Climbing Out of a Writing Hole

“How does a project get a year behind schedule? One day at a time.” ~~Fred Brooks (IBM computer software developer)

While I’m not behind a whole year on my current writing project, this question has been ricocheting around in my mind lately. I have writing deadlines stacked up for many months, for which I am truly grateful.

But I am sorely behind where I had hoped to be at this point. Some things happened which I could not have foreseen–like happens to everyone. That’s life. There’s probably a lesson there on building more “what if something happens?” time into my schedule.

Right now, I don’t really have the time to do some big analysis of how this happened. I just need to get dug out of this hole and back on schedule. But how?

Faster, More, Hurry!

Our tendency is to look at how behind we have gotten with our writing projections (including you ambitious writers who are doing NaNoWriMo this year) and determine to buckle down and write 10,000 words every day till we are caught up. Then by Day 3 we feel rotten from no sleep or exercise, by Day 6 we are sick, and Day 7 we throw up our hands in despair and take necessary time off.

That has been my usual “catch up” method in the past. And it doesn’t work. It has never worked! And yet that is my inner urge, even as I write this. Stress, stress, stress!

Another Way

But this time I have decided to do it another way. And the minute I made the decision, I noticed my stomach settled down, I stopped hunching over the laptop, and I began breathing deeply again instead of hyperventilating. I will be climbing out of this hole differently.

What will I do? Use my writing GPS system and “recalculate.” Pretend that today is my starting point and I am right on schedule today, then figure out how much I need to do daily to make my deadline. I am relieved to see that it’s not 10,000 words either. It’s not nearly as bad as I was figuring, in fact. That’s often the way it is.

One Day at a Time

The quote at the top of the page shows how we all get behind in our writing projects: one day at a time. But the answer to the problem is also in that quote. We climb out of the hole one day at a time.

And if I concentrate just on the amount I need to do today–and each day after this–then I’ll make the deadline. And I should stay healthy as well. Then I can go out and celebrate when I turn in the book!

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Head Space: Conserve Your Writing Energy

Published three years ago today…and I still need it today! Enjoy the reminder.~~~

Writers require “head space” in which nothing else is happening. You must have some mental space that is yours and yours alone in order to create and write.

“It takes quite a bit of energy on your part–a real effort–to maintain that space,” says Heather Sellers in Chapter after Chapter: Discover the dedication & focus you need to write the book of your dreams. “You have to put a wall around a part of yourself and protect it from the world of Needs and Stuff and Functions.”

Where’s the Energy Go?

If you still suffer from the common Being Everything to Everybody Syndrome, you very likely have little head space to call your own. Writers can’t do that all day, every day, and still have enough energy left for writing. Your head space is too full of other people.

One big energy drain comes from greasing the wheels of social interactions. Many of us have this habit, and it is a hard one to break. Some of us “grease the wheels” all day–at home or at work, with our family or friends, even with total strangers.

How do we do this? We see unhappy or uncomfortable people, and we rush in to fix their feelings and smooth their ruffled feathers and raise their self-esteem. We see troubled people and offer all the self-help therapy we can think of, then take them out for lunch. At social gatherings where no one is making any effort to converse, we turn somersaults trying to make people open up and connect.

Head Space: the Solution

We mean well. We can’t stand the discomfort of other people, and we rush in to fix it. Or we hate to have someone mad at us, so we rush in to fix it–even when the other person brought on the problem or bad mood him/herself.

Let’s face it. Most of our unasked-for advice isn’t appreciated. Sometimes it’s resented. And I don’t know about your track record, but 90% of the advice I so helpfully “offer” to others is never followed. It frustrates me, but it’s my own fault since they didn’t ask for my input in the first place.

It’s also a colossal waste of time and energy. And that’s what we’re trying to conserve here: YOUR energy. All this fixing takes place in the psychic head space we need for our writing.

Break Free!

Being able to focus on your writing means learning first to take your eyes off everyone else–and letting other perfectly capable adults figure out their own lives. Only then will you have the quiet space inside your head in which to mull over your writing and let it take shape.

Experiment with this idea over the course of the next several weeks. Each time you are listening to someone’s problems, just be a caring listener and bite your tongue unless you are specifically asked for advice. In a dead-end conversation, be polite and pleasant and say a few things, but don’t invest all your energy in this nonverbal bump on a log. (And if you don’t think you have the right to do this–or the ability–see “Boundaries for Writers.”)

One more warning from Heather Sellers : “We spend so much of our time Being Everything to Everyone, why on earth are we surprised when we have nothing left but the swamp of procrastination to stew in?” You’re probably not procrastinating–she says–you’re exhausted. “Save part of yourself. You must hold yourself back. For the book. Practice giving a little less of yourself to Everyone and Everything (yes, you can!).”

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A Parent’s (or Grandparent’s) Writing Schedule

With summer vacation upon us, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject of writing when you are involved with children or grandchildren.

When my children were small–and even as they grew older–I struggled to find a writing schedule that worked most days of the week. After much trial and error, I would hit upon a schedule that allowed me to write nearly two hours per day.

Bliss–but boy, was it temporary!

Not For Long

That “bliss” lasted a very short time usually–until I once again had morning sickness, or someone was teething, or my husband switched to working nights, or someone started school, or someone else went out for three extra-curricular activities and we lived in the car after school and weekends.

It was many years before I realized there is no one right way to schedule your writing. The “right way” (by my own definition) is simply the schedule that allows me to get some writing done on a regular basis.

[For the five types of parent-writing schedules, read the rest of the article. This is an excerpt from More Writer's First Aid.]  

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Beware the Fuzzies–and Focus!

“How’s your focus?” It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with lately.

Last year my calendar was so full of very good things, but I was frequently exhausted and vaguely dissatisfied. (Well, not vaguely actually. It was a very pointed dissatisfaction with the amount of writing I finished on any given day.)

My children were grown and on their own. I had long ago given up time wasters (TV viewing, hanging on the telephone) and most hobbies (quilting, gardening), and yet…the struggle to write for quality periods of time persisted.

A Busy Blur

A recent sermon gave me a lot to think about. “Beware of living your life without focus,” he said. He talked about how often we substitute being busy for being focused. He finished by challenging us to really give this prayerful thought.

I wrote down his questions and applied them to my writing life:

  • Do you know where you’re going?
  • If you stay on the road you’re on, where is it leading?
  • (And my own corollary question: Are you busy qualifying yourself for a writing life you don’t want?)

Pull Back for Better Focus

You may need to get an overview of how you spend your time before you can answer those questions. It can be an eye-opening exercise to keep track of your activities, hour by hour, for a week or two. For example, you might truly believe that you spend two hours writing every day, plus one hour marketing, and a fourth hour studying. [That's what I thought I was doing.]

After keeping track, you might find you actually write twenty minutes, but stop frequently to check email. Your marketing hour might actually be spent reading about marketing methods, but not truly doing any marketing of your own projects. Your hour of studying the magazine article on character development might actually boil down to twenty minutes of study and forty minutes of reading ads or following related links.

Training for What?

You may dream of writing novels, but your time tracker might reveal that your writing time is eaten up by writing free newsletters for two organizations you belong to. Or, if you’re well published, you can’t say no when asked to write an endorsement or review of someone’s new book. (That may not sound like much, but reading the book takes several hours, and a well crafted review takes another hour.) Maybe you haven’t had time to work on your own novel for three days because you’ve been critiquing for other writers or writing guest blogs.

All these things make you feel like you’re furthering your writing career as a novelist–but are you? Or are you busy qualifying yourself for something other than your dream? You’re actually gaining experience as a reviewer, a critiquer, a blogger, and a newsletter writer. (Those are fine jobs, if that’s truly what you want to be doing in the long run.) But if you stay on this road–if you continue to spend a large chunk of your writing time this way–do you like where it will inevitably lead you?

Solution?

Beware the fuzzies! Know what your dreams and goals are. We all have our own criteria for choosing goals–and different methods to determine what we’re supposed to do with our writing gifts. (Prayer and journaling work best for me.)

Once you’ve decided, don’t be vague about how you intend to get where you want to go. And stop being an automatic “yes” to each request, no matter how flattering. You must live on a higher plane–above the constant demands for your time–and say “no” to things that don’t further those goals.

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Perfectionist Writers

Does perfectionism keep you from getting started on your writing? Does trying to write your best create pressure for you?

If you, you’ll be encouraged something in Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s about being a perfectionist–and how to deal with the pressure it generates in all artists, including writers. Read about this experiment:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Quality from Quantity

Isn’t that a fascinating experiment? I know that we get better by writing more, like a piano player gets better by practicing more. But what struck me is how much more FUN the first group must have had (while at the same time producing superior pots.) They were just trying to create a lot of pots, without any emphasis at all on the finished product.

Could I use the results of this experiment to revamp my own writing that was often stalled by the perfectionist demon?

Reforming the Perfectionist

I decided to try an experiment of my own this morning. Most days I more closely resemble a pot maker from Group B: stewing, not writing, being unhappy with results and scrapping them, judging, blocking, and finally quitting for the day. Today I decided to be a Group A pot-making writer and just relax. I stayed off the Internet till noon and just wrote–a lot. [I had already outlined my book.] My only goal was to produce a lot of pages. I wrote for three hours with intermittent short breaks, and I had fun! From what I can tell, the nice pile of finished pages aren’t half bad either.

I think I’m onto something here! Don’t try to write the Great American Novel today. Just make some pots, lots of pots!

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