I am deeply inspired by the stories brought forth in my Write Your Life class and feel honored to serve as witness.
When you sit down to write (and to share your writing) in the company of others, you are giving yourself a profound gift. Your stories no longer live locked inside you, but are witnessed and held by a group, by a community.
Write Your Life is a wonderfully supportive environment in which to share your stories. It is my hope that you give yourself the gift of joining us.
To read more or to register, click here.
It’s true. I do. I love deadlines.
Not that I always love the date attached to the deadline. But no deadline at all is not the writer’s heaven I used to think it was.
I learned early on to work with a contract, even when it wasn’t generated in-house. If I did some work for an individual author or writer, I’d draw up my own contract. I was slower to learn about the value of including a deadline in that document. I wrote a beautiful contract once, covered all bases, got contract advice from the wonderful National Writers Union (NWU: consider joining!), and presented my document to the author I would be writing for. He requested a few changes to the contract, which I made . . . but he said nothing about the absence of a deadline. Woo hoo! Was I a clever girl! I had squirreled out from under the dreaded deadline pressure—which I was sure would squash my creativity. I could now write in peace. I could craft a masterpiece. I was blessed.
. . . until a year into the project, when the book manuscript was not done and I’d run out of money. I now had work I owed someone and more work I needed to take on to pay the rent.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t been writing during that year. I’d been writing every day, loving life. But I hadn’t been focused on the manuscript’s finish line . . . because there wasn’t one. I would get there when the manuscript was complete. Completion was my finish line. But I’d forgotten to take into consideration how long my funds would last.
A painful lesson learned. Now I love deadlines.
Besides, if you have a deadline, you are one of the lucky ones—a writer or editor with a job or a project. It is cause for celebration. And if your deadline is not externally imposed, then you are one of the disciplined ones. Also cause for celebration.
How about you? Do you love that deadline? (We’d love to hear your experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly!)
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.
Are piles of paperwork, screaming kids, and day-to-day responsibilities keeping you from your writing? One thing that has always helped me get back on track with a project is to get out of town.
Before I wrote on the computer, I loved going camping to write. (Yes, I used to write my first draft longhand!) One time, when I was having difficulty with a particular chapter, I went to Palomar Mountain (San Diego County). I set up my tent and made myself a promise that I wouldn’t leave the mountain until I had finished the chapter. I didn’t care how long it took. I ended up staying a full week but I headed down the mountain with a finished chapter tucked under my arm.
If cost is a concern (and you’re not the camping type), think about whether you have a friend in the boonies with a guest cottage or perhaps you know someone who needs a house sitter. Another possibility is a retreat center; some spiritual retreat centers are quite affordable.
It’s important that you go somewhere where there’s not a lot of cultural diversion (i.e., New York City is probably not the most conducive to a focused retreat). If there’s a choice of a room with no T.V., go for it and dive into your written world.
If you’ve done a writing retreat, please comment and tell us about it!
“First I have to feed the cat,” I said when my mentor told me to write first thing when I got up in the morning.
“OK, so feed the cat. Then write,” she told me.
“But once I go downstairs to feed the cat, I get distracted.” (There were a myriad diversions downstairs—email, roommate, watering the garden, scrubbing the grout in the kitchen tiles.) This was a few years back and I was following a program of writing 30 minutes a day . . . period. (See my post “The Timer Is Your Friend.”)
The next thing my mentor said delighted me as much as it surprised me.
“Write in bed,” she said.
I loved getting advice from another writer. No one but a writer could come up with something so entirely decadent. Truth is, it was equal parts decadent and logical. You’re distracted once you get up + you have a laptop = write in bed. Of course!
So, for the next few months when I went upstairs at bedtime I took with me my laptop and a snack for the next morning to tide me over till breakfast. (My darling cat, Treepuck, would have to wait 30 minutes for his breakfast, till I finished my writing.)
When I woke each morning, I would reach for my laptop without setting foot on the floor. I did this daily and made my way through a couple of chapters tucked cozily beneath my comforter.
Unexpectedly, over the ensuing months I eased my way from the bed to the floor and eventually down the stairs to my living room office, all without ever being distracted.
So if you find yourself distracted in the morning . . . take your writing to bed.
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.
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
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?”