Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Start Small

Does this sound familiar? You wake up inspired to write and when you begin working, you cannot get the words on the page fast enough. The same thing happens the next day and the next. You can see putting "The End" on your story, your chapter, your book. Then one day, the writing slows down, or the inspiration isn't there, or you have a full schedule and decide you'll take a day off. Taking a day off is fine, but the next day you find you have written yourself into a wall and you can't figure out where to take your story next. So you quit early. The next day you get busy and as you turn out the light at night you realize you've haven't made it to your writing desk. Tomorrow, you promise yourself. But tomorrow never comes. The longer you put off getting back to your manuscript, the harder it is to start up again. Days, weeks, even months go by and you haven't written a word. Eventually you stumble over your manuscript, or someone talks about writing and you say, yes. I'm going to finish that story or article. You may even pull out a copy and read it, make a few notes. But when you pull it up on your computer screen, you don't know where to start. You feel overwhelmed and the dark thoughts start rushing back. They vary a bit from writer to writer but generally run along the lines of, what ever made me think I could be a writer, you turn off the computer and bury your self-loathing and regret in a pint of ice cream.

But you're not finished with that piece. The next time inspiration hits, and it will--that is the nature of inspiration, it comes and goes--you summon up determination and vow to get disciplined. That's what you need, discipline. This weekend you will lock out the world and spend six hours at the computer. Saturday AND Sunday. Should you manage to clear the deck and actually sit down to write, six hours looms as a life sentence and before long you are cleaning closets or cutting the grass, the pint of ice cream waiting in the freezer.

I don't mean this as a cynical assessment of anyone's writing habits. I describe this tableau in all sympathy, from memory, calling upon my own career as a stop and start writer. For the first half of my writing life, about twenty years, unless I had a deadline hanging over my head, which I never missed, I had no writing habit. I wrote when "the muse spoke to me." I see-sawed between frantic writing and total denial that I even knew how to turn on my computer. Going back to it, or contemplating returning to writing was an exercise in misery. Then one day I had an epiphany. It was as hard to let a writing habit go and start it up again, fighting through self-doubt and regret for lost time, as it was to simply allot a sliver of time every day to putting words down, no matter what. Somehow, because I defy every definition of conventional notions of discipline, I became a daily writer. It changed my life, especially my writing life. What I did was so simple, it is embarrassing to think how long it took me to discover the secret. Start small. More tomorrow.

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