Preparing to Write: It's About You
Who cares if Steven King writes every day, right? I think there's not a week that goes by where I don't get an article in my e-mail box about Stephen King who writes even on Christmas day, listening to heavy metal music. So I want you to do a little experiment. Everybody at home, I want you to do this too, I want you to do exactly what we're doin'. If you're alone just say this out loud, maybe text it to somebody. So I want you to turn to someone in the audience and I want you to exchange these words with each other and then notice how you feel, notice what you say to yourself. Okay, the first ones are, I am a writer. So say that to someone else and they say it back to you.
I am a writer.
And then just take second and notice if you hear anything, feel anything. Do it at home. And now I'd like you to do the same thing with the words, I am writing. And everybody at home say it out loud, text it to somebody. I am writing.
I am writing.
So did anybody hear anything like, who the he...
ll do you think you are to say I am a writer? Yeah, really common. Did anyone hear hell yes? Yes, I am a writer, yes. What about I am writing? Did anyone hear something like, well no you didn't write today? Yeah? So what's fascinating to me that we do this exercise at my writing retreats and what's fascinating to me is how much baggage comes up with these simple phrases. I am a writer. I am writing. Like, so what? Big deal. And what I think happens is 'cause there's so much cultural baggage, stories from our family, stories about what it means to be a writer. And if we're not careful they creep in the room with us. They make it really loud and really hard to write. I asked some of my students and friends on Facebook if what happened to them when they think of these words or phrases and one gal said she's not a writer because she doesn't read enough, and I love this one, she doesn't have an unabridged dictionary, right? Like right away, all the stories that we begin to have about what it means to be a writer. And then a couple more people said I never had any formal training or taken writing courses. So like you're supposed to have an MFA to be a writer. I'm not smart enough. Someone said I have a Philadelphia accent, an accent from Philadelphia, so I can't be a writer. Fascinating, right? Fascinating. Oh I love this one! I could be a real writer if I don't do nothing else for years and years and year, just like I wonder are you allowed to eat. (laughing) Are you allowed to leave the room? So I bring this up because if we're not aware of this baggage, if we're not aware of these stories, someone else is gonna create the story for you of what it means to be a writer, and what it means to even be engaged in the act of writing. You have to create it for yourself. This is not like life coach, like yay yay rah rah, the outside world doesn't matter. This is essential for your mental health to keep writing. If you don't begin to look at how these stories have crept in, the noise they're making, and how their influencing what you think about your writing, your writing process, and I believe it starts with owning your work style. How do you actually write? Remember what I said a second ago? Who cares if Stephen King writes every day? So that's the kind of noise out there, if you read his great book on writing, no slam to Stephen King, he says you should write every day. Well I say why? What if that doesn't work for you? So that's why I gave you the quiz. Everybody at home, pause. Did you answer the questions? This is gonna make the class a lot more powerful for you. So hit pause and make sure that you have a chance to answer those questions before we get into more specifics. I want you to review these questions. And if you don't have your paper out you don't have to get it out, maybe just in your memory. What's my writing process, this kind of environment, what helped me focus, kind of support accountability deadlines, what helped me get settled in and start writing. So I want you to be committed to studying how you actually write best, and not just this one time during this 90 minutes we have together. I want you to keep this handout and use it again and again. When the project changes, when you go from first draft to second draft, your writing and your work style may change. When you get a new job, when you have a new relationship, your commute changes, things are gonna change, you have to be aware of that instead of looking for those stories outside of you that tell you how you should work. It sounds so simple but it can be so profound. Here's one of my students. She had this whole thought, like, I've gotta be like disciplined, I've gotta have will power, I've gotta do morning pages. Anyone hear of morning pages? It's Julia Cameron's write three pages longhanded. Some people swear by it. Didn't work for Sonya, she stopped writing. She stopped writing, she was miserable. And when she discovered that she was trying to mimic someone else's idea of what a writing life looked like made her absolutely miserable, she found the joy and the love again and she finished the first draft of her memoir. So can any of you relate to that, how like an idea of how you're supposed to work could kind of creep in at this almost technical level right? Like how you make your coffee in the morning or something, and muck up the process before you even get started. Or then there's Sally Morgan, she was writing a popular blog, her dating stories. So A is Adam, B is for Ben, it was going great. People loved them and it was really funny. And then she decided to make the leap and write a memoir. Well way more difficult structure issues, being vulnerable, the stuff she wasn't sharing on the blog, the ugly stuff. And so she thought well I've done NaNoWriMo, right? So I'll do what I did in NaNoWriMo, I'll have a certain word count, I'll show up every day, I'll do it at the same time. It didn't work. She wasn't getting the work done, starting to beat herself up and then she looked at her actual life. She's a single mom, she's got active kids and so she said I have to work in a way that reflects my life right now. And that was to write 30 minutes every day no matter what so there was still a measurable piece to it, and I'll talk about that in a couple of segments, there was still something measurable. She like I'm just not gonna write when I want. But it was 30 minutes whenever she could fit it in, 15 minutes here, 20 minutes here. So your work style can, really studying it and being willing to be honest about it. 'Cause when we're deciding to write like Stephen King then we have to be honest about what's not working. We just keep trying other people's ideas. We don't have to look at what am I really doing that I need to change so that I can get my work done. So it's a wonderful way really to hide. And when we study our work style and we get intimate with it then we can be like, you know, it's really true. The habits that I have, or these one or two things that I'm doing, I'm not getting the writing done that I need, I need to tweak them. Make sense? Cool. Alright, so I wanna share two of my ways that I work, not because I'm Stephen King and you should copy me, but to give you an idea of some tweaks that you might easily do for things that often aren't working for us. So the first one is, set up your environment. For me it's the night before because I write first thing in the morning. For you it might be set up the environment before you leave for work because you work when you get home. Set up the environment for you lunch hour when you write. So there's some really tons of research that the environment, if we set it up to help us focus can take off a ton of cognitive load and make it much easier, take out a lot of noise in the system that's getting us stuck so we're going, squirrel, squirrel, right? Okay, for those of you who don't know, that's a movie. Google did a really silly study. They put lids on their M&Ms and in a month people ate three million fewer M&Ms at Google. Like just a lid. There was a study of a school that I think it was by a train track and they put, I don't know if they gave the kids headphones or what, they made it quieter, their test scores went up. So good science behind this. So what does my environment look like? The night before I clear anything else I've been doing around my computer, put in my headphones, bring up the document I'm gonna be working on so it's right there, disappear my e-mail from my dock so I can't even see it, close my browsers, and turn on Freedom, which is internet blocking software, there's a number of different companies who provide it, so it's all cued up, and waiting for me. Alright, so I wanna ask you, are there ways that you might set up an environment for yourself, not based on my idea, but just kinda giving you some sense of what's possible to take some of the noise out of the system. And then here's the other thing I do. I have a starter ritual. So I think one of the ways that we don't understand our work styles, we sort of think we're supposed to from life, you know whoa my god why was I in there, writing, thinking, being creative, ah look, you know? You need a bridge. You need a way to start and if it's the same simple one every time, it really saves cognitive resources. It's like kinda slippin' in to a, I don't know, like a cockpit on a car or something I feel like, I don't know why I think that, it's a very weird analogy for me, I do not race cars. So my starter ritual's really kind of unusual but it reflects studying my work style. So I get up in the morning and meditate, then I come to the kitchen counter where my laptop is, I have a desktop in my office and a laptop in the kitchen, and the laptop is open and I check my e-mail. Jennifer, you are not supposed to check your e-mail before you write. Who says? Stephen King told me that. Did Stephen King tell you that? No, so when I started doing this it was because I realized I was anxious about what was going on with my business in the world and it would prey on me and so I would start clicking away during my writing time and checking my e-mail. I've since discovered that there's actually science that there's a completion bias. So when we do a couple little tasks before we go to big task it gives us a little dopamine hit, it helps us focus, and actually can make it easier for us to go into that big block of 90 minutes or whatever you're gonna do for your writing, half an hour. So, but notice I do it at the kitchen counter. Did I say I'm standing up? I don't wanna let myself sit down 'cause then I'm gonna get all comfy. So I'm gonna start answering e-mails, right? I don't wanna do that, I don't wanna get sucked in, I just want a little dopamine hit, I wanna know my team's okay, I wanna know that no students are having issues with a retreat or a class. If I start to sit down and get comfortable I still don't have my coffee. (cackles) So I'm not gonna get sucked in because I haven't made my latte yet. So that's my reward, so after five minutes or ten minutes of e-mail I'm like, I really want my coffee, I'm so tired. So then I make my latte and then I go up the stairs to my environment that's already set up. And the latte is the bridge. It's comforting, it's delicious, I really want it, I need it to wake up, right? So I'm not gonna let myself have it and start answering e-mail, I've trained myself not to do that. So it's really simple, really really helps. I leave my smart phone, iPhone, whatever you call it, outside my office. So there's research now from the University of Texas, pretend it's right here, there's a part of your brain going, hi, what are you doing? What's going on out there in the world? Oh I just wanna touch it. You're actually less able to focus just if it's in the environment, even if it's off. So I leave my phone outside my office, I highly recommend that you do the same. If you're working in a coffee shop turn it off and put it where you can't see it in your purse. So that's the one should that I'll give you (laughs) about your work process. So here's the homework that I'd like to give you. What's one tweak to your work style that you've discovered from doing the questionnaire everybody at home from doing that here in our audience. What's one tweak that you'd like to make? Now here's the mistake that we usually make. Okay, well you gave me environment, environment idea, and a starter ritual, and (gibberish), and you're like, I'm gonna redesign my whole work process. No that's not gonna work. That's not how we change as people. So what I'd really love you to do is one tweak, for one thing you're really honestly willing to see now, if you own how you work versus how Stephen King or someone else has told you you should work. What's one tweak that you're willing to make and write it down, make it real. And then is anyone willing to share their tweak? Just shout it out. Yeah, Cristy, perfect.
I, just thinking about this and going through it, I realize that I definitely work better when I'm not at home in terms of writing.
Perfect, great insight.
So just trying to figure out, like okay is it going to be one day a week, or two days a week that I go to the library, and just for right now experimenting, like does that happen before I go to the gym, does it happen on my way home from the gym, but trying it a couple different ways, but making sure I block at least one day a week where I'm gonna go to the library for an hour and write.
That is exactly what I'm talking about and what we do, what our minds do is, well that's not very sexy, I want something, ya know, I want a big change. That's not how we're gonna get our writing done. It's in these small tweaks where we're honest about how we work best and what's not working and we start small. I know it's not fun or sexy but it really does work. That's great, and I love the experiment. You gotta keep experimenting 'cause as you change and your life changes, life circumstances change, so does your work.