Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably muttered a New Year’s resolution or two within the past week or so; if you’re like most aspiring writers, one or more of these resolutions probably had to do with sitting down and pounding out that novel or nonfiction book that has been nagging the back of your brain for quite some time now.

Or, if you were virtuously pounding away already, perhaps you resolved to buckle down and get queries and/or submissions to agents out the door.

Or, if you were reading my blog last month when my hard disk melted into a wee black puddle, perhaps you resolved to make backups on a weekly basis. Or daily.

All of these, of course, are laudable goals, and I’m here to support you in achieving them. However, as those of you who have been reading this blog since this time last year already know, I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions: I think that they put unnecessary pressure on people at what can be a rather depressing time of year, at a time when they are frequently already exhausted from dealing with friends, family, and other loved ones who can be irritating to the point of madness. Add to that the endless advertising yammer urging us to seize the moment to become thinner, stop smoking, go to the gym, nab a new job, etc., and it’s amazing that anyone makes it to Lent without running amok and, depending upon the resolution du année, chowing down on all the chocolate in town, inhaling everything flammable, Krazy-Gluing oneself to the couch, and dropping out of the workforce altogether.

Or maybe I just like being told what to do a whole lot less than other people.

In any case, I think there’s ample reason that the average New Year’s resolution lasts only three weeks. However, I know some of you out there have taken the pledge plunge, and I want to spend the next couple of days dealing with the most common problems such resolutions encounter.

#1 on the hit parade of resolution-stymiers is the simple fact that pressure to produce pages within a short time frame (such as, say, those first three weeks of resolution) has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them.

Since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury by contrast – which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t, if it’s really in your blood.

I’m not the first to say this, of course – and unfortunately, even encouraging statements like this can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy in sufferers of writer’s block. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

Resolvers: do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

I could parrot other New Year’s advice-givers, and blame every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/iPod/radio/other electronic distractions, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you at the moment. And I have to say, your distractions have my sympathy. Chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It seems disappointingly simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the beginning of EVERY time you sit down to write. Not just the same CD, but the same SONG. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

It may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with work – which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After awhile, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do this myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. While I was writing the early drafts of the novel I am currently revising, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. My next novel’s soundtrack is being provided mostly by Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance. And it carries a fringe benefit that’s paying off in spades for me right now: even though I’ve been working on many other writing projects in the interim since I finished the novel, I was able to snap my brain back into hippie novel mode again almost instantly. Thank you, TEASER AND THE FIRECAT.

Tomorrow, I shall pass along a few more tips on how to evade the writer’s-block blues. In the meantime, keep up the good work — and not just because you resolved to do it because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

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