I’ve always daydreamed a lot. My brain is always bouncing around. Hell, I’m daydreaming right now as I type this. It’s part of being creative, right? I have a healthy imagination! When it comes to writing, I’m always inspired!
That is…I get inspired frequently. Maintaining my discipline enough to finish things once the initial euphoria of that inspiration wears off? That’s a whole other jar of Nutella.
But if I expect to be staffed on a television show, I have to be able to suck it the eff up and just write. There are days when I can’t type or scrawl as fast as my ideas are coming, and I’m glued to my seat until I finish in one huge burst. But there are other times when it takes me a week to write 500 words, and it’s like pulling teeth to snap myself out of it.
The big idea I’ve finally wrapped my head around became clearer to me as I’ve been doing my Pound By Pound Pledge Drive. So often the solutions to the problems in one aspect of our lives can be applied to others, because the problems all stem from the same stuff. With regard to food, I know that how I ate was a reflection of how I felt about myself. What I’ve realized recently is that how I treated my writing was a manifestation of the same thing. After all, just as I put off things I knew were good for me in the fitness department, I also put off things that were good for me with regard to my writing. It all has to do with what’s going on inside me.
Two things can combat this. The first is to do the work on yourself. Because if you know that you need to be writing, but you aren’t writing, figuring out why you’re holding yourself back is important. I’ll be talking more about that stuff in my other column. The second thing you have to do is act in spite of those things. Because your past doesn’t have to have anything to do with your actions right now. The key is to do the things you need to improve in your life as a daily practice, so that those practices can become habits.
What’s weird is that, while I understood this idea as far as spirituality or regular exercise, it took me a bit longer to apply that same idea to my writing. For some reason, I couldn’t put my writing in the same category of a Daily Practice. But just as you need to stick to a regular exercise schedule, or a regular meditation schedule to maintain progress until it becomes second nature, beginning writers need to stick to a regular writing schedule. Just because you’re not getting paid (or paid much) yet doesn’t mean this isn’t time well spent. It’s a practice. Its muscles being built. It’s kinda why I was able to write all the time when I was in school. I was always doing it for classes, so I had momentum, and I would constantly carry around notebooks and sneak moments of writing my own fiction whenever and wherever I could, making the most of the time I wasn’t writing for school to work on my own stuff. Once I graduated college, though, writing became more of a slog, because no one was expecting it from me, so I let myself do it less and less when I should’ve been expecting it from myself. I’m just sorry that it’s taken me over 10 years to see it that way.
So, what helps me have a daily writing practice whether I feel like it or not?
SCHEDULE PROJECTS ACCORDING TO PRIORITY
I often get distracted by the sheer number of things I have to do, to the point where I don’t want to do any of it. I used to think that working on a variety of things in the course of a day was “the way I worked” because I “need variety.” But I’ve come to realize that that’s just a bunch of crap. That what I was really doing was keeping myself from focusing on any one thing long enough to finish it, and if I did finish things, it was purely by accident, because they were the shorter projects.
What I do now is create a schedule at the beginning of each week. I set aside days for projects in the order of their deadlines and their importance, and I only focus on specific things on specific days, putting the rest out of my head. For example, there are two things I wanted to work on writing today. This post, and an outline for a web series I’m developing for someone. So, when I’m done with this post, I’m going to spend some time outlining that episode. And that’s it. I’m not allowed to even think about the other projects on the docket, because those aren’t for today. Knowing that it’s no use thinking about my other projects because I’m not working on them today is really freeing. It allows me to calm my brain down a bit and make space for the work I need to do. By taking the pressure off in this way, I’m encouraged to stay in the seat and devote myself to these one or two things, because my brain is less distracted and more focused, and because if I don’t finish what I’ve set aside today, I won’t get to work on it again for a few days, because I have different things scheduled for tomorrow. It forces me to make the most of my time the way I used to in school.
BREAK PROJECT TASKS DOWN INTO MANAGEABLE CHUNKS
My biggest downfalls happen when I think of everything I have to do all at once. I have to work on the post for this website, and this episode of the webseries, and my spec script, and my pilot script with my writing partner, and my comics script, and my essay, and… Whenever I think of that list, I immediately start sprouting ideas for all of those things – at the same time. It overwhelms me, and I stop.
Now, I make lists for each project, breaking it down into smaller tasks that I can cross off. For example, for an episode of a webseries I’m developing, I’ve set a deadline for having a finished outline for the episode, a deadline for a first draft, and a deadline for a final draft. Within that, I’ve broken it down further to chunks of script I want to work on at a time. Bite-sized tasks are easier to manage, complete, and cross off a list than entire projects.
SET A TIMER.
I’ve heard the suggestion of blocking off a certain amount of time for certain things before, but in addition to that, I need something that goes ding. If I’m looking at the clock on my laptop to see if the two hours I’m devoting to the project is up, that’s all I’ll be doing for two hours. Setting an alarm on my phone allows me to focus. I don’t look at any clocks, and I don’t think about the time until I hear the ding. Again, it takes the pressure off me having to keep an eye on the time, clearing my head for the task at hand.
HONOR YOUR TIME OFF
This is the flip-side of the coin. If you don’t want your mind to wander while you’re working, you need to give it time to wander at other times. I don’t have to stare out the window wondering what it’d be like if I were out frolicking in the sunshine if I’ve just come back from frolicking in the sunshine. So, just as you schedule writing time, schedule frolicking time. Don’t look at it as time away from your work. Think of it as part of your work. You need that time to decompress if you’re going to be any good when you’re sitting at that keyboard or in front of that notebook. So many people pride themselves on being workaholics, but the fact is that your work will probably be better if you’re not running yourself into the ground. It’s not just about how much work you do, but the quality of that work.
Of all the difficult things here – and all of them are still difficult for me – this is probably the most difficult. Here’s what’s up: “Writer’s Block” doesn’t actually exist. You know what Writer’s Block is? It’s you saying, “I can’t come up with anything good!” So…don’t come up with anything good. Give yourself permission to come up with something that’s crap. Even if your dialogue looks like:
I’m totally gonna come up with a genius slogan for this account.
I’m sorry. I can’t hear you over the sound of this scotch sloshing down the Slip n’ Slide that is my throat.
What’s a Slip n’ Slide? It’s 1969.
It’s a toy in the future.
Wait, are you sure?
Hold on. Teresa just Wikipedia’d that. Don’t ask. Anyway, turns out, the Slip ‘N Slide came out in 1961. We totally have those.
If you’ve set aside time to write a specific thing at a specific time, you’ve had some quality time off, and you’ve set your timer, there’s no reason why you can’t write something. Anything. The only reason you wouldn’t is if you’re afraid to. Why? Because it’s stupid? So what? That’s what rewrites and editing are for!
Now, check out this month’s Writers’ Room! Unfortunately, The Fairy Godmother is having her wings cleaned and so couldn’t be a part of the column this month, but we’ve got three other writers with a lot to say.
THIS MONTH’S QUESTION:
What works for you to keep your butt in the seat? How do you push past the times when you want to be doing anything else?
KewlPanda: There are many times when I would rather be doing anything else besides writing but discipline exists for a reason and if you can’t make yourself do it, no one else will. They’ll just fire you or move on to someone who can do it so it’s up to you to push yourself. Lists are really good for me, knowing that there’s a set time that will end, so when I’m working I’ll make a list of everything I need to do that day down to the hour, which includes up to 90 minutes of writing, then thirty minutes to an hour for a break or some chore. This will start at 9 am and go until 7 or so. I get a sense of satisfaction from checking off a task which helps me focus.
The Comics Geek: The best answer I can give to this question is sadly also the most annoyingly elitist one, so I apologize in advance for the paternalistic tone of what follows. To me, the condition your question describes is exactly the difference between and professional and an amateur. You sign a contract, you take the check, you show up – inspired or uninspired – and you render services. It’s that simple: and if you are not getting paid yet, you are preparing the side of you that CAN do exactly what I just described. The flip side of it is that you have to show some kindness to yourself and acknowledge that everything is a work in progress – sometimes you make art, sometimes it’s merely good enough as a starting point. A professional also knows that as long as you leave your last drop of blood on the white board, or the page, or the word processor, and walk away knowing you gave your all, the next day is always a chance to make it better. Most crappy stories are only one good night’s sleep away from being great.
Clever Girl: Yes, professional writers still struggle with procrastination. A writer friend of mine likes to joke that his garage is never cleaner than when he’s on deadline. But there are some simple ways I’ve learned to cope:
1. Break your task up into small, very specific goals (ex. write 3 pages, or check Character X’s dialogue). This way if you start to wander you can switch to a different task. Still productive, but on a different track.
2. Be aware of when you write best and block out that time. If you’re a morning writer, don’t let your creativity slip away with emails and then try to power through when you’re exhausted at night.
3. Make your own deadlines and (if possible) tell someone about them. Need 30 pages in 2 weeks? If you want a week to rewrite, write 5 pages a day and you’ll get Sunday off. Letting people (even just a friend) know you’re supposed to do something and celebrating when you do it will help you feel accountable.
4. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. If you’re stuck, sometime just writing it out for a while will get you going again. If you’re still stuck, step away for a bit and let yourself clear your head.
What are you doing reading this column? GO WRITE SOMETHING! But if you have any questions, or suggestions of your own, leave them in the comments below.
See you next month!