It’s been a little over a month and a half since I gave myself permission to set a few things aside to make working on my novel a priority. I’d like to say that I now write an hour each day, that my novel has become the foremost project on my mind, that nothing is getting in the way of my creative work.
Well…not so much. My work-in-progress is still tucked away in its virtual closet, snoring quite loudly, in fact, with little sign of waking itself up.
It’s not that it hasn’t been on my mind. I can’t count how many times I’ve told myself, “You should be writing right now.” Yet day after day passes and I never seem to get to the point of actually writing.
I’m not the only writer who struggles with this. Loryn Cole describes her own personal story of how she used to write poetry all the time until life happened and distractions took priority. “Between work, chores, personal projects, and goals, making time for poetry feels frivolous,” she writes.
She couldn’t be more right. As a freelance writer and editor, I know how much the pressures of earning a living take away from creative time. Projects that may not amount to much (at least financially) seem more like a luxury than a worthwhile endeavor. That’s why when I tell myself, “I should be writing,” I usually follow that thought up with, “Yes, but I should be doing something more productive instead.”
And so I push my novel away, even as the guilt and pressure of not working on it build up like junk dumped into an already overfull closet. And who wants to open that door?
In her post, Cole mentions the poet Mary Oliver, author of the anthology Upstream. In one of her essays, Oliver comments, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Ouch…I certainly don’t want to be one of those “most regretful people.”
Well, then, get to it, right? All I need to do is decide to write and keep at it…day after day, week after week. I know why I want to write (at least, I think I do), so now I just need to adopt a mindset, schedule time, and create a habit. Darren Rowse shares six tips for doing so, all of which are credible and relevant.
But (and this is not an excuse, really), I’ve been there, done that. A year or two ago, I set the goal of writing for a mere 15 minutes a day, at least four or five days a week. I kept at it, for a while. Then I stopped.
Why? I wasn’t finding the same satisfaction in my writing as I had when I’d scheduled blocks of time to work on my novel during the years of my MFA program. Yes, I was writing, but I was still spinning my wheels. I wasn’t solving the larger issues in my story, those nagging plot holes and inconsistencies, those unanswered questions.
I gave up, and, since then, instead of developing a habit of writing, I’ve developed a habit of not writing.
Lynn Dickinson, a writer for Writer’s Digest, explains this habit and how to overcome it. First of all, she notes, “If you’re trying to use your willpower to keep you writing, you aren’t likely to write much.” Our goals for writing must be more intentional than simply the desire to write. Just as being in an MFA program with set deadlines and mentors who expected chapters from me at intervals through the semester kept me on track, habitual writing requires a system and accountability.
The system, though, doesn’t have to be as stringent as what Rowse explains in his post. While he may be able to live up to the “never miss two in a row” rule, I shirk from such rigidness. Writing, after all, is supposed to be something I look forward to doing, not something I’m simply checking off my to-do list.
For Dickinson, the habit of writing begins with developing a routine around the act of writing itself. “Habits form best in clusters,” she explains. The idea is to weave writing into a sequence of other habits that become second nature, just like the example she gives of brushing your teeth every day. “Make the ritual that surrounds your writing fun, pleasant, meaningful, positive and easy to do,” Dickinson explains. “Use a little of your willpower to enact the same pleasant writing ritual or routine every day. It may take you a couple weeks, to a month or so, before your brain stops drawing on your willpower and starts treating your writing like a habit.” When that happens, when the habit of writing becomes something you do without thinking much of it, that’s when you can set more strict guidelines of timing and purpose.
If I’ve been thinking about writer’s block all wrong, maybe I’ve also been thinking about my writing habit all wrong. I’ve been putting too much pressure on the habit itself. So just as I’ve given myself permission to take a step back on work, maybe I should also give myself permission to take a step back on my writing habit. At the end of his post, Rowse lists his sixth step: “Create space to play.” What if my novel became that space? What if rather than treating my novel like something I should be working on, I treat it like something that I get to work on…just for play, just for fun, just because?
The door to that closet may not be so hard to open, then.