My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

How to Sit and Write Every Day....Again (Mailbox)

How do I actually sit and actually write? Also how long should I be writing for?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I don't usually reanswer old questions, but sometimes if they're fundamental to the process, I will revisit them from a fresh angle.] 

Michelle asks:

I have a really hard time just sitting down to write. I have the time and I either just fritter it away or I find something else to do. The thing is that I REALLY like writing, and when I'm on, it feels so good. I'll go strong for a week and then completely lose my willpower even though I really want to finish what I'm working on. Can you give me any advice on how to keep my enthusiasm going? Write every day is great advice, but HOW?

Also, you never really tell us how much we should be writing. Stephen King says six to eight hours or don't bother. Is it really that much?

My reply:

Fritter is such a great word. We don't see enough of fritter.

Some people can just sit and write. It's in their bones, I guess. It's stenciled into their DNA, and they take to it like a fish to cliché. But for everyone else (like me), it turns out to be a tremendous amount of effort. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with how much they deep down in their gonads ENJOY it or how much they yearn to be a writer. It's just a matter of establishing the daily routine to make it stick. There are two ways I've seen to effectively lock writing in as a daily habit that cannot easily be broken and will always be there when you reach for it.

I get a variation of this question a lot, but I'm not quite willing to just dump it in the FAQ because it's SUCH a fundamental writing question. (There's one that's pretty close, but it's a variation on a theme.) I'm actually willing to let it circle back around and answer it from time to time. Besides, each time the answer is a little different. Who knows? Maybe the way I word it today will resonate with someone in a way it didn't a year ago. 

There are two answers to this question, Michelle. Consider them like the two "paths" to writing enlightenment (enWRITEenment?). Neither is particularly "easy," although one is certainly more work, especially at the "front end." The other path, while nominally easier, is rigid and inflexible in certain ways that are not always trivial for people who are not already themselves working writers. So the choice is yours. Although, as you can see below, I'd eventually recommend doing both as much as possible.

I will also say this, these two techniques "stack" (you get even MORE benefits if you do both), although there is no quantitative way to measure how much. It's not like either will add exactly 2000 words a day, but together they will add exactly 4000. Enwritenment doesn't work like that. You may find one more useful than the other or, as I have, even discover that one serves you better during certain parts of your life and the other during others. But every writer I've ever talked to (myself included) notices that if you do them BOTH, it supercharges the effect. 

I can take BOTH??
That makes all the difference!
(Nothing like a little Robert Frost humor to keep it light, Chris. Well done.)

The important thing to remember here is that whatever metaphor you use (personally, I'm fond of saying, "discipline is a muscle that you can build up, and creativity is a habit you can establish," but I usually just call that whole process my "muse" since that's a metaphor that is easily and ubiquitously understood), sitting down and writing easily isn't something one can achieve with some quick and easy fix. If ginseng made you sit down and write, I fucking absolutely PROMISE I would tell you that was the secret. Pinkie swear. This is going to take establishing habits and working against our natural inclination as mammals to conserve energy.

Still, summoning creativity requires one to control their muse instead of their muse controlling THEM. 

You know how it is. You have an idea like a lightning bolt. You're filled with energy. You can barely sleep. You start working on making your creative vision a reality (in our case writing) and it's so EASY at first. Maybe you clock in five thousand words just on the first day! Why would anyone think this is hard? But then you get into the muck. A scene you kind of skimmed over in your vision. Or effort sticker shock when you realize just how many long, hard days writing an entire novel into a final draft is actually going to take. And your muse checks out. Your muse wanted the fun hit of a line of creativity pixie dust, not the slog of genuine effort. And your muse fills your ears with its Wormtongue stories of how bad your writing will be if you try to "force it." 

And you just don't wanna.

Muses are capricious little fucks that tend to resist anything the instant it starts to feel like work. They will bring the rainbow pixie dust so long as THEY are calling the shots, but when you ask them to commit to a schedule or come finish what they started, they'll hide in the corner and sing siren songs about how they'll inspire you to acts of great creative genius so long as you NEVER EVER push them to do anything so outrageous as work hard or "treat writing like a chore" or ever "do it even though you're not feeling it." What is perhaps more interesting is how many people will absolutely believe their muses bullshit stories without ever once, for any appreciable length of time, even trying the advice that almost every working writer, pretty much every artist, and literally every "household name" gives them about regular discipline and hard work.

Anyway...I could gnaw on that bone all day. On to the two paths! A lot of people have ways that work for them, and more power to them. The last thing this should be is a One True Path™....er TWO true paths type thing. But for folks who are still floundering, I have two suggestions I have seen work unswervingly at establishing writing as a firm routine.

Path ONE- The"Easier" path to enwritenment, but more rigid and inflexible: 

Sit down at the same time every day to write. Do it every day. Do it at the same time every day. I can't stress both of these precepts enough. Maybe you take one day a week off, but really you should be doing this every single day. Sit there and write, and if you can't think of anything to write, copy something out of a book until you CAN think of something to write. Then do it the next day....and the next...

It's simple but really hard. There's a reason people go positively apeshit in the comments every time I suggest that they should be writing every day if they really want to achieve their career goals of being a writer. (Because they are dead-ass sure they're going to become a better writer by NOT writing.) That shit is hard, and despite the conventional wisdom of millions of people who have NEVER written for a living, daily writing works. You may not always turn out the most inspired shit, but you'll have a lot more (both inspired and not) than if you sit around waiting for the lightning to strike. After even just a few days, you'll notice the "resistance" to writing starts to go away, and probably within a couple of weeks you will find ideas beginning to start flowing a half an hour or so before your scheduled time, in anticipation. When I am using this technique, I start "writing" almost an hour before I sit down at a computer; that is to say, I start having a flood of ideas that are almost instantly transmuted into words.

The problem is that, if you're like most people, this sort of schedule is only really tenable if you're already making money from writing or have the flexibility to make some serious lifestyle sacrifices. Sitting down at the same time every day is a tall order––particularly if you have some vision of "making it," that 30 minutes a day won't achieve. (And to be painfully blunt, that small of an amount of writing wouldn't be enough for MOST folks' visions of "making it.") If you're writing for an hour or two a day, this can work. Most people can carve out a sacrosanct time slot of that size. Bigger, and there starts to be problems. That's a massive chunk out of anyone's day.

This is when the muse comes. THIS is when the muse comes. It won't come any other time. If it finds you writing, you get the pixie dust and rainbow unicorn jizz. If it finds you in a PTA meeting or working a late night on the DeLaney account or cracking open a cold one with the boys or at Disneyland or or or......you get a few ideas and then it wanders off, and the next day it'll be a little harder to get it to show up. Like any habit or any routine, if you don't do it––especially if you don't do it more than a few times––it'll fade. It's why all the NaNoWriMo folks wonder why they can't reproduce those awesome sessions they had in late November by about December 10th. They broke the habit of sitting down and doing it.

Of course, anyone who wants to be a capital W writer is likely to have to make a few difficult choices in life, such as give up a robust social life or raiding guild or the long hours needed to buck for that promotion. But having a two–, three –, four-hour block of time ANYWHERE in every single day is just not something I'm going to blithely fail to acknowledge is absolutely unreasonable for some (most?) people. Building a career that essentially comes with a 10,000-hour unpaid internship (in SOME form) at the beginning still doesn't mean that every morning at 6 a.m. is going to work out for everyone or that every single evening is going to be free enough six nights a week. 

And if you have kids? Sweet cuppin cakes!

Now look, maybe you are made of discipline chips dipped in rigorsauce. Maybe you are ready to set aside four hours and ditch your social life (or never have a family or always work part-time hours and barely scrape by). It's how I cut MY teeth, waking up at four in the morning to do three to five hours of writing and mostly saying no to opportunities to socialize. Maybe you CAN make this work, but this shit is HARD, and I'm not going to pound a pulpit and tell you "fuggedaboutit" if you can't find some miracle five to six hours at the same exact time every day and crawl across glass on your knees and give up everything and never suffer a Netflix series to be binged and sacrifice your firstborn on the altar of writing.

Path one is simple, but hard. You just sit down at the same time almost every day and do the thing. The muse gets tamed. It learns that nothing it can say or do is going to get it out of doing the work, so it grudgingly shows up at that time and brings the mojo. You can't really move the time around. You can CHANGE it (and go through the adjustment process again with the new time), but it's not really flexible.

Fortunately, there is another way. 

The more involved, harder, but also more flexible, path to enwritenment: 

Let's consider Path TWO™: how to train your muse instead of just TAMING it. (I'm going to quickly describe the steps, but each will link out to its own article where I've done a much more comprehensive description of the process, why it works, and what to expect.)

First you have to do morning writing. Approach the page before you engage linguistically with anything else. Freewrite until you can't keep going. Do this until your rough output doubles before you find yourself "slowing down."

And when you've mastered that, you move on to the second part; the floating half hour of writing. Set a time. Sit down. Write for 30 minutes and that's it. Keep moving that half an hour around. Eventually, put it everywhere that isn't your sleeping time (although unless you like deeply uncomfortable conversations with the boss, you should put it during work hours only during your days off). 

The second part is the hardest. Sitting down to write at a predetermined 30 minute slot turns out to be one of the most difficult things to follow through with that you may ever do. You will come up with ten BILLION reasons you cannot sit down and write at the time you've set aside. If you schedule 10 a.m., you will try so hard to convince yourself to "just do 10:15-10:45" because "what's the difference, really? It's still thirty minutes." You will try to skip a day. You will tell yourself there's no way you could have predicted, when you scheduled it, that your favorite episode of Knight Rider would be on. You will struggle at first, maybe even just sit and stare for thirty minutes and do nothing but copy paragraphs out of your favorite book to keep typing and keep yourself off Facebook. 

You'll find excuses you didn't even know you had!

Your muse doesn't like this part. Your muse HATES this part. It is like breaking a wild stallion. (It's a lot like that, honestly.) But if you succeed, which is by no means certain, you will have trained your muse (or whatever metaphor you want to call the creative part of your thought process) to engage whenever you need it to...at the moment you need it to....every time you come to a page. You will bedazzle even your working writer friends by telling them you've never really have writer's block. They will gaze at you in awe as you walk by and ask if they can touch your clothing. Room keys will be slipped into your pocket by stunningly attractive people.

I may have dreamed those last few parts.

The more professional of a fiction writer you want to be, the more likely there is to be a time where you have a job that pays the bills WHILE you write in almost every nook and cranny you can find. The "ease" of setting aside multiple hours a day for writing is often something that writers forget they couldn't really do before they were writing for a living. But with the second path to enwritenment, you have a bit more flexibility. You'll still have to put in the hours, but you can do mornings on Tuesdays, evenings during the weekends, and eight hours on your days off. You can configure your schedule to fit around the things in life that aren't so easy to ignore.

Your second question is a lot easier to answer, Michelle. I don't write a lot of specifics because I'm not sure what each person's goal is when it comes to writing. Do they want to publish short stories? Write a compelling daily blog? Write for the sheer personal enjoyment of it? Be a paperback writer? [**cue the Beatles**] Fanfic? Have a curiously WELL-paying job writing erotica under a pen name, but no one EVER knows?

Goals have to be modulated to fit the objectives they're serving. A person who wants a fulfilling hobby can write an hour or two on their days off or even just when the spirit moves them. Someone who wants a tidy little side-gig might need to write (or promote their work) for five or ten hours a week. A person who wants fiction to be their day job isn't likely to achieve that without at LEAST a day job's worth of hours and likely a lot more. 

I put in about forty hours writing and I'm theoretically able to survive––although not without a side gig.....at least not here in the Bay area. Sadly, I put those same forty hours in for YEARS before I started getting paid enough to quit some of my day job work, so for a while there it was 70 hours a week and I was either working or writing. That's not something I would recommend for most people (or even past me) as a good work/life balance, but it's also probably the only reason I'm where I am today. So you really have to make some difficult choices.

It's up to you, Grasshopper. 

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