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Monday, May 5, 2014

Chris-alyis (Get it?)–Setting Writing Priorities

For some reason, I haven't felt as if I had as much free time as in the past.
If you've been keeping up with Writing About Writing lately, you know that about a month ago, I took on being a 20 hours a week care giver for The Contrarian, so the real superheroes here in the Hall of Rectitude could get back to regular patrols and crime fighting.  

For some reason, right around that same time, I started to feel like not everything fit in my life. In fact, call me crazy, but it seemed like I was running like 20 hours behind schedule ALL THE TIME. I'm a good skeptic, so I know correlation does not equal causation, but even I was a little....suspicious. 

It usually takes me a month to realize there's a real problem in my schedule, so I'm right on schedule. Or...erm...off of it.

I mean, if someone showed up and told me that they were going to need me to clean all the bathrooms in BART with a toothbrush for 80 hours a week while listening to information about various shrimp dishes, I would know right away that wasn't going to work with writing, but when I'm overdoing it by a just a little, it usually takes a while to discover that my flying machine is not aerodynamically sound and that I can't just pedal harder. 
"I say, Alistair... We do appear to be losing altitude at an alarming rate."
"Best throw in a threesome joke."

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at learning this lesson. When I was in school, I signed up every semester for 12-15 units (on top of 30 hours a week of work), sat in my classes for the first week and thought "No problem! Easy peasy, like sleazy cheesy." Then by about week three or four, I would get a stress headache, black out, and wake up surrounded by dead six-fingered Welsh politicians and thousands of empty whipped cream containers. My fingers would smell like fried chicken and I would be wearing nothing but Denver Nuggets sports gear.

I would quietly drop one or two classes the next day.

The problem is, this time, I don't have a bunch of extra classes to kick overboard.  I have to take a long look at my schedule and at my priorities. I have to get rid of some things that aren't really helping me to become a better writer to make room for more of the things that will.

Actually, a lot of writers go through this, and a lot of starting writings don't often seem to know where they could possibly find more time to do their writing, so maybe it might be worth going into a bit of detail.

If you've ever been in management or listened to someone rich, white, and male tell you about how you can do anything if you just think positively and manage your time a little better, you probably know about the important/urgent matrix. It's a box with four smaller boxes along two axes: "important" and "urgent." 

I don't have goals. I don't even have important goals.
Stand back....because I have WILDLY important goals.
The idea is to distinguish the difference between important and urgent. Urgent needs your attention right now like the Columbian drug lord who wants to know where his fifty kilos are, but important has more to do with one's own priorities. Like writing being more important to me than the MyVegas slot machine game on Facebook.

Of course quadrant 1 is a no brainer. Crying kids can't be ignored. If the house is burning down, I don't talk about how this is really hurting my creative process. When my partner is crying, I don't tell them that a "true artiste" cannot work in such conditions and flounce away. 

Now when you're managing the spaghetti slingers and code monkeys of corporate America or trying to actualize your synergistic potential for positivism at a motivational sales conference, you want to stay out of quadrant four. Quadrant four is like the Devil's playground combined with a minefield crossed with a world where all the sandwiches are made from fat free mayonnaise. You do NOT want to be there.

However quadrant four is important to creatives--writers included. We need time to let our minds wander, to relax, to drift along with the flotsam of ideas at the whim of inspiration's breezes. Of course, many writers' problem is that they need to get out of quadrant four and get some fucking work done, but too many writers are so concerned about their output that they don't actually realize why they can't come up with ideas. An artist with no quadrant four probably has a rolodex filled with Welsh hookers and can't remember exactly what they did the last time they got a headache.

I've never had any inspiration sitting and thinking "What should I write?" Ideas for fresh material only ever come to me when I'm letting my mind wander.

That makes quadrant 3 the pernicious arch nemesis of the creative. It's Darth Vader, Freddy Kruger, and the shark from Jaws all rolled into one. (Like a force wielding shark with lightsaber knife fingers who makes bad puns and force chokes you no matter how big your boat is.) Plus it's annoying. So toss some Jar Jar Binks in there for good measure. ("Messa gonna kill you with my lightsaber knife fingers?") Quadrant three is the big Kahuna Moona of no-nos for an artist.

Quadrant 3 comprises all those things that demand attention, but aren't actually important. Everything from an e-mail about something minor in your life that requires a ten point response, to arguing politics on Facebook to the MMORPG that requires one to log in every day to do the fishing quests if they want the special fishing achievement and the Cod Piece™ Armor (made from actual cod).  In business it might be unimportant meetings, but for a writer, it probably looks like friends who think you can move your schedule around because you don't really work, social media that sends you notifications every time someone posts something or replies to you, lots of things you put on your plate that kind of added up while you weren't looking, and those damnable Welsh hookers with their irresistible sixth fingers!

The problem with quadrant three is that it is "urgent." It has a false sense of importance because it's demanding your attention right now. It contrasts with quadrant two which is important but not demanding your attention. Quadrant three isn't what you want to be doing with your life but it's right up in your face demanding to be dealt with.

This is one reason, and I can't stress this enough, that writers have to be very careful about the kind of writing they do. It is entirely possible--likely even--for a writer to have urgent deadline after urgent deadline in a kind of writing they aren't interested in (freelance or tech writing). But this is not the kind of writing they actually want to be doing so it's urgent, but not very important. They end up on their death bed thinking about how many blender instruction manuals and travel guides they wrote under deadline when what they really wanted to do was write a whole slew of erotica novels about Welsh prostitutes called "The Sixth Finger Series."

Quadrant two, on the other hand, IS what you want to be doing with your life (reading more, writing more, writing more fiction, in my case) but those things don't jump up and wag their junk in your face to get your attention, so you really have to keep in mind the difference between urgent and unimportant vs. important and un-urgent.

That's why I'm in a bit of a Chris-alyis (get it?). I'm taking a long, hard look at how my week unfolds and comparing it with my priorities to find the places where I'm letting the Welsh hookers distract me from the writing I really want to be doing. I'm not just looking for little cuts (like when I start a TV show as background noise for housecleaning and end up watching the end of it on the couch because I finished the job), but big cuts too like whether or not I should really be trying for five entries a day or maintaining online presence so heavily since it keeps all those distractions right in my face. Some tough choices need to be made because I've got a lot going in quadrant 3, and I need to get my ass out of there.

There may be some big transformations coming. Hopefully more butterfly-like and less Karrigan-esque. (Don't tell me I can't make Starcraft jokes, okay? I'm just not ready for that.) 

I also really need to rename quadrant two "The Chopper" so I can put this on continuous loop. I need this in my life.

Need.

                                                                       Awwwwwwwww Yisssssss

I've got a light fare planned this week here on the blog. We have a guest blogger tomorrow, and I'm taking on an easy question on Friday. I will focus on my transformation with the Chrys-alyis (get it?) and hopefully by next week, I will have figured a few things out.

All writers face major crises of time. Marriage. Careers. Kids. Major life changes just bring with them new schedules with new difficulties. Sometimes the easiest things to put on the back burner are exactly the kind of self-discipline/self-motivational tasks that aren't in-one's-face urgent, but are so crucial to a writer's existence. Jettisoning the priorities that are urgent but less important is a conscious act of will. These moments are often the crucibles in which the sporadic hobbyists are separated from those with genuine determination and tenacity to make their ambitions come true.

These are the moments that define us.

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