How to Get Stuck Less
Alright, so how do we get stuck less? We've been talking about work process, understanding our work process, we've been talking about neurobiology and the critic. That's all inner stuff, which I think is super important and really where it's at. But then there's also this thing, how do you actually get the words on page? What do you actually do when you're getting kinked up? I think it was you, Christy, who told me, don't you have one of those Roomba vacuum cleaners? And how they get stuck in the corner, right? (Christy laughs) So this is what happens to us with our writing and I think the reason it happens is because of how we learned writing in school. We learned writing in school for product, not process. Remember that terrible thing called the five-paragraph essay? So it was like you had to learn how to do the five-paragraph essay. You had to turn it in, you had to get the grade. And of course, we all want to meet our deadlines and we all want to do what we want to do with our writ...
ing, product is important. But how our minds work, how to actually get words on the page, we didn't necessarily learn that in school. So I want to share a few real practical tips for that. You can write down any ones that you think might work with some of your Roomba stuck places. So the first one is, don't confuse beginning with writing the beginning. I remember once I said this at a retreat. It came out of my mouth and I went, okay everybody, stop, I've got to write this down. Because I've paid for this one with a lot of years, with a lot of years. So what happens when we start a piece of any kind of writing, I don't care what we're writing, or within a larger project like you're working on a novel, when you start a new scene, when we start to venture into unknown territory. It's very scary for us to go into the unknown. So we decide that we'll get the beginning just right, we'll get the first sentence, we'll get the headline on the blog post just right. And once that's just right and beautiful, then we'll go and we'll know what to do next. It's the right thing to do, it's way too soon to do it. The beginning is often the last thing we know. So we do it, we spend all this time making it beautiful. And then it's not even what the piece is about once we write it. And we're like, oh god, now I have to throw all that out, it took me all this time. Related to that is don't keep going back to the beginning. This I paid for with about two years of my life. So take it from me, if you can imagine me down on my hands and knees begging you not to do this. So I was writing my first serious attempt at a novel, and I would go and I would go and I would go, and then I wouldn't know what was going to happen next. The characters weren't talking to me, I was standing on the cliff. And so what I would do is I'd go back to the beginning of the story and I'd start editing and polishing and making it pretty. And I spent two years doing that. And I had a friend in my writing group, she spent probably four years doing this on her novel. They were beautiful sentences. Sometimes I swear to gosh, she would come back to writing group and she would have moved a comma. She finally got an agent, the agent said, you need to throw out the first 1/3 of the book. She had spent years making it perfect. So we have to know that we're doing that, we're going back to the beginning to soothe ourselves. Because we don't want to be lost, we don't want to be messy. And instead what we need to do is write all the way to the end, so all the way to the end of the blog post, all the way to the end of the sales copy, all the way to the end of the novel! You can make lots of notes for yourself about how things have changed and what you want to go back and change, but to go back and change is often to lose the thread and to be soothing yourself in a way that's not actually going to move you forward. But it's hard, that's why I spent two years going back to the beginning. It's hard, but it's really, really, useful to resist. Along with how we learned writing in school, we often learned to mix together all the different functions of writing. So we're supposed to just come to writing, and I'm writing now, and sit down and begin to write. And some of us can do that, in which case, yay. But most of us need to come to the page primed. We need to have had some time to daydream, to think, to see our characters in action, to think about, what is this blog post really about, what is this short story really about? We need to give ourselves some time to almost get the unconscious so ready to go that it just cannot wait to write. So this is the practice that I would love you to consider doing, is first of all, you have to have a clear time, a commitment that you're going to actually come to your writing. And I'm going to talk more about that in a couple of segments, how to make those clear commitments that you're competent to keep. So imagine you've said to yourself, I'm going to write at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. And that is it, and it's real, and I'm going, and it's clear and I'm committed to it. And I'm going to write what? You have to choose. Writers are people who choose, so what are you going to write tomorrow? Well I'm going to write the scene, I'll use myself, I'm going to write the scene in Bali, where we went to the cremation. I don't know why I'm writing it, but I think it fits in the story so I'm going to write it. Okay great, so I want to spend time between then and 9:00 in the morning daydreaming, thinking, imagining, seeing that scene, not necessarily making notes or looking at pictures or doing research. Maybe a little bit of that, but not so linear, not so linear. And then what happens is you start to be like, I have to write this, I have to write this, and then there's something cooking when you sit down to start doing that crappy first draft. It's hard actually for me to do this, but every time I do it, it is so useful. So a silly story but I got my nails done for this presentation which I never do because I can't, I know this is going to come as a surprise, sit still very easily. (laughter) So you have to sit, and they have to dry and of course I nicked it as soon as I got up. So I'm sitting there and you can't read, you can't do anything, and there's a mirror in front of this so I'm like, I don't want to look at myself, so I closed my eyes and I'm like, oh remember! Come to the page primed! This scene is giving you a hard time! So I started imagining the scene and I'm really struggling with, why does it fit in the memoir? And it came to me in that moment. It's because I stayed at the cremation. Which will make sense to you when you read the story someday. And I didn't stay with my dad when he was dying, and that's part of the theme of the book, ways that I was dishonest with myself. So it came to me just sitting there in a nail salon of all places. You might say every day when I walk the dogs, when I'm commuting, when I'm doing the pickup with the kids, I'm going to set that time aside to daydream, to think, to let myself cook, to come to the page primed with the clear commitment to when you're going to come. Alright, this strange little bubble is something called clustering. So you come to the page primed, but you're like, oh my god, I have so many ideas and what do I start with, and do I start with a parade or do I start with that guy taking us down that rugged trail, where do I start? The page is one-dimensional. Your mind is like 25-dimensional. And just that transition from all the things that are going on in your head to getting something on the page can be so, whoa! You stop right there. This is what you use for this. That moment. I use it three or four times a week. When I start a scene in my memoir, when I'm trying to figure out what I need to do to revise a scene, every time I write a blog post. It's called clustering, it was invented by Gabriele Rico, it's much simpler than mind mapping. You do not need any software, you can see my ugly little handwriting. So wait, let me go back. Go back. You start with a question. This is a really, really cool way because your mind doesn't like unanswered questions. So that question makes no sense to you, why celebrate? This doesn't need to make sense to no one but you. So nothing in here is going to make any sense to you but it made sense to me. So you start with a question and then you begin to draw lines off of it. Okay what is it, okay, circle, a pause, circle up here, fire positive, go over there, why? You're not censoring yourself, you're not crossing anything out, you're not editing yourself, you're not writing very much. See how these are all just a word or two? What you're trying to do is let your mind work the way it works and make associations and connections. And it really helps with that feeling of, where do I start and what goes where and how do I sequence stuff? And also, what is this piece that I'm writing really about? So I wrote down here, I said why is it hard, perfectionism, tall poppy syndrome, bragging. This is a blog post I wrote. You can find it on my blog about why we should celebrate, and I'll tell you why we should celebrate a little bit more in a moment. And then you can see it just keeps going. And you can see how ugly it is. My handwriting, who cares, it's not for anybody else. I write these on the back of old printer paper that has gone through the printer. You can see a little bit of it all the way out there. The point is not to make an outline. The point is not to fill the whole page. The point is to get enough sense of where to start or what the piece is about and get the energy to jump in. So think of it as organizing your energy and thoughts, versus outlining in any way. Let the connections flow, write down each new word or brief phrase, circle it, connect it with the line that sparked it. If you get stuck, because I'd like you to keep your hand moving, it really helps your mind, just circle, circle, circle, circle. Or I'll doodle. In fact if you go back, you can see that there's little weird doodles at the top. And don't get hung up on what words connect. Don't be like, oh does this go with this? Just draw one line, if you see another line that wants to connect, and do it quickly with no censoring, let your thoughts spark. And then suddenly you're like, I've got to write it, I've go to write it. I know where to start. Sometimes I'll keep the map there, I'll keep looking at it. Sometimes I don't look at it again. Love this, it saves you so much time instead of sitting there going, okay where do I start, and then getting caught back up at the beginning. Or, what do I say this, or what's the transitions on this? And also, wait wait wait, sometimes these don't work. Sometimes you do one and you're like, well that's boring. I'm not interested in writing that. What happened? You put the wrong thing in the middle! So sometimes you'll do it and you're like, ugh! Maybe the map that's not working will reveal to you what's a better question to go in the middle, or sometimes it will reveal to you that you don't really want to write this, and that you kind of got into a should. And I'll talk more about that in a second. So if it's not working, it's not the clustering. It's that the middle is probably not what you really want to say or just the right question. So that happens to me fairly often. Just throw it away, start a new one. This is from a wonderful writing teacher, Priscilla Long, the book The Writer's Portable Mentor. She's a writing teacher here in Seattle. What is Priscilla talking about? When you write your first draft and you're going and you're generating a lot of words and you're trying to get all the way to the end, there's things that are missing. Maybe emotions of the characters, maybe the sensory details of what people look like or what they were wearing. Maybe you're writing about ideas and maybe you're a thought leader and you're writing a thought leader book but the ideas aren't fully fleshed out or the examples aren't there. So that's normal, but they didn't teach us that in school. They didn't teach us in school that there's going to be stuff missing. I love the idea that it's too thin. She says in the book, like weak tea. Like tea that you haven't steeped long enough and it tastes like nothing. So what do we do? Well what we learned in school was to edit, it was to polish, it was to fix the word, look in the thesaurus! The-thaur-uth, I can never say that word! (laughter) Look in the the-thaur-uth! It was to do the right thing at the wrong time. Now why is it the wrong thing? Well remember my friend who spent all that time polishing those chapters that didn't fit the narrative arc of the book. Often we don't know what the piece is really about. We haven't found the depth. So it's like we've half finished the house and we've painted it beautifully. But the other thing that can happen when we start to edit and polish too soon is we almost freeze it. We freeze the piece and we can't see where it's too thin, or, because we spent so much time polishing, we're not willing to see where it's too thin. It's too painful. So we waste time and we can actually kill our writing. So what do we do instead? Well we have our draft that we've done and then we think about Priscilla's words and then we start reading it out loud to ourselves. And we come to a place that's boring or we come to a place that too much is going on or we come to a place where there's no emotional truth or the idea isn't developed. And then, this is the really cool thing, we take that word, phrase, or sentence that's too thin and we put it in another document. Because if we start trying to deepen and thicken it, which is what I call a second draft, in that document, we are invariably going to start editing and polishing because it's just like scratching an itch. It's like, let me just look up that word, oh let me just move that around, oh that comma goes there, oh that comma goes there. But if we take that word, that phrase, that too-thin piece and we go over here and then we're like okay, now what did I really mean by here, what was missing? And we start the first draft process just going into that. Sometimes I'll do it by handwriting, using the prompt, what did I mean here, what did I mean here? And then we generate a bunch of stuff and then we say okay, what actually from that do I want to put back in that first document? What's the word, the phrase, the description, the salient, sensory detail that I want to add? And yes when you go back and put it in, you'll do a little polishing. You can't probably help it. But you'll do a lot less and it'll get much less of that squeezed, thin, tightened up too soon feeling and you'll save time. So this has been profound for my writing and for the quality of my writing. Alright, last little how to get stuck less idea is the two-sentence trick. (speaks in gibberish) And that is, if you are finding yourself in this polishing, editing thing and you're like, Jen, I'm sorry, I can't stop, I'm addicted to this, the the night before whenever you're preparing your environment to write, copy and paste the last couple sentences of what you're working on into a new document and don't look at the rest of the document. Because you can't go back. And at first you'll be like, oh my god, but I have to read it, I have to move some commas around before I can write anymore! But with a little bit of practice, it's a really great way to break that habit. And I have to do it all the time because I love to start my morning with a little bit of fussing. And I'm not saying that that is anything about your writing process that is working, because you've been studying your work style. Don't change it, just take these as suggestions that you can make your own for things that aren't working. Questions about any of this?
I get the inspiration hit maybe at the wrong time.
So like an idea for, hey, this has been so inspiring, something you said, I've got a great idea. I'm going to go write about what Jen said! But it's not the right time for me to sit here and write my blog post right now.
So any tips on keeping that momentum, harnessing that momentum using it later?
Yes, absolutely! Brilliant question! So make a commitment to yourself right now when you will write the blog post. And I'm going to get to this in a moment, so I'll give you some ways to do that. But when we have clear commitments to ourselves when we'll get to the writing, the unconscious can keep clicking. And it may make us uncomfortable, but it's like, I know I'm going to get a chance to get there and dump it. It's when we don't keep those commitments or even make them, then the inspiration just feels... The other thing is that inspiration can sometimes be tricky. It's almost seductive, it's like oh, this is the best thing you're ever going to write. And it's more that something's cooking, and be really gentle with yourself if it doesn't feel as inspired when you sit down. It's almost like a little bit of a mirage that can then be used by the itty bitty shitty committee to say, well see? You're not really inspired! So just be like, well that was nice, that was then and I trust that it's here and it will come out. Yeah, that's a great question. Alright, here is your homework. Which of these tools would help you in one place where you currently get stuck like the Roomba vacuum cleaner? What would help you go clean the whole room? No no no no, I didn't mean that. What would help you go write? So if there's one tool or maybe something I said has sparked something else that you've already learned or that you forgot to use. So write that down right now. Which of these tools, or another tool you will use. And those of you at home, I'd love you to pause and try that clustering technique right now for an idea, formed as a question that you have for the next thing you want to write, whatever it is, jump into it, spend five minutes on it right now. It's so powerful.