‘Never map it out. Just get into it. Jump in, like going swimming.’
It’s that time of year when lots of people are beginning new writing projects. The weeks and months stretch ahead of us, bursting with possibilities. Long winter evenings are perfect for writing…
But all too soon, the minutiae of life crowds in.
How do you make a start and then keep going? How do you keep writing when there’s no time, when you’re pulled in different directions and you just don’t seem to have the space you crave to string the words together?
Is there an answer?
The only way I know is to jump in.
Plunge. Write anywhere and anyhow. Launch your little boat on the choppy waters and let it ride each wave of an idea for a while.
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.’
from Lines for Winter by Mark Strand
I’m writing this post at top speed. I’m not even going to pause to search for and insert an appropriate photo. I’m not going to stop and reread and make edits. I’m just going to write.
Got half an hour? Write.
Got ten minutes? Go.
Go, go, go…
Find out what happens.
Just a quick post to say that The Dress is free in all Amazon stores today, in celebration of Everyday Magic everywhere…
In the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting an accidental experiment.
I try (as much as it’s possible with a toddler) to stick to a writing routine, in which I write a little every day whilst Violetta is having her nap.
I’ve gradually retrained myself to make writing in these short bursts work for me. In fact, I wrote almost all of The Dream during Violetta’s much shorter and more unpredictable morning naps when she was still a very small baby. Even though I was chronically sleep deprived, I often chose to write rather than grab a nap myself because writing gave me a real sense of achievement in amongst the endless rounds of washing, ironing, nursing and cleaning up.
Learning to write in this way – sinking into it quickly, maximising my time, never knowing when I might get interrupted – is probably also a really good way of bypassing that annoying inner critic.
But in the past few weeks, the routine has been disrupted. Chaos has descended on our house in the form of workmen with hammers, chisels and serious power tools. We’ve been completely renovating the bathroom of the 1960s house we bought last year. We’re lucky enough to have two lovely, considerate and completely helpful plumbers – but still, it has been quite a challenge with an eighteen-month-old who needs quiet time and a nap in the middle of the day. Consequently, I’ve been focusing on trying to help Violetta to adjust – walking her around in her buggy so that she could sleep or taking her to my parents’ house so that she could try to nap in a travel cot. I’ve struggled to keep up with writing a little everyday – and I’ve really been feeling the effects.
I find that it’s so much easier to keep going with a book project when you do a little each day, however little that little might be – and sometimes for me it might be just 500 words of new writing, or read-throughs and a few revisions. But by keeping my hand in, I find that the book never goes cold. I’m always thinking about it in some way, nurturing it, moving it along. Writing is a part of my daily life and I feel as if I’m still a writer as well as a mummy.
Having taken days off here and there over the past weeks, I’m now finding it much harder. It’s harder to write myself back in to the world that I’ve created. I feel full of self-doubt and my brain seems to have forgotten how to settle into the writing quickly. I’m pushing on through and hoping that I’ll start to find things easier again very soon.
So, there you go. My unintended experiment has proved to me that writing a little every day really does make things easier. Even if you have a hectic and busy life – as most of us tend to do these days – committing to writing just a few hundred words on a daily basis can make all the difference.
If you’ve never experimented with writing every day, I highly recommend it.
Keep your hand moving, as the wonderful Natalie Goldberg would say.
Set a timer. Write for ten minutes. Go, go, go.
Bang out that blog post. Scribble on the bottom of that shopping list, theatre programme, bit of old paper you found in your pocket or glove compartment.
Editing? That’s for later. It actually uses different skills, perhaps even different neural connections.
Right now, your task is to make as much mess as possible.
Don’t be afraid of mess. Chaos, at this stage, is your friend. It helps you to bypass that irritating inner voice, the one that usually stops you from even risking a word.
Stick your fingers in. Splatter stuff around. Taste. Touch. Spill.
This is Number 2 in a new series of Quick Writing Tips: strategies and techniques that I’ve found helpful over the past few years and that I hope might be helpful to you too. There’s no rocket science here. Just some tried and tested ideas.
Hold it lightly (otherwise described as ‘keeping things in perspective’).
In writing – as in life – I find that it’s much too easy to get into a mindset where I’m pushing, pushing, pushing, driving a project forwards, beating myself up for what I have or haven’t got done.
This often makes writing – and life – feel like hard work. Everything feels exhausting and overwhelming. I forget why I wanted to do this anyway.
And so I try to hold things lightly, sneak up on them sideways, remind myself that this is just writing, that nothing much ever gets done when I try to force things.
I find it useful to have a couple of book projects on the go – so that I always have something simmering away for those times when I’m feeling a bit stuck. Somehow, alternating between two projects frees me up to approach things playfully.
I also try to set realistic goals for myself. My natural tendency is to overestimate the amount of writing I can get done in any one day – and then feel disappointed when I haven’t achieved it. Slowly, I’m learning to change this.
If I set out to write just one hundred words today, or perhaps one thousand on a day when I have some real time to myself, I usually always exceed my goal – and that makes me feel good. .
I find that being a bit kinder to myself in this way tends to encourage a lighter attitude.
Finishing a novel is, in many ways, a test of stamina – but, for me, it also has to feel pleasurable. It has to be challenging in a good way. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Free-writing, doodling in a journal, going for a walk or (if I’m really desperate) to the gym, doing some boring housework (is there any other kind?), playing with V, all these things help me to get out of frantic, driven mode and into a more relaxed, easy, playful mode.
After all, this isn’t life or death. It’s a book. It’s a poem. It’s a chapter… Right?
What do you do when things feel overwhelming? How do you keep things flowing and fun?
Go and open the door.
If there’s a fog
It will clear.
Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
The darkness ticking,
Even if there’s only
The hollow wind,
go and open the door.
- from The Door, by Miroslav Holub
I took this photo as part of #fmsphotoaday by Fat Mum Slim. The prompt was: Lines and, when I looked at my photo, it reminded me of one of my favourite Holub poems. Here‘s how to play #fmsphotoaday. I’m posting my photos on my Instagram feed.
I find that photo-a-day projects can be a really helpful and easy way to make a moment in my currently very hectic life for an out-breath. It’s a reminder to slow down and look at the world around me. And the photo prompts often end up feeding into my writing in some way… Do you take photos?
This is Number 1 in a new series of Quick Writing Tips: strategies and techniques that I’ve found helpful over the past few years and that I hope might be helpful to you too. There’s no rocket science here. Just some tried and tested ideas.
Quick Writing Tip #1 – Prepare for a good writing session by building a bridge to the next day
This is probably the single most helpful thing I’ve ever implemented. Here’s how it happened.
Over time, I found that a good productive day was a day when I woke up knowing what it was that I needed to write next – a scene, a bit of dialogue, maybe even an entire chapter, a bit of description, a passage moving the action or characters from A to B. That kind of thing.
Then, one day, I was re-reading The Creative Habit by the choreographer, Twyla Tharp. If you haven’t got this inspiring book on your bookshelf yet, I highly recommend it. In it, Tharp writes:
‘Build a Bridge to the Next Day
The only bad thing about having a good creative day is that it ends and there’s no guarantee we can repeat it tomorrow. One good day does not necessarily beget another. But there are ways to increase the chances of successive successes.
Ernest Hemingway had the nifty trick of always calling it a day at a point when he knew what came next. He built himself a bridge to the next day. I cannot think of a better creative organizational tool. The Hemingway bridge is how you extend a mini-groove…’
Right there, Tharp (with Hemingway’s help) succinctly communicates what my good days are all about. I’ve prepared for them and I know (roughly) what I’m doing next.
In writing terms (rather than choreography terms) I’d add that I’m not actually a detailed plotter and planner when it comes to writing my novels. I like to fly by the seat of my pants. My characters take on a life of their own and often dictate what happens next. But I do like to have some kind of vague map of where I need to go – from here to there, from A to B – even if this ends up changing.
But as I progress through a novel, I find my groove when I know what I’m writing next.
The flip side of this is that I have to build in some fallow time too, some creative dreamtime where it’s OK for me not to know what comes next. If I build that in, then I don’t get all stressed (OK, I don’t get quite so stressed) about not knowing when I hit those middle-of-a-book uncertainties, those How The Hell Do I Do This days.
Building a bridge to the next day – however wobbly or skeletal – works for me.
Have you tried this? If so, what did you find happened? I’d love to hear from you.
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