Discipline… it’s such a scary topic for a blog post. But. I can’t be the only writer who struggles with it.
In the Fall, I set a goal of writing 4,000 words a week for my novel. This naturally broke into roughly three or four evenings of writing. But I failed to have a clear vision of what happens the rest of the week. Because the 4K is flexible , I’d choose on a whim whether my evening would be spent watching Parks and Recreation the fourth time through on Netflix or writing. Guess which won a lot of the time?
It is easy to make excuses for myself, especially when I come home grumpy and/or hungry. Or, my personal favorite, when it is next to impossible to get myself out of bed. I know deep down that consciously writing and challenging my brain is as essential as exercise and good nutrition, but my willpower was lacking. (And Parks and Rec is just so darned good!) Without realizing it, I’d started back into old habits.
I say down with myself and had a talk. Jillian, it’s not enough to have a routine. You have to commit to that routine. I saw that some things needed to change, and they didn’t need to be colossal changes, either. Just common-sense tweaks that in the long run would benefit me… instead of the instant (and empty) gratification of binge-watching The X-Files for the fifteenth time.
Here are a few simple tools I’m using to keep myself on track and on routine to get those 4K+ words cranked out and blog posts written… and sanity saved.
The Artist’s Way is a wonderful guide to unblocking creativity by Julia Cameron. Its primary tools are the morning pages and self-care. Morning pages are exactly how they sound. First thing in the morning, you free-write three pages (just three) and put them away without reading them. It is the launch point of the day.
The act of doing morning pages wakes up the brain, gets that thinking machine started, and allows you to spill all the icky crap (unpolished words, angry ideas) safely onto the page. At first I treated it like journaling, which meant I was being far too conscious about the words I chose, the anecdotes I felt obliged to include, the feelings I was embarrassed to include, and even the state of my handwriting. But I was missing the point. The morning pages need to be stream-of-conscious, written a little faster than you may be used to, the internal editor turned off. It is a messy word dump, a release and an exercise in which you wrestle with your inner critic or muse and remind them (and you) who’s in charge.
Morning pages and self-care are highly adaptable to any routine. It has more success getting me out of bed than my alarm does. It gives me a focus first thing in the morning – before email, before Facebook, before the computer is even on. And that is already healthy.
The mind is not a separate entity from the body. It needs fuel, and it needs rest. I need frequent reminders of this. I’m guilty of pushing myself too far, and I’ve seen what it does to my writing. Monitoring my energy level is essential. Other wise, I’m a car running on gas fumes.
Sleep. Eat – and eat healthy, but treat yourself once in a while, too. Rest – different from sleep and involves non-writing creative activities: doodling (or tangling), READING (which should be second on our priority list), cooking, and maybe a little watching of the television to clear the mind. (Granted, television should be a treat, not the day’s sole activity.)
Here’s another one: go out and play. Do something mindless and fun. Reacquaint yourself with your “artist child”, as Julia Cameron puts it.
I cannot emphasize this enough: give yourself a break. If you’re writing a novel, you know that it will take years for the thing to grow and evolve and, well, achieve excellence. It’s a long-term project with no payout in the beginning. People will ask “how’s the book coming?” and while it may be trucking along just fine, there really isn’t any news to share. But that’s part of the process.
Writing is hard, sometimes excruciating. It’s okay to admit that.
This is especially important in the difficult world of blogging and social media, both of which are new challenges for me. Rome was not built in a day, and I have a full time 8-5 job. No one is expecting miracles my first six months (or first year) in. And while I don’t understand Twitter, at least I’m on Twitter, and will get better at Twitter.
Life is a work-in-progress, and for the most part not in readable, tangible manuscript form. We do the best we can by being patient with and kind to ourselves.
I asked myself “Why did I start this blog in the first place?” For joy (happiness, fulfillment, contentment), not perfection. For moxie (daring and audacity), not imitation. This is a place for originality and bravery, a writing laboratory. It will take a while to find my footing.
That said, I have to constantly recommit myself to the journey. When I find myself in the usual Netflix debate – to watch or not to watch – I ask myself if it will still be there an hour or a day from now. And what, Jillian, is more important: an episode of Farscape I’ve seen four times or my own story?
Write! Everything will fall into place in the fullness of time.
There is great freedom in that. I know what my limits are, how much energy I have, and which projects are the most important. I don’t have to be a Twitter maven. Blogging doesn’t need to be a terrible chore. I believe in my abilities and the value of practice, as well as rest – physical and emotional – to replenish my creative energy. Anything else would be too much and too complicated.
So the message I should be telling myself isn’t “I should be doing this,” but “I can do this.” And yes I can.
A Little Planning.
I’m pleasantly surprised by how a little planning (but not too much) will straighten out the anxious tangles in my process. I have a weekly planner to scribble on – a simple way of keeping the week straight, yet flexible. I fall under the category of “pantser”, a novelist who avoids outlining like the plague. But without a goal to shoot for or at least a vision of want I hope to accomplish, how will I get there?
Write down goals for tomorrow.
In the morning, review those goals. They can be as mundane as “change the oil in the car” (which I do need to do) or as non-negotiable as 4,000 words by Saturday night. Just write something down – have a fixed point in the day to look towards, like watching a landmark slowly drawing closer on a long road trip.
Write (or create) at the same time everyday.
Here are some articles that have been a help to me, lately:
- “What is the secret of good writing?” by Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian. This little article is a review of Robert Boice’s psychological study on discipline and writing, and translates the wisdom of that study into practical advice.
- “Vow to Write Better, Not Faster in 2016, Despite our Binge-loving Culture” by Holly Robinson of the Huffington Post. She reflects on the value of a writer who takes his time (Jonathan Safran Foer).
- “The Power of MOMENTUM and the Triple-Cs of Productivity” by Veronica Sicoe. I linked to this fabulous blog post some time ago, but it deserves to be shared again. Reading this, I realized I wasn’t alone in the struggle to be both productive and happy in my work.