Thursday, May 14, 2009

DAY 14: Write a Novel in Two Weeks

When I was working on my first novel, I made a daily visit to a Website that promised anyone (yes, you, too, if only you weren't such a loser!) could write a book in two weeks. I don't remember whether they were selling software, or self-hypnosis or maybe even a book that they themselves had whipped out in a 14 day orgy of caffeine and typing. It didn't matter. Whatever it was, I had no intention of buying it.

And yet, for me, there was an inexplicable magic in their overheated pitch, and every morning before I began to work, I reread it. It became my personal writing ritual. Though I knew it was manipulative, and I didn't believe it, it worked anyway. It didn't matter if I was exhausted or riddled with the doubts that stopped me so many times in the past, I only had to read their page of hype and the tap opened.

Did I finish a novel in two weeks? Nope. Nor did I ever believe I could--though we all know it can be done. (Tish Cohen wrote Town House a novel so good that it was nominated for the prestigious Commonweath Prize in that time period.) But using my magic ritual, I had a draft in 90 days. A record for me.

Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to write my second novel, the Website had disappeared, taking its mysterious voodoo with it. I was crushed. I was also forced to think about what their pep talk had done for me, how it had released energies I never knew I had. Since I never bought the product, I never learned the secret they were selling.

But I learned something about myself. I learned that I could do more than I thought I could, more than I was allowing myself to do. I might not be able to write 20 pages a day; or have the resilience to stare at my laptop for twelve hours at a stretch, but if I tried, if I challenged my self-defined limits, if I set out in the morning with a sense of expanded possibility, I surprised myself almost every time.

Now I designate every Tuesday as "blitz day." Most days I'm happy with my normally slow, but steady pace, but on Tuesday, I get up earlier than usual and give myself my version of the "pitch" in the mirror. (Fortunately, my family already knows I'm crazy.) Then I go to my room and write as if I really could finish a novel in two weeks.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Day 13: Begin Where You Are; Begin Again

Originally uploaded by *helmen
As you may have noticed, this 100 Days of Discipline hasn't exactly turned out to be 100 CONSECUTIVE days of discipline.

What I've learned--and yes, this is a learning, strengthening, stretching process for me, too--is that the average muddling human being--can't adapt to a new habit every day. Even the average muddling human being in training to become her own master.

Some of these practices have been easy for me. Timed writing, for instance, is second nature, as is maintaining a notebook, and writing something--however short or insignificant--is as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth.

Going to bed early, on the other hand, is swimming upstream for me. It goes against both deeply ingrained habits, and natural proclivities. But there are three reasons I haven't given up:

1. I've learned that I'm more productive in the morning whereas the late night hours tend to be given over to various forms of relaxing, ie, PLAY TIME (which is probably why I love them so much! )

2. Though I fail a lot at the goal, I succeed sometimes, too--and that's the aim. In other words, progress not perfection.

3. When you swim upstream, you get stronger. In fact, there's no other way to do it.

So wherever you are, begin. And if you've begun before and find yourself stalled, begin again.

Enter the current, and swim for your life. The water is exhilarating! To review:

1. Set a bedtime and stick to it. (Mine is 10 p.m.)

2. Dress for work.

3. "Nulla dies sine linea." Write something, even if it's only one line, every day.

4. Be at your desk and writing within 30 minutes of arising.

5. Control the internet beast! (The hardest challenge of all for me.)

6. Look over your work and prepare your workspace (both internal and external) the night before.

7. Set a timer and write with abandon for one hour (or more.)

8. Deliberately write for 15 minutes (or MORE!) when conditions are less than perfect. "Guerilla writing," as Danielle Younge Ullman called it.)

9. Maintain a notebook.

10. Set productivity goals

11. Expand your ability to focus

12. Keep "One Point."

I'll add a critical fourteenth discipline tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

DAY 12: Keeping One Point

What do dancers, yogis, Marines and our president have in common? They all know that the way you hold yourself changes things--and not just externally. Sit or stand straight and strong, and you immediately gain power.

Now I've written in all positions, slouching in my favorite chair up with my feet on a hassock and a cat trying to nudge my laptop out of HER space, semi-reclining in a hospital bed to tap out a blog post that wouldn't wait thirty minutes before surgery, or stretching out in a lounge chair on my deck. It's all good.

But I'm more focused, and do my best work when I sit relaxed and straight and "keep one point," as I learned when I studied Aikido. Though a torn meniscus ended my study of the martial art, it still changed my life, and continues to do so every day. (Each morning on arising, I still recite my own adaptation of the Aikido Pledge) and I believe it enhances the quality of my hours.

Like the vow, I go through my own bastardized version of establishing one point every time I prepare to do something important--like my own work:

1. Center on the point in your lower abdomen where you cannot put tension.

2. Lift your sternum and lean slightly forward.

3. Keep your breathing calm and subtle.

4. Accept what comes.

5. Do your best at any time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

DAY 11: Building the Write Muscles

I began this series with the premise that finishing a novel is much like training for a marathon--not just in the duration, but in what it demands of the participant: daily discipline, faith, the adoption of habits and lifestyle that support the work. As Flaubert said: "Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Both running and writing also demand a willingness to push through fatigue and resistance until the marathoner suddenly discovers she can go further than she could before. And not only that; she can go there more gracefully, with greater focus and power.

So today we commit to increasing our distance. If you're easily writing an hour (or three) a day using your timer, add an extra half hour, or even fifteen minutes. If you're measuring your productivity in words or pages, demand a little more of yourself. Redefine your limit. It's the only way to build muscle.

Meanwhile, I have decided to trade the weekly Chapter of Faults for the daily Chapter of Virtues. Inspire me! What did you do right today? What are you planning for tomorrow?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

DAY 10: Setting Productivity Goals

Day 95 - Manuscript
Originally uploaded by objecthoags
Now that we've trained ourselves to be at our computers and working for at least an hour a day, it's time to define the word "work."

Work is producing. Whether it's a page a day or a thousand words, setting a production goal is oddly freeing. Anthony Trollope, one of the great lions of writing discipline, wrote six pages every morning in the hours between five and eight before leaving for work. Rumor has it he adhered so strictly to his routine that if he finished a novel at 7:30, he didn't run out into the English countryside and give a celebratory yell to the local rabbits and foxes, or even toast himself with an extra cup of tea. He took out a clean sheet of paper and began a new novel..

Now I wouldn't go that far, and most days, six pages of day is beyond my creative limit. But I've adapted his method to my own daily goal (three pages) when working on a first draft). It may sound constricting, and it doesn't work at all when polishing a second or third or fifth draft. But for a demanding first the page-every-half- hour challenge keeps the fingers moving so rapidly that there's no opportunity for FEAR or DOUBT, the Deadly Enemies of the creative impulse, to restrain them.

So set a goal that works for you whether it's counted out in words or pages, and train yourself to produce it. Without angst. Without demanding perfection. Without allowing the Deadly Enemies to look over your shoulder, or even enter the room.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DAY 9: Writing when Conditions are Less than Perfect

SO we've set about creating the best possible conditions to write. We look over our work, and organize our workspace before bed to prepare the subconscious; we maintain an early bedtime, and rise, determined to be dressed in shirts with buttons (as Tish Cohen said) ready to WORK (not just to sit at our computers while our trepidations multiply) within a half hour. We plan our internet time, and don't drift on-line when the going gets tough. Then we deliberately set to work with joy! With gusto!

But what if conditions are less than perfect? What if we have a headache or jet lag or a record breaking case of insomnia? What if our writing sanctuary is also the place that our beloveds call home and it's bursting with happy chaos?

Take my house. In fact, take my house at this moment. Downstairs, my wonderful mother (who was forced to move in with us a few days ago) is indulging her penchant for right- wing talk radio at full volume even though she's been a liberal all her life. Any minute, she will call my name, and tell me (again) that she wants to go home, that she isn't the "dependent type;" and I will explain (again) that fortunately or unfortunately we are all the dependent type. That sometimes taking is a grace. And for a while, she will understand.

Meanwhile, in another room, my son is playing the guitar, which he does for several hours a day, and my daughter is listening to Oprah while cooking shrimp scampi and bruschetta for dinner. Marvelous, yes? Absolutely, but I'm currently waging war with three impulses: 1. To scrap the writing for the day, and open a bottle of wine in anticipation of a fine meal and 2) To scrap the writing for the day and listen to my son's new song, and 3) To scrap the writing, flop on the couch and and check out Oprah myself. Even without my intrusive italics, you can see the common theme.

But what I've learned is that if I only write when conditions are optimal, when the house is quiet, and I've had ten hours of sleep, when the radio is off, and various phones with catchy ring tones aren't singing to me, then Nulla dies sine linea becomes impossible.

So today, in addition to our morning hour (or longer) we will deliberately get out our work and write for fifteen minutes (or longer) at a less than optimal time. When I was writing the first draft of my current novel, I usually added an extra daily page through this practice. But more important than adding to the word count is training ourselves to tune out distractions; it's learning to create a writer's sanctuary wherever we go. Even amidst the noise.

Now for that glass of wine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

DAY 8: Begin your 100 Day Notebook

Originally uploaded by John Althouse Cohen
Notebooks have been an addiction for me ever since the night before I started first grade when I lined up my pencil case and my blank spiral pad in preparation for something BIG. I couldn't read or write yet, but soon I would. The sight of my shiny red notebook practically guaranteed it!

My notebooks are different these days, but a new one, a blank one, the perfect notebook for the task, still fills me with that first-day-of-school-excitement, that wild sense of promise. I like to believe that the person who fills in the last page of the notebook is not the same one who opened it on the first day. Through the writing and the dreaming and the planning the notebook contains, I've grown. I've gotten better in some way.

The perfect 100 Day notebook can be sumptuous and unique and expensive, but it doesn't have to be. The one I'm using is sturdy, but not clunky, and for me, pleasingly utilitarian. The paper has the right weight; the pages are the perfect size, and the lines are neither too wide nor too narrow. The wire spirals are the durable kind that do not catch. (If this sounds like a fetish, it probably is.)

We'll use the notebook not only to record our progress, but also to create the routines and habits that will allow us to do something as miraculous and real as learning to read and write: we will build the life we want. A working writer's life.

Eventually, we'll break our routines into segments, but tonight, I just recorded the seven disciplines we're trying to adopt so far, and put a check next to the ones I accomplished.

Then I set up my work place, now including timer, notebook, and talisman for tomorrow.