Friday, June 29, 2012

Get Real: How to Stop Dreaming about Your Writing and Actually Do It

In her brilliant memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the aftermath of her husband's unex­pected death, how she soothed herself with a year of magical thinking: aligning his shoes just so in the closet, ordering the bills in his wallet, in case he returned. A part of her believed these rituals and ceremonies would make the impossible come true: her beloved husband's death would be reversible.

In her memoir, Didion writes how her rational mind came up with rituals and superstitions and magical ideas to fend off going insane from the uncontrollable pain of grief.

Many writers resort to magical thinking when faced with pain in their book-writing journey.

This magical thinking surfaces whenever we feel over­whelmed by our own goals and expectations. Instead of ad­justing the plan or goal, we malign ourselves as bad writers. If you don't believe me, recall your last diet or exercise plan. Maybe you followed it perfectly for weeks. Then a crisis at home caused you to skip your workout or eat ice cream from the container.

"I've blown it big time, might as well stop," you tell your­self. And you stop. When the blocked day, week, or month leads to "I'm never going to get the momentum back, and I might as well stop now," this is also an alarm sounding.

Re­mind yourself that it's unrealistic to blame yourself that way. Unless everything is absolutely perfect, you're not going to be able to write your book? Not true. A functional writing life is about adjusting and accommodating, making changes as we go. It's not an all-or-nothing lifestyle.

A writer who successfully finishes a book expects and allows for the unexpected: getting a winter cold, kids home from school, the dog throwing up on a manuscript, computer glitches, frustrating delays in research.

Five Ways to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
These five simple steps work well to create balance, to overcome or outwit writer's block.

1. Embrace Creative Multi-tasking
Multi-tasking has gotten a pretty bad rap. Legions of burnt-out high achievers of the eighties and nineties lived on the adrenaline high of multi-tasking and it will certain­ly wear out anyone if it becomes a habit.

But I discovered it brings welcome stimulation and perspective and lets me avoid the all-or-nothing syndrome. I just train myself to jump subjects.

I learned this in one of my painting classes, when I was struggling with a still life I wanted to kill. Nothing was work­ing; everyone else in the class seemed to be doing beautifully. I happened to be standing next to an empty easel, so I moved my still-life-in-progress to it and started a new painting.

When I took a break, the abandoned still life caught my eye. Suddenly, because I hadn't been glaring at it for hours, I saw what it needed.

I spent the rest of the class toggling between them and produced two good pieces. When I paint at home now, I of­ten set up two canvases at once. My two easels, side by side, let me get unstuck. I switch often. When I come back to the other canvas, the break has refreshed my eye. I see with new enthusiasm the subject that bored or frustrated me minutes before. I now do this with my writing.

I open two documents on my computer and toggle back and forth. While my mind's solving one problem, an idea comes for the other piece. Toggling from a freewrite to a revision keeps me engaged, surprisingly alert, and free of magical thinking.

2. Flex Your Routine
Writers who completely avoid structuring their writing time often never complete their books. There's a deep fear of routine in many creative artists.

No one stays the same throughout the long process of writ­ing a book. Assume you are going to change as a writer. Make your writing structure flexible enough to change as you do.

When I first began writing seriously, routine caused me great anxiety because I thought I had to stick with plans. I thought routine was terribly uncreative-what if an intrigu­ing detour emerged? Could I follow it and still produce a finished piece of writing? Now I know detours are often helpful, but only within a dependable routine to reorient me when I need to remember my original purpose for writing.

I now hold a loose structure around each writing ses­sion, showing up for my planned time, producing pages, re­viewing my goals. I'm now willing to stay committed, but also willing to vary my routine.

3. Use Your Life
A New Yorker cartoon shows a man sitting on a screened porch in front of a typewriter. Crumpled pages litter the floor. Everywhere are dogs--big dogs, tiny dogs, panting dogs, sleeping dogs. The writer's wife stands in the doorway to the screened porch, hands on hips, exasperated at her ob­viously blocked spouse.

"Write about dogs!" she tells him.

What's on your plate? What are you grappling with right now in your life? Maybe you can use it to unlock the block, get you back on the page. Writing about the ordinary, the life in front of you, will help you reconnect to yourself, restore inner balance, and get you back to your book.

4. Force Yourself to Have New Experiences
The opposite of fear of routine is obsession with it. If we're not writing, the job is to write regularly. If we are writ­ing about the same stuff, we could be caught in a rut. Too much repetition can lead to creative blocks.

If this happens, you need to (1) recognize it, and (2) force yourself to go out into the world so you have something new to write about.

When I am repeating myself, it may be that the well has run dry. Or life has become too fast to look deeply. I'm living on the surface without time to think, to find the original in myself.

Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way suggests a choosing brand-new place to go for an hour, solo. Use the time to fill the creative well, open yourself to new experiences, expose your senses to something that nurtures in a new way.

Cameron spoke of how regular creative outings were the hardest task she proposed in her book. People loved writing morning pages, doing the other activities, but resisted these dates with their inner artist. Exposing yourself to something completely out of your normal life or to your own inner life-without the speed of distracting activity-can be frightening, but things held at bay suddenly come forward. In a good way.

Some outings to consider: visit a new museum, take a walk in a never-explored neighborhood, go for a hike.

5. Keep Filling Your Well
The writing life requires intimacy with your own self. Intimacy is about getting close and letting go of what stands between you and your subject.

If your writing feels repetitive or dried up, if you aren't writing regularly, consider the level of intimacy you have with your book topic. Are you bored with it? Is it connected with your life?  

Consider filling your well.

I polled published authors: how did they fill the well? Many suggested activities fostering internal slowness.  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  For thirty minutes or so, write about your per­sonal life in each of the areas below. Consider your minimum requirements to feel happy, bal­anced, and healthy. How are you doing in each area? Add any others that are essential to your well-being.
physical (getting enough sleep, regu­lar exercise, eating good food, keeping healthy)
emotional (time for relationships with your family and friends, enough self-care, enough private time)
job/finances/career (meeting your work commitments, bringing in enough money, keeping up with your savings goals)
creative life (learning and growing, explor­ing creatively, staying current with your interests)
spiritual (practicing your faith, having enough private time with yourself, serv­ing in your community)

2.  Take twenty minutes to explore what you need to have in your life, to get your book written.
good, working equipment
flexible schedule

3.  Compare the two lists. Does one neglected area on the life list also show up in the writing list? For example, no privacy?

4.  Starting small, choose one area from the life list and one from the writing list that could improve.

5.  This week, begin one small change.