Recommitting to writing
I’m writing this at 0715 on Monday the 25th of January, 2016 (pre-posting edit: and still going strong on the plan two days later, woo!). That’s right, I default to writing time in a military fashion now – it made things clearer when organising stuff in texts after getting to Las Palmas and now it’s the explanation for yet another ridiculous affectation of mine.
The alarm on my watch went off at 0700 instead of last week’s 0730, and instead of snoozing it I got up right away. After a trip to the bathroom, my first set of Five Tibetans in a while (though not my first bit of morning mobility), getting dressed and grabbing a much-needed glass of water, here I sit.
I slept like crap. My housemate was watching some sort of comedy show until 0100, and it would have been fine except for excessively loud canned (?) laughter and applause. It’s like they raised the volume by 50% for those noises, or possibly whatever pitch and frequency they’re at just carries through walls better. Or maybe I just find it more annoying. Either way it wasn’t until he switched it off that I was able to sleep myself.
So why am I up so “early”? Although I realise this isn’t early for many of you, it’s all relative and for me – after maybe 4.5-5 hours of actual sleep in the last seven in bed – it’s bloody early.
The answer is that I have re-committed myself to a writing routine. Last week I instituted a strict but very enjoyable gym routine, in which the first thing I did every weekday morning at half seven was (usually after a snooze or two) get up, get dressed, fill my water bottle and head to the gym. I wasn’t exactly out of a gym habit, but having spent nearly three weeks in Ireland over Christmas, then five days with a friend in Haarlem (in the Netherlands, not NYC), moved back to LPA and moved house and gym here, I needed to re-affirm the gym’s place in my day-to-day. This was great, and has me feeling like a boss as I enter my second full week back in Las Palmas.
The problem was that the next big part of the plan was never happening. I’d get home and shower, meditate for twenty minutes (something I began with renewed vigour in the first week of January and highly recommend), make myself some breakfast and then head to my co-working space and immediately start work. What’s missing? Writing. My intention was to spend the first hour of each work day writing, but the power of procrastination meant I never did. I’d sit down and “just check my emails really quickly”, then latch onto the first task I saw that required my attention and let it carry me away from the uncomfortable prospect of the blank page.
I love writing. And yet it’s the one thing that, currently, I find it hardest to get myself to do.
I honestly use answering customer support emails for Moposa as a distraction from doing so. I’ve known myself to pick up some arduous task – one I would normally loathe doing – instead of sitting down to do the thing that most brings me flow and joy in my life (alongside, and sometimes more so, than writing code or training).
I can’t answer the question why I avoid it so much for sure, but I have some theories:
- Fear of failure. All my life I’ve been told I’m good at writing and that people enjoy my work. You’d think this would instil confidence – and it does, though not as much as you think (though please don’t stop as this blog would have died long ago if not for the encouragement of my dear readers!) – but it also instills a near-paralyzing fear of failing to live up to that reputation. I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t approach the blank page with an agenda (like writing something great that people will enjoy) because you stifle your voice and set conditions on something that should be more creative. Yet every time I sit down I have this idea in my head that what I produce better be good, or people will stop thinking I am good, and that somehow makes me a bad person. There’s a tiny part of me that sets a lot of my self-worth on my ability to write, I suspect, and that part is very protective of itself.
- Laziness. This is one we all deal with to varying degrees, I imagine, though perhaps not all with writing. Somehow for me it takes more mental effort to get myself to sit down in a chair and tap on my keyboard (in this specific way, not for coding) than it does to get dressed, pull my gym shoes on, fill my bottle and trudge out into the still-dark morning to puff, pant, strain and sweat through an hour of hard training. Writing forces you to spend time alone with yourself in the same way as solo training does, but the difference – I think – is that in training you and your mind are united in trying to make your body do things. In writing, your mind is, while not exactly an enemy, something closer to it. It rarely cooperates the exact way you want it to. It has to work a lot harder than it does when training, and in a different way. I’m also just more used to the training kind of hardship.
- Focusing on the wrong thing. It might be clear from this already that one of my problems is that I focus on the problems with writing. I should focus on how great it feels to put words on (digital) paper. And it does feel truly great – having written in a day is the most sure-fire way to make myself feel like the day as a whole was worthwhile. But instead I focus on how difficult it is to start, how uncomfortable I’ll be, how much time it will take, how ultimately useless it feels like much of my writing is. I look at it like it’s a chore instead of a fun thing I’m privileged to be able to do – the same mistake we all make at times with our training.
- Failure to systematise writing. Instead of sitting down at x o’clock every day and writing, I would wander around waiting for the muse to strike, waiting for my laziness and procrastinatory tendencies to abate for a while and for the stars to align in such a way as it meant I could write. For a man who knows the value of habits and routines it was a schoolboy error. As with anything you want to make a regular part of your life, you have to make it a system and set of habits and not just a series of vague goals without any actual hard work. Life doesn’t work like The Secret – at least, not without also putting the work in.
With thoughts like this running around my brain, I then, by chance, happened to check up on the blog of Hugh Howey and found this as his most recent post. Talk about a well-timed kick in the rear.
So today is the first day of my new commitment to 1,000 words per day (minimum) as the first thing I do. It’s a little more complicated in that my true goal is 1,000 words in a day, but I am okay with stopping my “first thing” session after an hour if I haven’t reached that goal yet in order to get some other things done. Likewise, I also intend to spend at least the full hour writing, so anything over the 1,000 word mark within the hour is all gravy.
I intend for a lot of the words to be fictional, but as with this morning, I will be writing for my blog as well as updates for my product. I want to make sure this time and space stays sacred for actual writing though, rather than letting scope creep set in and have me, in a month or so, using the time for anything tangentially related to writing. A great bit of procrastination is to use the time to search for images for blog posts, and that’s not what this is for.
Specific goals for these words are a little more complicated.
- Twelve complete short stories this year.
- A blog post a week (minimum), or possibly a day if extracts from the day’s writing session are useful and/or enjoyable for people to read.
- A revised Everyday Exercise with more material, and possibly another product.
- A novel. Not actually sure if this one is concrete yet, but it’s an idea I have right now, so I’ll stick it down for extra motivation.
I figure that 1,000 words per day works out at 365,000 words per year, give or take a rough day. With the average short story at around 1,500 – 3,000 words, feature-length blog post at 1,500, novel at 80,000 and info-product like EE at nearly 40,000, I still have plenty of headroom to throw words away, too (and I know all too well how many words editing will eat up). I’m also blessed with a fairly high speed of writing – in only 30 minutes so far I have 1,318 words written – so I should be able to make up for the odd missed day comfortably enough, even though “making up” for missed days in terms of “I missed Monday, so on Tuesday I need to write 2,000” is not part of the plan. This is the kind of negative reinforcement that makes diets so hard to stick to and has one missed day snowballing quickly into an insurmountable deficit that would ensure I never write again.
As with a lot of activities, starting is the hardest part. I figure that getting the ball rolling first-thing – even if I don’t roll it all the way to the 1,000 word finish-line in one go – is the important thing.
Strategies and tactics for making this happen include:
- Putting my phone on airplane mode when I go to sleep and leaving it that way until my writing (or even post-writing workout) is finished.
- Making sure that before I close my laptop for the night I open a full-page word processor so I don’t have the friction of having to do so in the morning. I know it helped me today.
- Keeping a strong habit of leaping straight out of bed when my alarm goes off rather than lying there snoozing or reading random crap (see: keeping my phone on airplane mode). This also means that if I wake up anything less than or including a half an hour before I’m due to get up anyway, just getting up and staying up.
- Getting to bed earlier. Lights out by midnight right now, and hopefully, as I get more comfortable, easing that back towards 2300 and easing wake-up time yet further back towards 0630 or even 0600 to get more writing time in. My big side-hope for this is that the longer I keep it up the better I’ll sleep as sleep is hands-down the hardest part of health to get right for me.
- Restricting drinking to max two nights per week. I’m not a big drinker even when I do drink, but it’s definitely true that even one or two cañas of beer of a night has a noticeable effect on my slumber, and on my work rate early the next day. After my dry January is over I’ll just keep the special occasions kind of attitude I was keeping before, from a default base of not drinking rather than “having one”.
- Track times and word counts both as metrics-tracking and as a motivation booster.
- Try to have an idea the night before of what the next day’s writing will be, to cut down on the blank page fear.
- Along the same lines, try to plan everything a bit more. I love discovery writing (writing with no clear plan in mind) but there’s no doubt that it makes me much more likely to peter out without a strong-