My Writing Journey--The Power of No

As I’ve sought to build my writing routine these past couple of years, a key theme has surfaced. The times I am most productive are when I am focused. And being focused relies on my ability to give certain things up.

I love good quotations. Here’s one of the best from Steve Jobs. 

“Focus means saying no.”

This week, I’ve reflected on the things I’ve had to say no to in order to build my writing habit. What surprises me is that it’s been the same things over and over again. I’d love to say that I’ve only had to say no to things once, and that then the behavior continues forever, but the reality is that my old habits usually creep back. Then I have to say no to them all over again in order to resume my writing. 

Here are some things I’ve had to say no to repeatedly:

  • Staying up late to watch shows
  • Downloading games to my iPhone
  • Sleeping in
  • Exploring new hobbies
  • Taking multiple days off from writing
  • Neglecting exercise

This isn’t meant to be a list for anyone else; it’s just for me. These are things that have significant power to distract me. When I download a new game or stay up late to watch a show, I know it will negatively impact my writing. It’s happened so many times that I know how things will pan out.

I’m certainly not bashing on taking a break from working on our goals, but I also think that we need to be very smart about our habits. During the last two weeks, I’ve made poor choices about my activities. The consequence is that my writing progress withered. 

So this next week, I’ll be refocusing on choosing the activities that I know reinforce my writing. I know that I’m happier when I keep my habits in place, so it should be a good week.

Can Pokemon Make You a Better Writer?

Growing a routine like daily writing combines two factors: things we say yes to and things we say no to. Because habit creation is complex, each of us must assess how factors will impact our routine. Some factors that strengthen my writing habit could weaken yours, and vice versa.

My Little Experiment with Monsters

Case in point: I jumped onto the Pokemon Go bandwagon last week, along with a gazillion other people who repeatedly crashed the servers. I'll admit that I let it go a little too far, taking more than one unnecessarily long walk before heading home for the night.  

The game was fun, but after rebooting the app unsuccessfully for the fifth time one night, I stopped and asked myself, "How is this impacting other areas in my life, like my writing?" 

The Importance of Selectivity for Writers

Let me be clear--I'm not bashing Pokemon or its players. We need rest. We need to unwind. Recouping our energy and creativity is integral to our ability to complete any task, especially generative ones like writing. So if Pokemon Go or Netflix or some other mainstream diversion restores you, do those things! 

Still, activities can cut both ways. The Netflix binge that gives one person the rest they need to get back to work can have the opposite effect on someone else, pushing them even further from productivity. Some of us have trouble shutting Netflix off.  

In my case, Pokemon Go was a little too distracting. Several of my friends are playing, and they have the discipline to set aside a reasonable slot of time each day. They play for that amount of time and then stop. I'm not that kind of person, at least not with Pokemon. I found myself walking to the store, sitting at dinner—or worst of all—driving sown the road, and thinking, "Wonder if there are any Pokemon around here?" 

When something occupies our mind outside of the time and space we've granted it, we're losing control of that thing. Committed writers must control their mind space. Our brains are like fertile ground for the ideas that fill our writing. The preoccupations are like weeds; they choke out the creative ideas until it’s extremely difficult to write at all. 

Be Mindful about What You Choose

Writers, let’s honestly assess what’s building our writing routine and what’s limiting it. Each of us will come to a unique set of conclusions. I had to delete Pokemon Go—that was best for my routine. For you, it could be the opposite. Maybe catching them all will restore you and fuel your creativity. The crucial thing is to make these choices deliberately. Be aware of influence: say yes to what brings out the best in you.


My Writing Journey--Composition at 35,000 Feet

Note: I’ve decided to change the title of the ongoing posts about my own writing habit. I’m going to switch the name from “Progress Update” to “My Writing Journey.” Instead of a date, the subtitle will relate to the topic of the post.

Last week, I tried writing during a long flight. The trip was unusual because I wasn’t with my family. Flying solo gave me the opportunity to experiment. I learned a couple of interesting things about writing on an airplane. 

Writing on a Plane Sucks

No surprise--writing on a plane can be difficult. Everybody knows about the uncomfortable seats. Using a keyboard is awkward because of the limited space. The guy seated next to me was large, and his elbows kept bumping mine because he was also trying to type. The flimsy little folding table gave me a spot for my laptop, but those tables are shaky; every time the person in front of me moved, my keyboard jumped around. In general, the other people can be distracting. If anybody beside or behind me wanted to read what I was typing, they could have, so I was a little self-conscious at times and had trouble focusing.  

Writing on a Plane Is Effective--Wah?

On the other hand, while writing on the plane was challenging, it was also worthwhile. In spite of the distractions, I made excellent progress on a couple projects. Something about the environment propelled me. 

I think it had to do with the fact that I was stuck in a chair with no way to leave. It reminds me of the authors who have said that the hardest thing for writers is to just sit down or to just lock themselves in a study.  

Find an Unusual Place to Write

Being on a plane with a laptop or a notebook is essentially the same. The reason I liked writing on the plane, even though it was uncomfortable, was that it forced me to focus. This is typically the greatest battle faced by writers: we need to just sit down and focus on our craft. Anything that can distract us, will distract us.  

I encourage you to try something similar. Even if you aren't going to write on a plane, find a situation that will compel you to focus exclusively on your writing. It can be helpful to do this in a place that's different than your typical environment. Annie Dillard used to write in a tiny cabin in the woods. Some people find focus in a co-working space. I've seen people write very successfully in the library. Every writer is different. Some of us need absolute silence and stillness to focus; others benefit from the stimulation of noise and activity to drive their process. Don't assume until you've tried both. 

Try writing someplace new. Experiment. A new writing situation can stimulate your craft. I was surprised to find that writing on the plane was productive, and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to write in a new environment.  

7 Steps to Save Your Writing When You Let It Down

When You Fall off the Horse

Every writer I’ve met struggles with periods of inactivity. If you haven’t experienced this, the odds are that you will, sooner or later. Falling out of the writing habit is difficult to avoid. Because of this, we should develop a plan to deal with it. 

One reason I strongly advocate for routine is that it guards against falling out of habit. It's much more difficult to completely stop writing if we have a daily ritual. The fact remains, however, that even the most consistent of us will eventually fail.  

Knowing this, we should develop a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. The real danger doesn’t lie in missing a day or two. It lies in not resuming our routine after that day or two. 

We see it all the time. Someone who set a goal for themselves such as writing a book experiences something that interrupts the project. The writer deals with the interruption. Later, instead of picking up and resuming where they left off, the individual never finishes the project. Sometimes, the person gives up on writing completely.

Because we know this happens to writers, we should take steps to prevent this kind of outcome. If we create an action to deal with interruptions, we can be confident that we will resume as soon as possible. Several factors can help with this.

1. Think Beyond Desire

The plan must be more than an emotional drive. Too often, writers rely on sheer willpower to carry them through rough patches. This works great, until we encounter fatigue. Feelings lack consistency. We need a plan that remains viable regardless of how we feel.

2. Make It Specific

Remove uncertainty from the process of getting back on track. Develop specific actions that you will take to set yourself back on a path of consistency. Write down these steps and keep them somewhere prominent, where you will review them regularly until you know them by heart. The remaining tips below can serve as a starting point.

3. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If you fail your daily writing target, don’t beat yourself up! It happens to the best writers. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that missing a day or two (and perhaps more if you are on vacation) is not certain death for your writing. While failing your routine isn’t ideal, it’s far less of a threat to your writing than the destruction of your confidence. So be easy on yourself. This is not a paradox. It’s entirely reasonable to hold yourself to a high standard of consistency, yet still be kind to yourself if you screw up.  

4. Get Back on Track as Soon as Possible

Resolve to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t allow yourself to stay stuck. Do whatever is necessary to get started again. Sometimes, this means tossing yourself a softball to get an easy hit. It might take the form of giving yourself permission to write something really simple or silly. Even if what you write is unsharable—even if it’s something that goes straight into the trash, the fact that you wrote it puts you back on the right path. Keep the bar low when getting back into your routine. Perfectionism is a habit killer, and never more so than when you have fallen out of your ritual. 

5. Recognize What Distracted You

It’s important to identify the source of your habit’s interruption. Ask yourself if the source of the disruption could interfere again. If so, what can you do to work around it?

For example, if a commitment to a friend or family member interfered, determine if this could happen again. If so, figure out how to schedule future interactions with this person. That way, they’ll be satisfied that you are committing to them, and you’ll be satisfied that you have protected your writing time. 

If you were distracted by some kind of entertainment, develop a system of rewarding yourself for avoiding that distraction. Perhaps you can tell yourself that you will watch an hour of your favorite show, but only after completing your writing target for the day. It’s unrealistic for most people to completely ignore their favorite forms of relaxation, so barter an exchange between your writing and your hobby. Use the thing that could distract you as a incentive for staying on track.

6. Create a Buffer

One strategy that guards against faltering is to create lead-time between when you write and when you share. This particularly benefits writers who have committed to regularly deliver writing to an audience. If you have a blog, for example, it’s valuable to write well in advance of your posting schedule. The same principle follows if you’re traditionally published, if you’re a student writing papers, or if you’re working on a book and you've announced a deadline. By getting well ahead of the due date for your projects, you’ll always have a buffer if you fall out of habit. As mentioned before, this is valuable because it will prevent you from overreacting emotionally. If we always write at the last minute, any disruption can mess with our scheduled sharing. This in turn can have disastrous effects on our confidence. Getting ahead and staying ahead offers peace of mind, which helps us to remain confident and consistent.

7. Take a Planned Break

Sometimes, a writer simply needs a break from writing. If you’re beginning to feel that writing is a chore, it’s probably a sign that you need a vacation from writing. Sometimes, the break will just be a day or two. Other times, you might need a couple of weeks. I think it’s fine for writers to take a break, but it’s crucial to have a plan for resuming. Commit to restarting the routine when your vacation is over. Know that getting back into the swing of your habit may take a few days. Resolve to push past the inertia you may experience until you can get things rolling again. 

Stay the Course

Sooner or later, most of us will fail in maintaining our writing routine. This isn’t a big deal. The big deal is how we handle that failure. If we allow disappointment to paralyze and prevent us from returning to our routine, we’re in trouble, but with a solid plan and a resolve to get back on track, falling out of routine is just a speed bump. Let’s focus on the long term and shake off any setbacks.

What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write.

Do you ever fail to start simply because you don’t know what to write about? This problem is one of the biggest culprits for why many writers get stuck. I’ve experienced how difficult this can be, but I’ve also found some techniques that help me to get past this point. I’m going to share one of those strategies in this post, but first, let’s ponder why we often freeze while staring at that blinking cursor in the first place.

Why we get stuck writing

The problem behind writers getting stuck is not that they lack enough to say. Usually, the problem is the reverse. (C’mon, give yourself some credit!) We have too much to say. We have so much to say that we don’t know how to access the information that fills our heads. We don’t know how to take that information and put it onto the page. Our minds are stymied by the task of sorting and delivering the information buried deep in our brains. We seize up. We stare at a blank screen and write nothing. I’ve heard of writers doing this for an entire day.

How to generate words easily

The solution is lies in simplifying our approach. Here is my suggestion. Write about something very particular in the the greatest detail possible. Instead of writing about a broad topic in general terms, we need to pick a small subtopic that relates to or falls beneath that broad topic. This is counterintuitive. We tend to think that a big topic will be easier to write about. On the contrary, trying to distill something large into writing is quite difficult. Another problem is the fact that even if we succeed in writing about that big topic, we’ll most likely have nothing unique or incisive to say—our writing will be filled with cliches and we’ll barely scratch the surface. I am continually reminding my students about this when they pick topics. They are amazed when they discover that writing about something specific (e.g., a song) is easier than writing about something broad (e.g., an entire musical genre).

We need to think of a specific sub-topic or detail and write about that. Get into the nitty-gritty of something that interests you. Don’t write an introduction. Don’t try to think of the ideal title or that perfect first line. Just take a breath and dive deep into the topic the same way you would jump into a pool. Write the first idea that comes to mind and go crazy with that idea. If you get stuck, pick a related idea and go crazy with that one. Your sentences will probably sound like garbage. If you’re writing now, who cares? It might take a few lines to warm up, but before long you will be writing paragraphs. Ironically, the challenge frequently becomes finding a way to stop. Why does this happen? It’s because we tend to know more than we realize. We usually have more facts, opinions, and feelings than we remember. Choosing a specific sub-topic or angle opens up all of our knowledge and feelings, and we’re able to write freely. This usually doesn’t happen when we write broadly.

Unclog your brain for more content

Let me share an example to illustrate this. Suppose you have a favorite TV series. Suppose I ask you to explain the the show. That’s all I ask you: “Explain this show.” Your brain will most likely panic, because I’ve given you almost nothing to start with. I’ve posited so broad a question that your mind doesn’t know how to go about answering it. It’s not that you lack information about your favorite show—you have loads of information. The problem is that I’ve given you no filter to screen out the unnecessary information in your head. There’s a pipe in your brain that’s getting clogged. If, on the other hand, I ask you to explain—let’s say—the primary conflict in the show, everything changes. Now I’ve given your brain a filter. Now you can unclog the pipe and sift out all the information except those details that relate to my question. Within seconds, you’ll be describing the key characters and the ongoing problem that they face in your favorite show. 

To use one of my favorite shows as an example: Breaking Bad is about the struggle a man faces when he finds that he has terminal cancer, but doesn’t know how to pay for his treatment or provide for his family when he’s dead; he turns to making illegal drugs and hazards his life and relationships as a result. 

Writing that summary of the conflict in Breaking Bad was incredibly easy, and I could go on writing about that element at length without a problem. This is because—contrary to what instinct tells us—it’s easier to write about something when we are given limitations. 

Zoom in for a better view

Here’s another example. This November, I worked on the first draft of a sci-fi novel for National Novel Writing Month. Every day, I tried to write 1667 words. If you haven't tried it, writing 1667 words of fiction every day is hard. (I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be.) One of the biggest challenges is simply thinking of something to write about. I came to a halt almost every morning as I tried to continue the draft. The difficulty lay in not knowing where to start (or having started, not knowing where to go next). Every time I had a moment of hesitation, I would strive to push past it as quickly as possible. I would pick something specific and go deep. At one point, I was writing about a character traveling through space to a strange planet. I had not decided what would happen when he arrived. I was going to get stuck, but I needed to keep writing. So I decided to go in depth about what I’d already been writing about: the spaceship. (This is boring to anyone who's not a fan of science fiction, I know, but the principle would work for any kind of writing.) I began to elaborate on the exterior of the ship: its size, shape, color, and material. Then I shifted to the interior: the controls, the seat, and how the pilot was positioned inside the vessel. I described how the spaceship moved. I compared it to other space vessels. Eventually, I had written enough to fill up the time I’d set aside for writing that day. In the end, I may not use all of those details about the spaceship. I may move those details to a different place in the book. Whatever I decide to do with what I wrote, the key thing is that I kept writing. I added words that I can use later and I didn’t allow myself to stop. And this is what leads to success—just start writing and keep writing.

Get busy writing

So, a key tactic for moving past the uncertainty of what to write about is to write about something specific. It’s a paradox. Unclog the pipe in your brain. Filter out the unnecessary by focusing on something small. Get into the nitty-gritty of that concept, and you will surprise yourself with the length at which you can write. 

For corollary technique, try freewriting to get related information out of your brain and onto the page. It’s my favorite tool for pushing past writing inertia.  (See my post on freewriting.