Hi, my name is PolyWogg and I’m an ‘writing RSS/newsletter’ addict.
There, I’ve admitted it. My first step in, umm, a 12-step program for sharing? Oh wait, I’m not planning to change. Particularly when I get golden nuggets of information like I did earlier this week.
One of the feeds I read is C.J. Lyon’s site called “No Rules, Just Write”. I don’t always agree with everything she writes, or find it completely applicable to me, but it is always interesting. This week’s freebie was a link to an ebook called “20 Creative Blocks And How To Break Through Them” (link expired) by Mark McGuinness and Marelisa Fábrega.
It’s interesting to wander around the web looking at various writer’s sites and see what they have to say about writer’s block. There are decidedly three camps — first there’s the group that says there’s no such thing as writer’s block. I call this the Nike group — they say you should just sit your butt down and write. It may not be fantastic writing, but you’ll write. Something. Dean Wesley Smith is definitely of this variety — arguing that professional writers write, only amateurs get something called writer’s block. By contrast, there are the members of the Passion group at the other end of the spectrum — the group that argues that if you are blocked, it’s because you are not really following your passion. For this crew, you get lots of little maxims like “do what you love”, “don’t worry about the quality”, “just let go and let it flow”, etc.
Mark and Marelisa are in the middle ground. They argue that creative blocks (i.e. writer’s block for writers) really have 20 different varieties, describe what they look like, estimate what causes them, and provide tips on how to overcome them.
Some of it I found interesting, and I’ll cover those first, before I get to one that I am really passionate about personally:
- I really like chapter 2, “Fear of Getting It Wrong”. Interestingly, Dean Wesley Smith would probably agree that the fear of being wrong stops people from writing, and the solution is not to be perfect but to actually be wrong (noting that you are also your own worst judge for your own work). Accept it, embrace it, move on. In fact, Mark suggests doing that as one of the solutions — try writing something wrong, i.e. the wrong version, the wrong tone, the wrong voice, the wrong PoV, etc. Cuz that might just open things up for you. Mark includes a section too in Chapter 15 on “Accept[ing] that it will never be perfect”, the more traditional approach;
- Chapter 4, “Creativity vs. Cash” is almost like “commercial vs. non-commercial” work but what I found interesting was an item from a reader who notes that they waste a lot of time doing things that are “unproductive” but which “feel like work”. Like checking social media sites. Lots of writers claim that they have wasted too much time trying to keep up on FB, Twitter, etc. I do so myself through my RSS feeds about writing and publishing. Yet most of the solutions ignore the fact that is not just that the writer enjoys it nor simply procrastinating nor being seduced by the social media, but rather that when they do it, they feel like they are working still, even though they’re not. It FEELS productive, although there’s no output, so long as what they were reading was related to writing, publishing, etc. That kind of “time suck” won’t go away easily because it feels like working; and,
- Chapter 6 includes tips on how to overcome the Inner Critic, including self-affirmation ideas such as printing YES! on post-it notes around your workspace, something I could probably benefit from more often, rather than holding back on my blog about some things.
But as I said, there is one thing I feel passionate about in this area and that is the claim by some writers that they just don’t have the TIME. And while there is a lot of value in what Mark has written, I completely disagree with one of his examples on page 18 about getting up early as a way to “make more time”. And I think it is a unicorn that only exists amongst those who had some success but don’t really understand how or why. Let me give some upfront context why…
There is a Harvard Business School legend about a professor who demonstrates time management to his students with the aid of a glass pitcher, some rocks, a bucket of gravel, a small pail of sand, and some water. He starts by filling the glass pitcher with the rocks and asking the students if it is full. They all answer in the affirmative. So he pours in some gravel, and asks them again if it is full. Again, they swear it is. So he moves on to add sand, watching it slowly fill in all the little gaps. This time, when asked, the students answer that there’s still room. And so there is, with the water filling the pitcher right up to the brim. When asked what this teaches them about time management, the students reply “No matter how full your schedule is, there’s always room for more!” He replies, “No, it teaches us that the rocks have to go in first or they won’t fit in at all.”
Interviews with newly discovered authors frequently stress that time management was key to their success. Which they illustrate by saying how they decided that writing was one of their rocks, and focused on it by getting up at 4:00 a.m. every day to write until they went to their day job (Mark notes the same himself).
This is no more an example of effective time management than an employee in an office who says they are really productive because they work fourteen-hour days. Anyone can be productive if you can add hours to your day. But, unless you’re a natural insomniac, why would you decide that an adequate amount of sleep wasn’t one of your rocks? These people have added a rock to their pitcher by getting a bigger pitcher, not by managing their finite resource of time.
Depriving oneself of sleep is also one of the worst things a writer can do (perhaps rule #2 after “Show, don’t tell”), except perhaps in a rare short-term situation to meet a deadline. Long-term sleep deficits can result not only in changes in one’s behaviour or degradation in the cerebral cortex (something you might need if you’re plotting a complicated mystery!), but also impair the frontal lobe’s abilities for speech and creative thinking. The sleep-deprived individual (including writers) may have difficulty thinking of imaginative words or ideas, and instead, default to repetitive words or phrases. This is totally separate from the effects on the rest of your day where your ability to multi-task will be weakened, even further reducing your time management skills and productivity.
The only trick to effective time management is (a) prioritizing your rocks and (b) putting your rocks into your schedule first. If the author followed the success of those like Stephen King who say they write every morning until noon, for example, that could indeed be effective time management. But for those of us who are still earning a living through other means, it probably means we have to find another way to put our writing time into our schedule. Some authors have found ways to use their commute to focus on their writing, scribbling away on the subway or train (one of Mark’s examples for himself). Others will get up early, but also make an equal time shift in their schedule to go to bed early too so they are still getting sleep – they’re not adding hours, they’re just time-shifting their sleep a bit, giving them time in the morning uninterrupted when they are most creative. But this probably won’t work for the rebellious creative type — if they could easily restructure their day, they would have already. Instead, what they need to do is find time at various parts of their day (i.e. maybe Monday nights, Tuesday morning, Thursday afternoon, etc.) — flexible scheduling, not rigid scheduling. Otherwise, they’ll rebel against the structure rather than seeing it as “creative scheduling”.
However, even that one and only trick can be made more effective if you first find out what you waste time on when you’re supposed to be writing. In essence, finding where there is some soft sand that isn’t needed in the pitcher. For some it is social media; for Dilbert it was meetings with time-wasting morons. One successful author in Writer’s Digest swore the secret to her success was limiting herself to only three games of Spider Solitaire per writing period. Others have been more draconian and sanitized their writing computer (assuming that you’re lucky enough to be able to have two separate ones) by removing all games, disconnecting the phone, eliminating e-mail and internet connections except in the research stage, putting blackberries and smartphones in another room while writing, and locking themselves in a closet where their families couldn’t find them. The popular cliché is that the difference between those who aspire to being a writer and those who actually are writers is that real writers write, preferably every day, even if only for a few minutes. But you can’t write if you don’t make time for it.
Another way to make your attempts more effective is to examine your other rocks, perhaps the hardest review of all. Assuming that your life is already full, and that you are getting your 6-8 hours of sleep per night and it’s inviolate, the only way to put a rock into your schedule is to take another one out. There are a lot of websites out there on how to simplify your life and a host of others on how to let technology solve it for you. You can decide which one(s) work for you. A single friend of mine was feeling a real-time crunch when her ADHD-diagnosed son was around four years old. Her solution? She decided that she didn’t have time to wash all the dishes by hand every day so she went for a dishwasher. She also decided that she didn’t have time to cook fresh veggie meals every night, and so twice a week she went for more packaged stuff. While I hate the phrase “quality time”, one of her rocks was to spend more quality time with her son and the rock she had to drop was the time required to be “Super Healthy and Environmentally-Perfect Mom”. If you’re a fan of Dr. Laura, save your tar and feathers – the kid loved those nights most of all because Mom wasn’t as stressed or distracted.
Don’t get me wrong, I think most of Mark’s tips (time management, page 28; setting a regular daily routine, page 57; deciding on your priorities, page 62) have some validity. But there is a danger for many writers to think, “Oh, okay, I can solve my time management problem by just sleeping less”. That’s not time management, that’s avoiding setting priorities. I don’t think it is what Mark would normally advise, but I find it disturbing that he did it consciously himself as a solution.
My advice? Decide on your rocks and schedule them first (not necessarily at the same time every day), eliminate distractions, and figure out what you can drop from your to-do list to free up some time. But make sure you get plenty of sleep first.