I want to write. Write well and enjoy doing it. But writing well and enjoyment don’t exactly go hand in hand. Not for me, at least. The more I learn about writing, the more difficult it becomes. Each book on the craft that I read feels like opening a can of worms. Like expectations, they skitter over my desk and arrange themselves into an exponential curve that I’ll never be able to keep up with. I practice every day, but my skill crawls only at a measly linear rate.
Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to feel. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I think it calls for a change in approach.
Last month’s radical productivity experiment has shown me a better way to run a business and make a living as a freelancer. Cutting my hours to 3-4 each day cleared the nonsense from my schedule, forced me to focus on the essentials, made my business grow, and left me with lots of time for leisure and rest. I couldn’t be happier with the results.
However, it had a major awkward side effect. I made almost no progress with my novel (currently sitting at around 60,000 words).
Writing a decent novel is a long-term, labor-intensive project. The reward for all that effort is uncertain and iffy at best. That’s why here and now—and even tomorrow and the day after—I’m better off finding more clients that need their books edited, or trying to break into the world of magazine writing, because that effort pays out now, and not in some distant future. Writing a novel is such a ridiculously long game to play, I’m surprised anyone bothers anymore.
And so, sitting down to write has become… complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing, or I wouldn’t have spent the last seven years learning the craft, getting traditionally published, and running an editing business. But writing stories? That only got more difficult with time, like marriage.
When I share this with people, some tell me it’s proof I should quit. Go back to my corporate career and give up on this ridiculous fancy, because my heart isn’t in it. How can I explain to them that, as far as my heart is concerned, more of it is in it than ever was in anything else I’ve done? It’s just the way I function.
This may reveal more about my character than the nature of writing, but I know many great writers who feel the same way. Writing is work. It’s difficult. Sometimes unpleasant. Having written feels better than writing. Those are common sentiments among some of my favorite authors. I know, because I asked about it in person.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with all of my life’s passions. I spent a lot of time on stage, either as a host, in front of big crowds, or doing live e-sports commentary (don’t ask, that was a long time ago). I clocked in around 1,500 hours of stage time. Then another 500 as a trainer and workshop facilitator in the company I worked for. And you know what? I loved it. The thrill and excitement, the risk of failure, the adrenaline, and the satisfaction of seeing an engaged audience… I was in my element. But it stressed the living hell out of me.
On stage, in front of people, I sweat like a pig in butter on a roast in the middle of the Sahara Desert at noon. That’s why I always wear a jacket. In the past, people told me I’m a natural, and that they’ve never seen anyone so at ease in front of a crowd. I nodded and thanked them because it was the polite thing to do, but I never felt natural or at ease. Far from it.
Every day, before I was to face a crowd, I wanted to call in sick, not to do it, find someone else who’d do it for me. The feeling didn’t go away until the moment the show started, the point of no return. And it was brilliant. Stressful and complicated, but brilliant.
You might be wondering, why would anyone in their right mind do that to themselves? I don’t know. I had to. It’s the same with writing. Don’t ask me why I write. I have to.
What I know is that if this is to work, I can’t let my novel stay in the zone of not-really-work-but-not-quite-pleasure. It has to budge to either side. Maybe it is work, and I should treat it as such, and maybe it isn’t, and I should learn to enjoy it more.
If productivity proved to be a combination of habits and optics, maybe enjoyment will too.
Here’s what I’ll do. Feel free to steal some of those if you like.
- Have everything ready to when I wake up. A glass of water. Laptop open, cursor blinking just where I left off. Clean desk. That sort of thing. Remove all unnecessary resistance, and hide distractions.
- Write the first thing in the morning. The worst part about writing is that self-negotiation that my brain engages in whenever I think now would be a good time to write. “No. Not now. We haven’t got that scene figured out yet. And there are so many revisions we need to take into account. Why don’t you go and play a video game instead?” It’s pathetic. For the next month, I’m going to get over it first thing in the morning and see how writing feels afterward. I don’t negotiate with terrorists.
- Understand that I don’t have much time to write. Vegging out in front of the computer, browsing social media, and all those other usual suspects are not only the number one productivity killers, but also number one time sinks. That’s why we end up spending 10 hours at work instead of 6. So, whenever I catch myself being distracted, I’ll wrap up writing for the day. I need to teach myself there’s only one chance to write each day, and it’s now, not later.
- Even the best things in life are not all roses. Food for thought, but maybe what I struggle with is accepting that writing will never be easy? Even the best things in life stress me out sometimes. Writing doesn’t have to be better than sex or lazing out on the Spanish Riviera with an old-fashioned in hand.
- Acknowledge my thoughts. No matter what you do, there’s something else demanding your attention right now. Some thoughts are peskier than others, but the best way to handle your stream of consciousness is to notice it and then move on. Overthinking is my favorite distractor. That’s why (remember to buy eggs) from now on, I’ll get those thoughts out on the page along with everything else so they don’t clog my thinking pipes. (Remember to call Patrick.)
- Total suspension of judgment. I edit people’s stories for a living. You could say I’m in the profession of being judgmental. And judgment is the enemy of creativity. It’s very useful when you’re done, and for helping others, just not when you’re trying to create something yourself. I will try to let go of judgment the same way I let go of distractions.
- Reward myself with experience points. I’ll pretend for a moment like this is a completely normal thing that adults do. It’s a trick I used on my RPG group to coerce my players into roleplaying more bravely. I would reward each good line of dialogue, or a characteristic moment, or just good storytelling in general with a card, a coin, or a bullet case (token always matching the setting we were playing in, so you don’t think we’re amateurs). And at the end of each game session, the cards, coins, or bullets became experience points. Over time, my players opened up and game mastering became more like watching a live play on stage, with damn good actors. Maybe this is something that could work for me too?
- Finish strong. Always have the next thing lined up. Next scene, next line of dialogue. One of the oldest tricks in the book. The best moment to call it a day is when you’re still going strong, so you have something to look forward to when you pick up work the next day.
- Round of feedback. I left this for last because it sounds ridiculous, but it’s one aspect of the corporate life that I miss. At the end of each project, we would always do a round of feedback. Or—how we liked to refer it in IT—the positive positives and the negative positives, as if calling something “constructive criticism” made it anything less than criticism. Anyhow, I’ll do the same after each writing session. Figure out what went well and what I could do better next time.
There. My mission for this month.
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Love this. I’ve recently discovered the community of the 5am writers club, where writers from all around the world wake at, well, 5am and work for an hour or two before heading off to real life. No excuses, first thing in the morning and with that precious one or two hours of time only. Having the tight (enough) limit and the sense of community encouragement has helped immensely. Helps that most of us are too exhausted that early to worry about writing badly 😛
Did that for a while, and I’m currenlty considering returning to the practice just for the sake of that sense of getting work done while the world is still sleeping.
Do! It’s a pain to start, but surprisingly easy once you’re in the swing of it. Writing somehow always seems easier then. That, or it’s just cooler.