Friday, September 7, 2012

5 Tips to Keep Busy Writers from Becoming Overwhelmed

This is my life: five classes (including two writing classes and my senior seminar); editor-in-chief tasks for Stance; 15-25 hours per week at my job; 4 workouts a week plus whatever other exercise I can squeeze in; a tottering, wheezing, shrunken little social life; housework, grocery shopping, and other mundane tasks; attempting to maintain an online presence via social media and this blog; and finally, three novel projects and two short stories. Sometimes when I think about this list, I want to flop down and cry, or at the very least, take a nap. By the time I get home for the evening and have free time to devote to my writing, I’m usually so drained that all I want to do is mindlessly stare at my Twitter feed or zone out in front of the TV.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what I do.

But I always feel guilty afterwards. I make excuses-- I had a hard day, my brain is too fuzzy, I don’t feel inspired, I owe myself some R&R-- but in the end that’s all they are: excuses. It really is a struggle to make time for your writing, but if it’s important to you, you’ll swallow those excuses and just do it. Below are a few tips that help me stay motivated and stick with a writing regimen that works for me (or get back on track when I slip).

Schedule. Last year I bought a day planner at Wal-mart. I was tired of keeping track of important dates and times in my head, disgusted with my haphazard approach to time management, and determined to get my entire life neat and organized. I planned out one day, and that’s as far as I got. (Which, as it turns out, is not the definition of “day” planner.)

Needless to say, scheduling is not my strong suit. But if you have a life as busy as mine, it takes at least a tiny amount of planning to wrestle some writing time away from all your other obligations. My approach is to map out everything else (usually using the calendar on my cell), find where the gaps are, and tell myself that I will sit down and write during some of those periods of time. This may not be enough for everyone-- sometimes, it’s not enough for me. If you find yourself frittering those gaps away on other things (catching up on chores, painting your fingernails, watching reruns of Friends) then ink it into your datebook so you can't ignore it: WRITING.

Note: If you’re serious about writing, it should be a priority in your life. If you make a schedule and you feel like there aren’t any “gaps” for your writing, then you need to carefully rethink how you’re spending your time. Stephen King writes at least 2000 words per day, and recommends that aspiring writers aim for a minimum of 1000 per day. That’s fairly steep for most of us, but it helps us see exactly what is required if we want our work on the bestsellers list someday. More on this later.

Disconnect. I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. There have probably been a hundred different instances where I pulled up a manuscript on my computer and then pulled up an internet window right beside it. Guess which one got all my attention? Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, news sites, forums, Wikipedia-- all of them are addicting. You click on link after link, visit page after page, and before you know it all the time you set aside for writing is gone. If I know I’m not going to be able to resist the seduction of the internet, I shut down, grab a pen and a journal, and hit the couch. That works for me because I like hand-writing and then typing it in later, but I know that’s not for everyone. There are apps and programs out there such as Freedom, Rescue Time, and SelfControl that will literally prevent you from accessing the internet or certain sites for a specified period of time. If you don’t want to go that route (and have a bit more willpower), simply disconnect from the internet and promise yourself that for the next hour or two you won’t reconnect.

Same goes for phones! If you can’t go five minutes without texting someone, shut your phone off and put it away when it’s time to write.

Journal. I have a nice faux leather-bound journal that my boyfriend bought me last Christmas. It has an elastic band to keep it from flying open and a satiny ribbon marking my current page. I like writing in it. It feels timeless, mysterious in a way, as if someday I’m going to crack it open and find the thoughts of some Regency debutante or suffragette or nineteenth-century immigrant instead of my own. As indecipherable as my cursive scrawl covering the unlined pages is, sometimes it might as well be someone else’s writing.

This journal is inspiring to me. I keep it in my backpack at all times and pull it out between classes to jot down an idea or a quick scene. It helps me to focus in a way that my computer screen can’t, and it’s more portable. If you’re a writer and you don’t have some form of journal that can be carried around with you most of the time, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t cast any spells if you leave your wand at home. Besides, when a great idea strikes, you don’t want to have to trust it to your memory all day before you can write it down. A dollar or less will buy you one of those cheap black and white Marble Memos, and it will fit in most pockets and purses. If all else fails, take notes on your phone or other device. No excuses!

Something that I do and that I suggest you try is making your writing journal sacred. Make a pact with yourself that you will never use it for lists or non-writing notes, and that you won’t tear pages out for memos or any other reason. This is something I’ve done for years with many different notebooks. This way, when you look back at what you’ve already done, it isn’t cluttered with boredom doodles and shopping lists-- it’s just pure, solid work. Plus, you won’t run out of pages so quickly, and it will make your journal feel special and purposeful.

Reward. Every now and then I tweet how many words I’ve written that day, or post on Facebook about slogging through a really difficult scene. Usually the only people to respond, retweet, or like my posts are my writer friends, but that’s okay. They’re the ones who get it. Sharing those moments of triumph makes them even sweeter, and I feel like I’m treating myself when I tell others what I’ve accomplished.

If you have trouble forcing yourself to sit down and focus on writing, decide on a goal and an appropriate reward before you even start. Say, “I’m going to finish the scene where the heroine escapes from the dungeon, and when I do, it’s bubble bath time!” or “Tonight I’ll write 750 words, and then I’ll go to the movies with the girls.” Whatever works best for you. Just remember two things: One, set a goal that is reasonable but challenging. If you aim for 25 pages per hour, chances are, you’re going to fail miserably and become disheartened; on the other hand, if you reward yourself for a single sentence, the system loses its purpose. Two, don’t give yourself rewards that are detrimental in some way. E.g., “If I get through this chapter I don’t have to write for a week” or “After ten pages I’m going to get trashed and send nasty emails to all the publishers who ever rejected me.” These things will not make you happy, and they will make the writing process bittersweet.

Setting goals and then rewarding yourself for reaching them is one of the best ways to not only stay motivated, but to get in a habit of writing. After awhile, extend the scope of your goals-- reward yourself for writing a certain number of days or words each week/month/year. At the same time, stick with the smaller targets (your “short assignments” in Anne Lamott’s terms) as well, keeping all your treats proportionate to your efforts. This system is adapted from how I tackle my fitness routine, and it works fantastically for both.

And last but certainly not least…

Unload. Like I said before, if you’re in this business for the long haul, then making time for writing should be pretty darn high on your priority list. If you’re going to work, going to school, going to church, volunteering, exercising, hanging out with friends, romancing someone, AND participating in seventeen different clubs and activities, you probably either want to cut down on bellydancing class and Magic: The Gathering tournaments or accept the fact that writing just isn’t that important in your life. I promote the former, but we all have our reigning interests. Stretching yourself too thin will make it impossible or at the very least unpleasant to write. I, for one, absolutely cannot focus on writing if I know I have somewhere else I need to be in the next hour. Letting go of the less important things and learning to say no when people try to dump further responsibilities on you are key to creating a flexible schedule-- not to mention that feeling less stressed will relax your mind and let those creative juices flow.

A good way to decide how best to unload is to make a complete list of all the demands on your time and rank those activities in order of importance, then give the bottom quarter of that list some serious thought. Why do you do those things? What is rewarding about them? Do you enjoy them, and if not, are they necessary in some way? Hopefully this exercise will help you decide what areas of your life can be trimmed down to make room for writing. Your friends aren't as interesting as your characters anyway.

Schedule, Disconnect, Journal, Reward, Unload-- hopefully one or all of these tips will help you keep your nose to the grindstone. Always remember that even the best and most dedicated writers have bad days, feel uninspired, backslide, get overwhelmed, miss deadlines, and fail at their usual regimen. The important thing is to pick yourself back up and determine to avoid those mistakes and circumstances in the future. Also, keep that feeling of euphoria when the writing is good and fluid and ecstatic and unstoppable close to your heart, so that when you’re discouraged you can remind yourself why you do what you do. It’s all about perspective and purpose. There are times when I don’t want to write, but there’s never a time when I don’t want to be a writer.

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