Category: Writing Process

The Bad News for Writers

Way back in the Before Times, when we were allowed to gather in groups, I taught a writing workshop in a library. I called it, ‘Get Your Work Done,’ and we covered all the things that get in the way of writing.

What is it that stops writers, or would-be-writers, from getting down to the work they are so drawn to?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of scheduling writing time and showing up for yourself, session after session, month after month. I encouraged you to find 20 minutes a day, or 45 minutes, two or three days a week, in order to write.

When I said this at the library workshop, hands started to shoot up.

“But — but — but…” People said.
(And maybe you said “But!” while reading my last post.)

The “Buts” were along these lines:

“But my husband…”
“But my wife…”
“But my kids…”
“But my grandkids…”
“But my parents…”

I listened to a few of the Buts, and then I put my own hand up to stave off the onslaught.

“It is okay to spend a few hours each week doing something creative that your loved ones don’t necessarily understand, approve of or think is a valid use of your time.”

There was an audible gasp from the back of the room.

It’s Okay to Put Your Writing First for Twenty Minutes

I imagine that your days are pretty full, even without writing. We’ve all got our things we need to do: work, family, exercise, household management, life admin, leisure, friends, sleep. It’s not like any of us are sitting around.

If you’re going to find a few hours each week to write, that time needs to come from somewhere. It means changing a pattern. Dropping something you’re doing already, or doing less of something else, in order to prioritize your writing instead. It means asking for help.

It might mean asking your spouse to do more around the house; to take on the bedtime routine or do the soccer drop-off a few nights a week so that you have time to write. It might mean watching less TV or giving up a weekly social night, which can involve saying no to friends and family. It might mean going to bed later, or getting up earlier (very quietly, so you don’t wake anyone else up.)

If you are a grandparent, it might mean saying no to last minute babysitting requests from your own children. (I recognize that this is doubly difficult, since you need to say no to both your kids and your grandkids. And yet, I ask you, if you are not going to do the writing that is calling you now, when exactly are you going to do it?)

You might not answer the phone at certain times. You might not be free for coffee or volunteer work when people used to always be able to count on you to say yes. You might actually need to leave work on time.

You are going to carve out two hours a week in whatever form you can, and you are going to put your writing first.

Your People Will Not Like This

When you start prioritizing your writing time, the people around you might not like it very much. (They won’t like it at all.) You’ll probably get pushback. (You definitely will.) You might have to handle hurt feelings. Someone you love dearly might get mad at you and you’ll have to navigate discomfort and conflict.

In order to start down the road of writing this thing that will not leave you alone, you are going to have to hold boundaries and advocate for yourself and your creative time. You are going to have a difficult conversation or two. You are going to need to change some patterns.

You are to going to need to plop yourself down and write for twenty minutes. You are going to need to walk out the door at the time that you have freed up for yourself, and go to your selected writing place and write, even in the face of disapproval, or annoyance. In the face of the unwashed dishes, your unwashed hair, and the thirty-two unopened emails.

I can hear your “Buts” already.

You are an adult, you say. You have responsibilities!

I am not asking you to shirk them. I’m not asking you to neglect your children or let your house go to ruin or get fired from your job. I am suggesting that, if you want to write, you will need to negotiate with your spouse or children or parents or employer to carve out a little time.

I believe that most healthy relationships can handle this level of boundary-setting. After all, you’re not setting out to do anything dangerous or immoral. You’re just writing.

If negotiating this with your spouse or parents or children feels dangerous, please do not do it unless you have reached out for crisis intervention and support. If it feels scary, because it wasn’t okay to have boundaries growing up, then it’s time to learn. (I had to do this. It was not easy (still isn’t) but it’s easier than ignoring the call to write.)

How do you set boundaries with loved ones? Google some strategies and try them, ask a friend or colleague that seems to have mastered the ability, or ask a professional counselor for help.

Do Not Ask Permission

You are not asking for permission to engage in the act of writing. You are simply arranging some uninterrupted time for yourself, on par with your partner’s floor hockey nights.

You do not need anyone’s permission to write. You’re not hurting anyone by writing. (I would argue that, if you feel called to write, you are hurting those around you by denying the call.)

You are not asking permission. You are arranging time. You don’t need anyone else to think what you are doing is important. It’s important to you. That’s enough.

It might be in your kitchen or against the steering wheel as you wait in the car outside the indoor soccer gym or in the chair in the orthodontist’s waiting room — I have written in all these places and more. More pleasant might be in the guest bedroom/home office with the door closed against interruptions, or maybe a coffee shop during Cub Scouts. It could be at the dining room table with headphones on. It does not need to be fancy.

Inner Resistance is Not Outer Resistance

It’s important not to confuse your own inner resistance to creativity with the outer resistance of families and friends. Inner resistance is something all creatives need to learn to face, over and over. (Sorry to say, it doesn’t really go away, but you can get deft and working around it. I’ll cover that in my next post.)

Inner resistance can feel insurmountable, and yet it comes from nowhere. It’s easy to want to blame the people around us, since we can see them after all. They want to keep us from our creative truth, those meanies! But while it can feel like sitting down to write for 20-30 minutes is an epic battle against an invisible enemy that is out to stop us no matter what, that enemy is not your spouse, your child or your grandchildren.

Now Write

You’ve negotiated the time, now use that time to write. Don’t know how? It’s true. You may not have done this before, or at least not for a long time. Give yourself a chance. You’ll learn. Your first writing session, like the first of any new venture, will be about creating the space, going through the motions: Get to the place, open the computer or notebook, write a few things down. Write a list, write a goal, write the exact colours of the shawl the woman across from you on the bus was wearing. Write about how she tied that shawl. Where do you think she got it? Or did someone give it to her? Write that story down.

Writing will come with practice. You’ve carved out some space and time. Now commit to yourself. Keep showing up. Allow yourself to be a beginner. You’ve already started.

Write something. Anything. Write one sentence. There now, see ? You’ve already started.

The Myth of Flow

Photo of fountain pens, notebooks and a vase of flowers on a wooden table.

I first started taking my writing seriously in 2006 after spectacularly walking out of my day job. I had one week of day care that was already paid for, and after that my day job would become parenting two pre-schoolers. Any writing would happen while they were sleeping.

A novel had been developing inside me for almost a year. I worked in a brewery and, inside my head, I plotted out a mystery novel set in a brewery as I went about my day. (Creepy? I guess so. But I’m a crime writer. It’s what we do.) I knew the victim, I knew the killer, I knew the clues. All I needed was time to write.

But now, suddenly, I had that time. Five whole days with day care already paid! I thought that, if I worked every minute of those five days, I could get the novel out of my head and onto the computer. It had been dammed up in there for ages, and now that I had space and a little time and no distractions, it would just flow out.

That very first week I came smack in the face of a very common (and mostly untrue) myth about writing.

Writing Should Flow. (Shouldn’t it?)

I mean, how hard can it be? I had an idea, a story arc and time. All I needed to do was turn on the tap and it would flow out. Right?

I learned, only gradually, that writing is not typing. That the romanticized image of the writer in the garret, wrapped in shawls and sipping tea, (or in skin tight jeans, hyped up on espresso, or in a moth-eaten cardigan drinking scotch straight from the bottle, you pick) typing away, the words flowing steadily from their mind to their fingers, is not the reality.

That book, Confined Space, did eventually make its way from my imagination, through my fingers, into the computer, and then out into the world. But it was in fits and starts over the course of several years of dedicated early morning morning writing sessions. I had to learn how to write, like a musician learns scales. I had to learn how to structure a mystery novel. I had to learn how to edit my own work.

You would not expect to sit down at a piano and play the solo from a concerto, along with a full orchestra in front of an audience on the first try, and yet we expect that of ourselves when writing a manuscript.

Myth, Meet Reality

In order to finally get that book, and all the others I’ve written since then, out of my head and into the computer, I’ve had to overcome what I call the inner expectation of the Myth of Flow. I’m going to tell you how I did that, because even if your inner expectation — your inner myth — is of a different flavour than mine, the answers I landed on might be helpful to you, too.

Drop the Expectations

Looking back now, it seems completely unrealistic to expect myself to write a novel in five days. I know, I know, there are stories of it being done. In fact, if you Google “How to write a novel in 5 days” you’ll come up with thousands of results, mostly from people who will happily take your money so you can learn their “method”.

Hey, I’m not dissing the 5-day method. Not at all. I’m not saying my method is the best, either. But the method I have figured out is the best for me. Me, married and with two teens at home, a half-time day job, a household to manage and writing commitments to meet. What works for me? Writing for two hours, five days a week, will net me a book every 18 months. (Longer for historical fiction, since I’m a bit obsessive about research.)

No waiting until I retire. No waiting for summers. No subliminal music to listen to as I sleep. No saving for a 5-day retreat to Sedona. (Though I have been to Sedona and it’s lovely and I do have an idea for a novel set there.)

That’s what works for me. What will work for you?

Set a Schedule

I suggest you start small and keep your expectations very low. Are you the kind of person that needs to do something every day in order for it to stick? Then maybe start with 20 minutes a day.

Do you have more time on certain days and less on others? Maybe try 45 minutes, two or three times a week.

For example: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 am to 7:15 am.

The important thing is to find an amount of time that feels easy and stick to it. You want to meet the goal and feel like it was completely manageable. Make an agreement with yourself that once you’ve met that goal, you’ve done really well. You’re all set until the next scheduled writing session. Shower yourself with praise — give yourself the gold star! Then move on with your day.

When that little voice comes up and says, “But, but, but, but — not good enough, not long enough, you need to push and push and make this happen,” remind it that you have a schedule. Remind it that good writing happens over time and with practice. Tell it that you are not in a hurry, that you plan to enjoy this process. Tell it exactly what day and time you will be back for more writing. Then get on with your day, knowing you’ve done what you can for now.

Write During Writing Time

What should you do during your writing time? This topic deserves its own blog post, so I’ll add that to my list of things to do during my own writing time. For now, I’ll just give you a few suggestions. If you’re writing a novel, why not take one of the elements of a novel and work on it for a while, and then gradually move on and build on what you’ve written. Maybe you want to start with a few paragraphs describing the setting. Or start by interviewing a character to get to know them. If paragraphs feel intimidating, start with a list. You’ll build on it later.

Or, start with plot. What happens in this story that you are writing? Pretend it’s something that happened to you and you are texting a friend about it and write that down.

Sound easy? Good. Why not start with easy? Make it gradually more difficult. Allow yourself to be a beginner. (This is true for experienced writers too. Each novel comes without an instruction booklet.) What is most important is that you finish your writing session feeling like you’ve done something. That way, you’ll look forward to coming back, and the next time you will show up and do it again.

Expect to Edit

There’s this beautiful memoir called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominic Bauby. Do you know it?

Bauby was editor of French Elle when a massive stroke left him with locked-in syndrome. He could think and remember perfectly clearly, but could not speak or move any part of his body except for one eyelid. He dictated his memoir to his caregiver by blinking out each letter.

In order to accomplish this, he needed to have each word, each sentence, lined up in his mind. Then he needed to remember them, and spell them out with his eyelid, one letter at a time.

Intense, right? But here is the thing, you are likely not afflicted with locked-in syndrome like Jean-Dominic Bauby. You can get your words out now, and edit them later. The expectation that the words should come out as they will appear later in the printed book is not realistic. All professional writers expect to be edited. While some writers can produce a rough draft that is close to the finished product, many cannot. It’s just not their process.

I need at least three drafts before I will even consider sharing what I’ve written. Yes, even for this blog. Editing is part of writing. Expect it, plan for it, count on it. Editing is what makes it okay for you to write during your allotted time, let what is there come out, and then move on, knowing you will have an opportunity to fix it later.

Write Now. Don’t Wait for Flow.

Sure, flow states happen. Of course they do. They are more likely to happen with practice. And while they feel good, I’m not ready to correlate good feeling writing time with good writing. Sometimes the best writing I do comes from a place of discomfort, from having to work a little harder for it, from a writing session that frankly felt pretty crappy in the moment.

Flow is not the key. The key is setting your schedule and showing up. Over and over and over. Show up. Keep your expectations low. Do your work in the moment. Expect to edit it later. Put it away and get on with your life. Then show up for your next writing session.

Until next time, I wish you regularly scheduled, tolerably pleasant writing time.

During the months of October and November (in 2020, this year of the pandemic) I am giving away four books by local BC writers to subscribers of my newsletter. You can join in on the fun by signing up here.

Why is Writing SO Hard?

As I write this, the sky is filled with smoke from fires in Washington and Oregon, smoke that is reaching all the way across Canada. It’s hard to go outside, even to walk to the car, never mind go for a walk. Living in a rural area, the fact that we can still get outside and hike, go to the beach and the many parks in this area has made the pandemic somewhat bearable.

Now it really feels like the world is ending. That the smoke is so dense and the fires are not near here reminds me that we are all in this together. We all breathe the same air and it’s the only air we’ve got.

I’ve got the whole day to write, and aside from a few calls, the only thing I plan to work on is a few blog posts. But I am struck down with WHY BOTHER? Why bother writing? Why bother sharing with others?

Why bother doing something that can only count as a luxury, when the ground is literally on fire? What is the point, when so many are having trouble even breathing? When the places in our communities where people would congregate to escape the smoke – the churches, libraries, community halls and rec centres – are all closed or have limited access because of COVID measures?

For several weeks I’ve wanted to write a series of posts about how to overcome writing avoidance and resistance. For some of us, the need to write is urgent. We are called to this. Desperate to tell stories — our stories, others’ stories, the stories borne from our imaginations — and yet, sitting down to write is a battle.

There’s always something that gets in the way. Today, for me, it is grief. Grief that all my places of reprieve – my garden, the trails, the city park, long walks with my friends – have been taken from me. How long will it be? Days, weeks, months? The grief would keep me from writing if I let it, but I will not let it.

You see, I have, for the most part, figured out how to get around the resistance that comes up with writing. It’s taken me years and a lot of practice, but I have found a way that works for me. The only thing keeping me from retreating to bed today and watching Faulty Towers until the sun comes out is that, by writing down what I’ve learned and sharing it here, I might help someone else.

Someone who feels that same urgent call to write, but gets caught in the weeds of resistance and expectation. Faulty Towers will have to wait. This post feels as urgent as climate change all of a sudden.

Has this happened to you?

When you really want to write, it stays with you all day. For me it used to go something like this: I’m going about my day and everything I do — the kids, the day job, chores and social obligations and exercise— for all of it, I’m just biding my time until I can get to the writing.

But then it comes time to write, and first thing I do is open up Twitter. It’s like my chair is on fire and it’s torture to sit down and concentrate. I’ve spent hours or days looking forward to this moment and now that it’s here, I’d rather do anything else. Literally anything. Scrub the bathroom tiles? Empty the litter box? I’ll do it! Anything and everything is better than writing.

Maybe for you it’s more of a seasonal thing. You’re a teacher and you can’t wait for summer so you can write. Or, maybe it goes on for decades — you’re waiting to retire and you’ll do all your writing then. But when the fateful time comes, when it’s just you and the table and chair and the blank screen, you can’t get anywhere. Before you know it you’ve joined three boards and trained as a hospice volunteer and you’re way too busy to even think of writing.

Why is writing so hard? What is that anywhere-but-here feeling and how can we get over it?

The long answer to these questions is coming up in the next few weeks, but the short answer to what stops us from writing is: resistance and expectations.

We think writing should be easier than it is, because know how to write. We write all the time. We write emails, we write Facebook posts, we write to-do lists and instructions, procedures and legislation. Sure, maybe our grammar is not the best, but we know how to write. How hard can it be?

When we finally sit down to write, it turns out it’s harder than we expected. The rewards that we’re after — the acknowledgement, the accolades, the bestseller lists — these are a long way off. There are no gold stars for sitting in your chair and forcing out a thousand words. There’s nothing finished, so nothing to check off a to-do list. And these are just the internal expectations.

What about those around us? They love us and want to protect us from hurt, and this writing thing we are so hell-bent on seems to be causing us a lot of pain. Plus, our long-suffering loved-ones are used to more of our attention. Why pay extra for a babysitter when all we’re doing is writing? Why aren’t the dishes done? Why can’t we take the grandkids this weekend?

Really, if we just stopped with the writing already, it would be easier on everyone. External expectations like these have stopped many a would-be writer in their tracks.

Plus, there’s that brick wall of resistance that comes up every time we sit down to write. What is that and where does it come from? Is there any way around it? Does it ever go away? The guilt, shame and anxiety. Oh, and let’s not forget the fear in all its glory. (Did I leave the stove on? Will my mother disown me when this gets published? Will this ever even get published? I’m terrible at this and should stop. I always wanted to do this and now I’m terrible at it and who will I be if I’m not a writer?) I’ll stop now. You get it.

We are going to talk about all of these things, and how to overcome them in the coming weeks. Since it feels like the world is ending out there though, I don’t want to leave you hanging for the answer.

The answer to all of it – ALL OF IT – is routine and practice. Find a routine and settle in to it. It could be half an hour, three times a week. In that half hour, you write. Keep your expectations low. Just do something. Write a list of ideas. Interview a character. Pretend you’re writing a letter to a friend about the story in your head, and write it down.

Keep it simple, quiet and regular. Show up when you say you will. Your body and mind will come to expect it. Your loved ones will get used to the idea. Your inner critic will cross its arms and let you do your thing, whatever. Even the wall of resistance will move back a few feet and give you a little bit of space.

That’s all you need. A tiny bit of room to breathe. That’s all any of us are getting right now anyway. Take it. Do something with it. It’s yours. You can watch Faulty Towers later.