A Writers’ Poll: How much do you write a day?

When I was growing up, sitting under my mom’s desk to play, comforted by the resounding tap, tap, tap of her manual typewriter, and then later shut out of her writing den so she could concentrate, I thought it was normal for a writer to write for hours and hours on end. My mom woke up and got to work by 5 or 6 in the morning and she didn’t leave her typewriter, and then later her computer, until 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

That’s eight hours of writing!

When I began to write (after years of resisting being a writer, since I figured one was enough for one family), I found that my normal rhythm was about three or four hours a day. And when I tried to write more, I was utterly exhausted after five hours. What’s up with that? Although I didn’t fall far from the tree, I did seem to be a completely different kind of apple.

We were in many ways two very different writers. My mom wrote stage plays and television screenplays; I write fiction and memoir. My mom’s work was plot and dialogue driven. My work is very visual (though I do write good dialogue too; thanks, Mom). My mom wrote from the outside in—getting the concept and perhaps the structure in place first, and often not getting to the emotional content until later drafts. I tend to write from the inside out, spilling my guts onto the page and then muddling my way to finding some sort of plot.

Is our difference in style what made it harder for me to write longer than 3 or 4 hours? Or was it just that my mom was a bit of a powerhouse-superwoman-wordsmith? I mean, the woman only needed to 3 to 5 hours of sleep.

Well, when I recently began writing a book on a deadline, I found that suddenly I was writing five, six, seven hours a day! One day, I even wrote for eight. And I didn’t even feel exhausted . . . well, maybe a little. But I also felt exhilarated.

The mighty deadline has pushed me through the glass ceiling. Perhaps that was the difference all along. My mom wrote on deadline for years. Or . . . maybe my mom’s lovely spirit has been hanging around helping me out.

In any case, with that triumph in my back pocket, I still cherish the lovely writer’s day that goes like this: write in the morning; nap and then exercise in the afternoon; socialize in the evening. Perhaps one day I’ll get to write that way again.

In the end, there is no right number of hours for everyone. Virginia Woolf, I have heard, wrote for one hour a day. Stephen King supposedly writes ten pages each and every day (a lot of writing! Anyone know how long that takes him?). Many, many writers claim the 3–5 hour a day rule.

How much do you write a day? Do you shoot for hours or word count? Please tell us how you write n’ roll.

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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.

Calling It Like It Is: “Do I Use Their Real Names”?

 

In the post “Your Life Story: How Much to Tell”  (September 17, 2011), I promised a follow-up article that addressed the issue of whether or not to use people’s real names in your memoir. Here is that promised follow-up post:

“What should I do? Should I use their real names?”

This is a question that gets asked every time I teach Write Your Life. My students, and many of my clients, are writing about their own lives. But they can’t very well write about their lives without writing about the people in their lives. None of us lives in a vacuum (except maybe a monk living in a cave in the Himalayas, but so far I haven’t had any cave-dwelling monks take my class).

Of course, this question wouldn’t arise if the people in my students’ lives had behaved nicely. My students aren’t worried about writing that Uncle Saul was an absolute angel. Let’s face it, we want to write about our lives because it’s been hard. We had a harrowing childhood or we’ve escaped from an abusive relationship or we’ve built our dream despite all the naysayers. If there’s drama or conflict (and drama and conflict make for good story), then at least one person was a jerk.

But just because someone was a jerk doesn’t mean we want to ruin their life by exposing them in public. (And we certainly don’t want to end up getting sued for slander or libel.) So what do you do? Do you write your story as fiction? Do you move your town halfway across the country and rename all the characters? Do you change all recognizable traits?

Anne Lamott provided a hilarious answer at a reading I attended many years ago. Someone in the audience had asked the very question at hand and, in true Lamott style, she said: “Give the character a small penis.” (Clearly Uncle Saul would not step forward to claim slander if it meant he’d have to identify himself with the small-membered character.) Once the laughter in the audience had died down, someone else asked, “What if the character is a woman?” Without missing a beat, Lamott said, “Give the character a small penis.”

If anyone tries this tack, I’d love to hear how it works. If, however, you’d rather not mention genitalia in your book, you’re still left with the question: “Do I use their real names?”

The answer I usually give students and clients comes in three parts:

1) Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.

2) When you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth), then you can decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.

3) Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.

Here’s my thinking behind this three-step approach:

1) You (and every writer that ever lived) already battles with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write, don’t make it worse by censoring yourself. The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page. (Save the editing and critical thinking for a later draft.)

2) This is one place where procrastination will serve you. Put off your decision about whether to use real names until a later draft.

3) The purpose of getting feedback from others is that we’re far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly. Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask them how they think you’ve portrayed a particular character. You might be surprised. You may think you’ve portrayed Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, and your editor or friend may find him endearing. (There may be no need for the small penis after all.)

In the end, you’ve got to make a decision you can live with. Whatever feedback or advice you get, you’re the one who has to live with the decision, and any consequences.

I (and other readers) would love to hear how you have solved this dilemma of whether or not to use real names.

Your Life Story: How Much to Tell

 

When you write about your life, do you tell your story from the beginning (“I was born in a town with one cow, one church, and one jukebox”)? Or do you tell about just one year of your life (as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love)?

To answer that question, let’s start with this distinction:

Autobiography is the story of your entire life.

Memoir is one story from your life.

Generally autobiography is reserved for the famous, though if you’d like to leave a documented legacy of your life for your children and grandchildren, autobiography is one way to do it. But writing an autobiography is often a daunting task and can take a good long while to accomplish.

Writing a memoir is less intimidating. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a book, and a book is a big project. But it’s a more approachable undertaking.

In a memoir you don’t have to get every detail of your life down on paper; you don’t even have to remember every detail. There’s more room for approximation and poetic license; there’s even room to share your wisdom, your humor, and your insights.

When it comes time to plan out (or outline) your memoir, know that you can organize it pretty much any way you want. It doesn’t even have to be strictly chronological. You can organize it around a running theme in your life (example: the quilts you learned to make with your grandmother and the stories that were told while quilting, and how you’re now passing all this on to your granddaughter); or you can tell about one pivotal year in your life and the insight—and hindsight—you now have about it; or you can follow a thread of the lessons you’ve learned, the mistakes you’ve made, or the even the food you’ve eaten!

Remember, you don’t have to start at the beginning. Many great narratives (novels, memoirs, even films) start at a pivotal, exciting moment, then rewind to the beginning to tell how you got to that moment.

But what if you don’t know what to write? The good news is you don’t have to know in order to start. Sitting down and writing is often the best way to explore what it is you want to write about in the first place. (You can start with freewriting.)

And the best part about writing a memoir is you already know the facts. Everything you need is already inside you.

I’ll revisit the subject of how much to tell in a later post; look for: Calling It Like It Is:  “Do I Use Their Real Names?”

If you’d like to take a class in memoir writing, check out “Write Your Life” on my workshops page.