Monday, December 20, 2010

Mentor Monday: Getting Going

Thomas Alva Edison,
punching in to work on his 74th birthday
Thomas Edison is credited with saying “genius is 1 % inspiration, and 99 % perspiration.” Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” A common expression used by working writers is b-i-c. It stands, inelegantly, for one of the most important factors of successful writing: applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.


New writers often find that they start out with a great idea, write furiously for a few pages or a few days, and then, unexpectedly, the well goes dry. Inspiration is gone. The muse seems to have fled, and the project is never finished. Other times a writer will find herself simply void of ideas, or unable to figure out what comes next. We’ve all heard the term: writer’s block.

Those who rely on their writing to pay the bills don’t have the option of waiting for inspiration to strike. Hence, b-i-c.

Even (perhaps especially) for those of us who have the luxury of not relying on our writing checks for our mortgage payments, procrastination can be a chronic, and costly, problem.

Procrastination can take many subtle forms. It can be the need to set up the perfect writing area, find just the right software, arrange the lighting, the chairs, and the bookcases just so.

It can present itself as an obsession with form: how many words to a line, how far should the first line be indented, what font should I use?

It can masquerade as concern about what rights to sell, or whether to use a pen name. It can hide behind a need for a little more research, or that long-awaited writing class.

It can, of course, be a an inbox full of email.

There’s a great irony here, of course. Procrastination is usually a problem we associate with tasks we don’t want to do. We procrastinate about paying our bills, shoveling our walkways, cleaning our toilets. We put off confronting an unpleasant co-worker or an uncooperative spouse. Why do we put off writing? We enjoy writing, after all, or we wouldn’t do it. No one forced us to become writers instead of coal miners or third-grade teachers or brain surgeons.

Procrastination may grow out of fear (of success, or failure), rebellion, burnout, or any number of other sources. But whatever its origins, its effect is the same. It robs us of accomplishment.

Fortunately, the cure for procrastination is supremely simple. In the immortal words of a corporate giant, “Just do it.” B-I-C! Most of the time, once we begin, we keep going. Because, after all, we LIKE writing. Or we’d go do something else.

So how to get started? Everyone develops their own routine. Here are a few tricks you can try:

Just type anything (what you had for dinner last night, a letter to the President, an itinerary for your next vacation). After a couple of minutes, or a couple of paragraphs, sidle into writing about your subject. (Don’t forget to delete the “pump-priming material” when you’re done!) A variation on this approach is the “copy someone else’s writing” method, where you actually transcribe a published book (one in the same style/grade level you’re working in) until your inner barrier against writing fades.

Start in the middle. It’s frequently difficult to figure out how to begin a piece, even when you know what it is you are going to write. So give yourself permission to start in the middle – the middle of the story, or the middle of the first chapter, or even the middle of the first paragraph. Begin at whatever point you feel comfortable with, and just go. You’ll find the opening eventually. Often it will come to you while you’re busy writing something else.

Some authors swear by the “stop in the middle of a sentence” method. The theory is that you stop writing in the middle of a great bit of action or dialog, so the next morning when you open the file, you can pick up where you left off. Some of us would never remember what we thought we were about to say, and would waste half the morning trying to figure it out. But for some people, this is reportedly a good method. A slightly-less risky variation is to go back and read (maybe even revise) the last chapter or page you wrote, and then keep going from there.

For a non-fiction piece, a review of your research materials will frequently get the juices flowing. Or pretend you’re writing an email to someone, explaining the subject or describing your writing project. For fiction you can make that an email about your story (but don’t deplete your creative energy talking about/around the work!)

Other tips many writers rely upon:

“Work clothes.” Get dressed as if you were going to the office. Maybe even go out to the car, and then come back in and go straight to your desk. The contrary approach says “don’t get dressed until you’ve written five pages” (or more drastically, variations on “I can’t eat until I write 1000 words.”)

“Mood music.” Many writers have particular songs, or particular kinds of music, that they find conducive to working. Have that music cued up and ready to play – and don’t listen to it at other times. You want a Pavlovian response - when you hear the opening bars, your fingers should start moving (on the keyboard, not air-directing!)

Accountability/buddies: Before you start in the morning you tell your buddy (via phone or email) what your goal is for the day. At lunch you check in with a progress report. When you achieve your goal, you report again. Psychological studies confirm that we are far more likely to complete a task when we’ve told someone else about it.

(With credit to Annie Lamott) Give yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts” or, as many of us call them for school groups, “sloppy copies”). Lock your mental critic into a mental closet and do a brain-dump on paper. You can clean it up later.

In the end, overcoming procrastination is getting started. B-I-C, sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, actually setting one word after another. Frequently the first words we write will be awful. They are like the sputtering of an unprimed pump, or the flickering of a lamp that needs trimming.

Sometimes, you’ll just slog along, sputtering and flickering all day, until you meet your word-count or the kids get off the bus or you have to leave for your “real job.” Other days, your artificially-rigged beginning will melt away and you’ll move into the work, sometimes even losing track of time. Psychologists call this experience “flow,” or “being in the zone.” But either way, you’ll have more done at the end of the day than you did at the beginning. And that, ultimately, is the “secret.”

1 comment:

Andy said...

If this post doesn't get you writing, I don't know what will. Thanks, Sally!