention to your walking. What do you feel as you’re placing one foot in front of the other? What’s your inner experience? Notice the sensations in your feet, your belly, your chest. Pick up a stone and notice its texture. Take in the smell of a flower. Or you could do yoga or take a bath, but watch your sensations with your mind as you do it. And most important, have pen and paper on hand; you never know when the floodgates will open!

Establishing a Writing Habit

 

I tell my students and clients all the time (gently yet emphatically): “You’ve got to establish a writing habit.” It’s about opening up the channels so the creative juices can flow. Once those channels are open and flowing daily (at least 5 days a week), writing becomes second nature, resistance dissipates, and projects begin to write themselves. . . .

So, why has it been weeks (or months?) since I’ve had my own regular writing habit? Why have I put off writing a blog for . . . oh, five or six years now? When others ask, “How’s the writing going?” my answer is, “Oh, I’m not doing much of my own writing . . . I’m helping other people write.”

This is true, and it’s a good excuse, right? Altruistic? Noble? Of service? Or . . . am I doing what my clients and students do when they say, “Oh, I have a really busy schedule” or “How can I write every day when I’m not inspired every day?” or “I sat down to write but I ended up on Facebook.”

Often, beneath any of these excuses is a darker, more hidden reason for resisting writing:  Fear.  We know that as soon as we sit down to the computer, that snarky little voice inside our head is going to start growling at us, telling us how pathetic we are as writers. It’s an unpleasant—even painful experience—so naturally we resist it. Naturally we fear it. The thing is, we’ve got to sit down anyway. We’ve got to sit down, and sit down, and sit down, despite the snarking little voice. For many, sitting down daily to write will get them past this incessant Inner Critic. The channels will open and the voice will grow quiet, or at least faint, or may even disappear all together . . . at least intermittently. For others, the voice will continue to snark no matter how often you write. If you’re one of these people, you’ve just got to keep reminding yourself that anything the Inner Critic says is inherently . . . a big fat lie.

One trick I like to pass on to my students is this: If your Inner Critic is on a particularly gnarly rampage one day, just write badly. Yes, that’s right: Write crap. (Try it out and let me know what happens!) It’s kind of an aikido move: If someone comes at you with an attack, join their energy, rather than resisting it. It’s also similar to Anne Lamott’s “mantra,” shitty first draft (I didn’t swear in cyberspace; I’m just quoting!). The premise is if you give yourself permission to write as badly as your Inner Critic says you will . . . sooner or later, you’ll probably have a few gems slip in under the radar. You may even end up writing something really good. But you can’t get attached to that result; you’ve got to give yourself total permission to write badly.

So, as I finally set out on what has felt like a monolithic task of blog writing, I’m sitting in my chair at my computer, feverishly chanting . . . “Shitty first draft! Shitty first draft! Shitty first draft!” . . . Won’t you join me?

Nomi’s Blog

 

Nomi Isak (aka Nomi Kleinmuntz) is an award-winning book editor and writing coach. She has been the editor on more than 35 published books, and her clients include the J. Paul Getty Museum, Time-Warner AudioBooks, University of California Press, and numerous individual authors. She was the developmental editor on Illuminating the Renaissance (J. Paul Getty), which won the international Eric Mitchell Prize in 2004. She is also a writer herself and has been published in regional magazines. Currently she is at work on a novel.