Writing, Act 2: Back in the Habit

These words aren’t going to be perfectly laid out, and I’m okay with that. Actually, that’s kind of the point. Here’s the deal (there’s always a deal): last winter I got into this amazing habit of writing 1,000 words everyday, rain or shine, in sickness or health, where ever in the world, or in Portland, I was at the time.

Sometime around March or April, I fell out of the habit. But not before finishing the first draft on an entire book and drafts on several shorter eBooks. One of those has since become an actual virtual thing: Kickstart Your Home Meditation Practice. I haven’t put much love into my full book since then, but I’m planning to kick off draft two this winter.

But more importantly, I’m committing to get back in the writing habit. Okay, fine, I commit to things like this all the time, and they don’t always stick. I hope this one does. In fact, I would love to have some accountability partners on this one to get it going again. Let me know if you’re interested.

So what got me back to thinking about this? I found this reddit post. Classic. It’s a nice description of what my work could look like right now if I had kept up the practice all these months. Hundreds of thousands of words. That’s an immense amount of practice. Sure, most of them wouldn’t be that good, but they do gradually get better and better.

This reminds me of a rather cheesy self-help book I’ve read, The Slight Edge. Let me sum up 150 pages for you in a few sentences: The only way to work on big things is little by little. If we do a little bit to reach our goals every day, we’re bound to get there. If we improve our life by a tiny amount each day, before long we’ll be realizing our greatest dreams.

Cheesy, but absolutely true. The reason we don’t often see these dreams realized is because we stop working on them. We allow ourselves to slightly decline each day, rather than growing. I have to say, it feels like that’s the direction I’ve been going over the past couple months. Wasting time, not keeping up with the things I do care about like writing, running, yoga, and art.

Do you want to be an artist? Do art every day and at some point you’ll have created so much art that some of it is bound to be good. You’ll gradually amass so much practice and experience that more and more of it will be profound and meaningful.

Do you want to be a yoga teacher? Do yoga everyday. I’ve done it, and it’s amazing. After three months of daily practice, you’ll be more than prepared for a Yoga Teacher Training. To be a good yoga teacher, at that point you’ll also have to add teaching every day (or close to it).

Do you want to be a writer? Well you’re probably getting the point here. Last year when I was writing 1,000 words every day, I started to feel like a writer. I started to say that I was a writer. I started to believe it. Now that I’ve let the practice languish, it feels less true. My LinkedIn page still lists it as a primary occupation, but my heart hasn’t been in it. The practice hasn’t been there.

So I’m back on it. Here’s the reality of writing 1,000 words. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes, unless you allow yourself to really get stuck on some wording or a specific idea. Sometimes the last couple hundred words feel hard to get out. But if you allow yourself to flow, eliminate other distractions, and just let your fingers type away, it happens fast and painlessly. It becomes wonderful and (often) easy.

And it adds up. Standard book-length is about 50,000 words. Taken as a whole, that feels insurmountable. Taken in 1,000 word chunks, in 30- to 60-minute increments, it’s less than two months of work for a first draft. That’s six books a year. From there, a whole other world of challenges opens up, but getting that draft done feels amazing. They might not be masterpieces. They might need a ton of work to even be readable, but they are all fantastic practice.

This is what I did last winter, and it’s my plan moving forward. I’m not sure if the writing will take the form of another book, or some shorter guides, or what. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to write so many words that I’ll be able to fill whatever kinds of pages I want.

A quick word on comparison. Ira Glass has some beautiful words on this. If we allow ourselves to compare our work to existing, published, vetted work by established authors, artists, etc, etc, we’ll become too discouraged to even start. That’s because our work is not going to be good. Their work is already great. And as Ira says, those masterpieces shaped our taste, so we know that our work is bad in comparison.

Guess what. That novel you read and loved that seemed so well put together, with such lovely language? That took a LONG time to make. It took so many drafts and revisions. Dozens, even. Literally written and rewritten over and over and over and over and over again. Years in the making. And it wasn’t only the author who did it. The agent helped, the editor helped, the test-readers helped. It was tried out and changed, and probably looks very little like the first draft from whence it came.

So be gentle! I know I need to do this. Not all my writing will be great. Some of it will be awful. That’s a great place to experiment. If it’s already bad, going off the deep end can’t make it much worse, right? Picasso produced more than 50,000 pieces of art. I guarantee they aren’t all good. And if you or I produced 50,000 pieces of art or writing or anything else, I also guarantee that some of them would be amazing. The trick is actually sitting down and doing it, every day.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 26

Day 26 of writing a novel, kind of.

I have good news and bad news.

Bad news first. I’m not going to make it to 50,000 words by the end of the month. I’ve made a number of excuses for this, including multiple trips to Oregon, friends visiting from back east, general lack of discipline, and uncertainty about the story. I’m sure I could come up with more if I thought I needed to justify it to myself. I’ve still been trying to write every day, but I’ll probably be closer to half my goal by the end of the month.

So, the good news. I’m really happy with the experience I’ve had, and despite not having met my target word count, I feel like the month has been a major success. I’ve learned a huge amount about writing, about myself, and about the place where those two things intersect. A few important realizations:

  • Writing new material for more than about two hours a day is excruciating. At a certain point, it just stops flowing. Editing and whatnot can still happen, but my creative well needs a day of recharge after about that point.
  • It’s a lot easier to write in the morning before other distractions have started filling my mind. Immediately after waking up is probably best.
  • The rest of my life doesn’t appreciate being pushed aside in order to be able to spend more hours writing. I still need to paint, play music, exercise, and visit with friends. This actually works really well in concert with item #1.
  • Reading is always important, and even more so when I’m trying to write a lot. It provides good perspective.
  • It’s OK (and usually better) to be a little bit crazy, both on the page and in life.
  • It’s really easy NOT to write. And really lame.
  • Fail constantly. Just do it. I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m probably going to make a lot of terrible art and writing and music if I ever want to get good enough to make something good. If I just sit around and wait until I have the perfect idea, my skills won’t be up to the challenge of translating that idea into something tangible.

I’m still committed to the novel even if it won’t be done by the end of November. It took me until mid-month to come up with a clear outline for the main plot, and I’ve been refining that as I add to it and flesh out the chapters. I have a lot more to write, but I’m going to try to write every day and chip away at it until it’s done. I’ll let you know when it’s there.

Oh, and more good news. My mustache has been going strong all month and is doing fantastic.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 9

Day 9 of writing a novel.

A good day today, focused and productive. The last few days, not so much. I had big plans to get all caught up over the week, and instead found even keeping up with the daily word count to be difficult. I imagine this is something like how it feels to get behind on your credit card payments. At the first payment you think, “oh, no problem, I’ll just pay the minimum plus a little extra today and for the next few payments.” But the minimum is just a little too high and the card keeps getting used, so instead of chipping away at the debt, it piles up. Luckily my word-debt only inflicts guilt, no long-term financial harm. And I’m still feeling positive about it. I’ve got some big chunks of the weekend already devoted to getting words on the page. I actually do think I work best under some pressure, and being a little bit behind is prodding me to invest more heavily in the project.

I’ve got all the main story lines started at this point, and for the most part they are heading in a direction I’m happy with. It’s not completely clear how they will all tie together yet, but I’m sure as I get to know the characters better things will sort themselves out.

I’ve been writing a journal/flow every morning when I wake up to kind of get my brain going, and I think that has helped allow me to achieve the same state later in the day after my brain has hardened a little bit. I also made a conscious effort to start reading more, which has reinforced the thoughts I’ve been having about narrative and description. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m remembering the 10,000 hour rule and imagining myself chipping away at an enormous block of time, getting my reps in and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, getting a little better at writing.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 6

Day 6 of writing a novel.

Whew! Things are starting to get rolling. I got a bit behind over the weekend by taking a climbing trip to Oregon, but I’m almost back to my word count target. At about 9k, was hoping to be around 10k-12k. I’ll have another full day for it tomorrow, which will help. I’m not sure I’d be able to keep up with this if I was working full time. People do it, though, so it would probably mean a lot more focused writing effort, greater drop-off of other activities, and more late nights.

I’m getting more and more involved with the story. It’s starting to creep into my mind at all times of the day and night. The ideas are flowing easily even when the actual words are not, and I have a feeling the whole thing will not be fully told in 50,000 words. That’s OK, I can make it longer if I need to. I definitely fall in and out of the flow of writing, and it can be hard to keep the words coming without getting distracted. Watching the election results certainly does not help. And it turns out there are some really diverting things on the internet. I’ll probably have to start writing more in my room where the internet can’t get me. But still feeling good about it! I’m definitely feeling the need to disconnect myself from any thoughts about whether anybody would like it. That’s a really fast way to get discouraged and second-guess everything I’m putting down. It’ll be week 2 soon, which is when the NaNoWriMo people say things start to get really difficult. Planning to just power through.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 2

Day 2 of writing a novel.

So far so good! Wrote about 1,700 words yesterday and 2,400 today. It is feeling great to get into a flow and just kind of let the story create itself. So far it is very obviously based on pieces of my life and people I know well. I’m really enjoying the possibility of where things can go, and I’m curious to see how it transforms over time. I’ve been keeping notes about the characters and situations I’ve created, as it quickly became clear that I’m going to have trouble keeping everything straight in my mind. Hoping that some of the weird humor comes through and makes it somewhat enjoyable to read. It’s really hard to tell with my own writing and so early on, but I’ve been trying to edit as little as possible and save the dissection for later.

I’m going on a rock climbing trip this weekend, which will make it very difficult to write. I’m hoping to do some in the car, but even charging my computer will be a trick. I’m pretty sure I can catch up quickly on the days I don’t work, but this is definitely going to consume my effort for the next month. I’m happy to let it. I can already tell the adventure is going to be worth it. Knowing that I can write a couple thousand words a day is empowering, and being able to do that consistently for a period of time will really add up. And with enough practice, it’s bound to be good eventually.

Which reminds me of this quote: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” Some kind of Chinese proverb, applicable to all sorts of areas of my life right now.