As writers we love to romanticize things, which may be good for the prose, but not so much for the likelihood of getting the prose written. This past year, I have been battling many of these romantic notions and myths within myself. I convinced myself that I had to have a huge chunk of time in which to write.
If I had only 20 minutes before I had to get up to make dinner, why that wasn’t enough time to get anything written. If I had a lot of work to do that day, then I would convince myself that I had no time to write, feel huffy and annoyed, and take many breaks which involved some combination of social media, snippets of TV and Candy Crush. But that didn’t count because I couldn’t write knowing how much work I had to do, could I?
The other myth that I insidiously incorporated was the ever so common, “I have to wait till I am inspired”. Now I have read so many books and articles on this one, productive and successful writers simply scoffing at the gom who believes that they need to be inspired first. Hah, who ever heard of such a thing. But the thing was, these writers simply said what not to do - don’t wait for inspiration, don’t be a ninny.
They never do say what to do instead - when you’re sitting there staring at the screen, when finally there are no other distractions and you’ve got your special writing hat on, and your mind is blank. Completely. Other than the fact that you’re panicking slightly because you thought that when you did finally sit down to write and there was time and space to think, you would have, you know, writerly thoughts. Not “oh gosh I can’t think of anything to say. Maybe I am not meant to be a writer after all”. Then you wade into dangerous territory, and far from putting any words down, you start to question this whole “being a writer” aspiration.
Since I struggle with these kinds of things all the time, I am not really equipped to “give advice and tell you what to do”. I will share however, what I have been doing, and hope that helps somewhat.
One of my favorite writing books, and the book that finally got me writing somewhat more regularly, is Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. I think this book should be required reading for anyone who wants to put words down with any regularity. In this book, Julia tells us over and over that writing shouldn’t be made into a big deal. We don’t need some special tools, or the perfect circumstances to write. We just need to do it, much like the Nike slogan.
Throughout her book she gives advice on how actually to do this - keep a notebook with you and just jot down some thoughts. Make the writing easy, light. Put in things around you, things that are happening to you, put in everything that’s on your mind and keeping you from your writing. This brings to mind something that is attributed to Nora Ephron - everything is copy. No matter what is going on in your life, big or small, put it in. And this is exactly what Julia does in her own work, and it works. She writes about meeting a friend for coffee, about strolling through Central Park, about feeding her horses. And as she writes about these seemingly mundane details, she teaches you how to turn the mundane details of your own life into something meaningful, something creative.
I wrote a few days earlier about freewriting, and since then I find myself becoming slightly free-er in my own writing. Today was a perfect example. I started this post soon after waking in the morning, with a cup of coffee, just on a whim. Then I got distracted, and decided I may as well start my day, do the things I needed to. By the time I got down to doing work, I got distracted again with a phone call, and was despairing of ever getting back on my long list of to-dos. And to be completely honest, I was a little annoyed. The day seemed to be getting away from me, I hadn’t really done much writing and not much else. And I had to catch up, because yesterday was a public holiday, and I didn’t get much done because I decided to use the opportunity to clean the house (which it really needed, since I usually swap out cleaning time for writing, or reading). Anyway, I told myself that I wasn’t in the mood to write, since I was annoyed, and delayed and I had so much to do, if only I could figure out where to start.
Have you had a day like this? You designated some time to write, really got yourself going in your head, planning what you would work on, imagining how much you would get done, getting your cup of tea and coffee and just beginning to start when something interrupted you. By the time you got back to it - whether 5 or 50 minutes later, somehow its not the same. No longer feeling all calm and rested, now you’re anxious because you don’t have much time left, and you haven’t done what you needed to, and you’re thinking, why bother even starting now - I couldn’t possibly get anything done with this little bit of time.
This was me. Basically - all the time. I would get my writing done, yes, but it was excruciating. I would have all these rules - I need so much time, I need to be in this frame of mind, I need my cup of tea or coffee… Its almost a miracle I got the writing I did done. Well actually I know how - by keeping people at bay, by feeling guilty about every minute I wasn’t writing, and then feeling sick and scared when I was actually at the keyboard, typing. All this is because I made such a big deal of my writing. I read all about sh*tty first drafts and allowing yourself to write many drafts, and came up with every trick in the book. But I still felt like every word was a performance in front of a very judgy crowd and I was failing spectacularly. I was stilted and formal and pushed aside the thoughts that did come into my head as not appropriate, not correct enough.
The more I write though, and the more I remind myself of the need to just do it, and not to think so much, it gets easier. I let more of my personality into the page. I leave my first thoughts alone, because they are usually more honest, more authentic, more me. I need to edit less, and let the ideas flow more. Last night, I was cooking dinner in tandem with my dad. I started a dish, but he wanted to take over the kitchen, so I did some of my prep and left him to it. I knew he would probably be done in around 20 minutes or so, and in the past, I would have felt annoyed because it was too little time to do any “real” writing or get into serious work, and so I would have just played a game or tried to read. But somehow my defenses were down, and I thought I would just open up Scrivener and have a little fun - write a few words and see what happened. And I managed to write 1300 words of a new essay for the book I am writing now, even though that hadn’t been my intent initially. And that’s 1300 words more than I would have had if I had waited for the perfect opportunity or made a big deal of my writing.
This is not really an easy lesson to learn, and I don’t think I have truly learnt it myself yet. I have days like yesterday, when I manage to effortlessly (or so it seemed) put the words down in between doing other things. And then I have a day like I did just the other day, when I took my laptop to a cafe to write, but between the kids screaming for red velvet cake and the businessmen making deals on their cellphones, I found it really hard to concentrate. I did get some words down, but every word felt like I had to carve it on a tablet, and after struggling mightily to eke out less than a thousand words, I gave up, packed up my things and came home.
The lesson I suppose is that if you can get into the habit of just dropping some words in here and there, in between other things, then when you have a little larger chunk of time, you will be better equipped to use it well, and if you don’t find large chunks, well, at least you still have those 10 minutes while the kettle boils, right?