Write first thing in the morning.
Write last thing at night.
Carve out big chunks of time for writing.
Learn to write in 15-minute increments over lunch.
Learn to write 10,000 words a day.
Don’t end a writing session until you’ve written 1,000 words.
Write every day, every week, every weekend.
Set aside one weekend a month and write in a flaming frenzy.
If you’ve been writing for more than a hot second, you’ve heard some if not all of these words of wisdom. They are all true. Completely, utterly, 100 % true. They are also pure bullshit.
No, I haven’t been drinking. (Well, not enough to cause concern.) The reason all of those statements can exist at the same time without interrupting the space-time continuum is that they each come with a caveat: if it works for you.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been adjusting my writing process and my attitude using a system developed by self-help mentor Jen Louden called Get Your Scary Shit Done. One of the most powerful things that has come out of the approach for me has been to identify, embrace, and work with my very own creative process. Jen’s system comes with LOTS of exercises, micro-processes, guidance, and support, and if you have the time and inclination, I really do encourage you to check it out. But in the meantime, let’s talk about the creative process.
Let’s drop the burden of all that writing wisdom and talk about you. Let’s talk about the when, where, how, and how often of writing that works for you. Let’s take some simple steps to identify what works for you. Not me, not your critique partner, not your favorite writer or writing mentor. You.
What comes to mind when I ask: what does your most productive writing process look like? If you don’t know, you’ve come to the right place.
If you do know and everything is going gangbusters in your creative pursuits, excellent! Bookmark this page for future reference. But one thing before you go…are you sure you’re being honest with yourself? When’s the last time you mixed things up with your creative process and really observed what is and isn’t working for you? It’s important to check in with yourself every now and then to make sure you’re brain isn’t lying to you about what’s really happening (as mine was when it kept leading me down the boom and bust writing cycle).
To find out when and how you can be your most creative, let’s start by reminiscing. Remember that summer you completed an entire book? That NaNoWriMo month you cruised right to your 50k words? That magical time you were in the groove and in love with the story you were writing? Identify a time when things went really, really well, and write down everything you remember about it. Think about times of day and number of days per week you wrote, about word count goals you set, about rewards and celebrations you gave yourself for doing so well.
With that information in hand, the next step is to build an experiment. Like science class without Bunsen burners! In this case, you’re going to try to recreate a few writing sessions that mimic that successful writing period – whether you were burning up the keyboard at 5 AM in your kitchen, or stopping by the library to sneak in an hour-long writing session after work. But don’t stop there. Try some other things as well. Spend a few weeks trying different days (weekdays or weekends), lengths of time you write (15 minutes, an hour, four hours), different locales. Mix up all the variables you can, and then play! Write, create, and most importantly, track your progress.
Next, review the data. But consider more than word count. How did it feel to write at a particular time, in a specific place? Were you able to connect more easily with your story first thing in the morning, before the world could intrude, or later in the day, when you’d completed other tasks that would create guilt if left undone? What day, time, place, session length, word count goal, etc. made you happy, allowed you to enjoy the process of writing? Here’s a really radical concept: choose the approach that helps you recreate that joy as often as possible.
Be Selfish (or Creative)
Now that you’ve got an idea of what will work for you and might even bring you joy, you know your ideal. Unfortunately, there’s this pesky thing called Life. Bosses need your time. Spouses and loved ones need your attention. Kids need your ALL. And the rest of the world has a tendency to care not about the wonderful writing approach you’ve just designed for yourself. What’s a harried writer to do?
One of the things you absolutely must do is learn to identify the difference between wants and needs. This is not easy. It will not be quick. It might even require something that does not come easily to many people, particularly women – selfishness. In small doses, this can be a healthy thing. You are the only one who knows the ins and outs of your own life, and those decisions must be yours. But look for opportunities to say no to at least some of those ‘wants’, especially when they come from someone outside your circle of nearest and dearest loved ones.
If your must-dos cannot accommodate your best-laid writing plans, is there a way to get creative? Negotiate working a later schedule (arrive later, leave later) if you are a morning writer. Exchange babysitting duties with other moms so you can have some afternoon hours to yourself. Talk your spouse into having separate time on Saturday mornings. Think about what you need to make your process work, and see if there’s a creative way to make it happen.
You’ve come up with a plan, and you’re comfortable that it’s the approach that works for you at this time in your life. You’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen to get the time, place, and headspace you need for your writing. You’re showing up at your computer on the days and times you’ve assigned yourself. And the words don’t come. Or the words that do come suck. Or you don’t even to manage to show up for a session or two. Now what?
Now might be the time to conclude you’re a terrible person.
Wait, that doesn’t sound like particularly helpful advice, does it? Yet it’s probably the first thing you actually will do if faced with one of the ‘failures’ listed above. No, I haven’t been spying on you through your webcam. I’m just calling out human nature. We tend to be harder on and less accepting of faults in ourselves than anyone else. STOP THAT. Stop it now, today.
Next time you fall short of a goal, pretend you’re talking to your best friend instead of to yourself. You probably wouldn’t tell her she’s lazy or awful, or has to punish herself or should stay up half the night catching up on what she didn’t get done earlier. If you wouldn’t say it to your mother or sister or best friend, don’t say it to yourself.
When working with your writing process, be prepared that over time, the things that work best for you will most likely change. If your life is difficult and complicated and you find you’re negotiating and compromising a lot to get your writing time, take comfort that it won’t necessarily always be this way. In fact, it probably won’t. Kids grow up. Jobs change. Husbands learn to cook (or so I’ve heard; I have no empirical evidence of this in my life, but there is always hope).
Of course, if you’re in a really good groove right now, this potential change looming in your future might not seem quite so positive. It’s true: life might become more complex, demands on your time might rise. You might even become successful at this writing gig and find yourself pulled in multiple publishing and marketing directions. If this does happen, no need to despair. Creativity should be dynamic. Just take a deep calming breath and a big step back, and try new approaches (times, places, session lengths, days of the week, etc.) until you find one that works for you.
So, how’s the writing going? If the answer is ‘it’s going great’, share your successes! And if the answer is ‘not that well’, consider whether it’s time to adjust your process.