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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Day 7: Timed Writing

Egg Timer
Originally uploaded by abbyjane
So far we haven't counted words or pages. All we've demanded of ourselves is a line. A single line every day. Anyone can do that, right?

We've vowed to be at work within a half hour of arising--not just sitting at our desks or lounging on our couches with our laptops, but actually WRITING.

Today, however, we ask a bit more of ourselves. Today we set a timer, or make a sacred contract with the clock that we will not get up from our work for an hour. We won't answer the phone or pour another cup of coffee or even go to the bathroom unless it's an absolute emergency; we won't leap up and pace as we consider the plot--not for this one hour. And above all, we won't doubt ourselves. For sixty minues, sitting at our organized work space, we will just work. With joy. With diligence. With faith in ourselves and the process. Ready, set, GO!

Monday, April 13, 2009

DAY 6: Preparing to Write

Or perhaps an even better title is the one chosen by the photographer from Flickr: Preparing the Voyage.

In addition to
--going to bed at 10 p.m.
--dressing for a real job
--being up, at our desk, and WRITING within 30 minutes
--committing to making progress in our work every day, even if it's only a single line
--and strictly limiting internet distractions

Tonight, for Day 6, we will spend a few minutes preparing for tomorrow's writing. We'll look over our work, considering where the voyage of our took us and our characters today, and considering our direction for tomorrow; we'll organize our work place, whether it's a desk, a spot on the dining room table, or just a humble notebook jammed in a backpack. If there is a special talisman, a photograph, statue or candle that inspires us, we will set that out as well.

It may seem like a small thing--and it is, but it's all part of creating the rhythm and continuity that a novel or our ultimate goal--a lifetime in writing-- demands.

Friday, April 10, 2009

HOW ARE YOU DOING? The Chapter of Faults

Spiritual Walk
Originally uploaded by StuffEyeSee
In the monastic tradition, Friday is traditionally the day for the unflinching self-assessment known as the Chapter of Faults.

"Failures" are admitted simply and honestly. No excuses are asked for, and none are given. Though I doubt I'd survive long in a monastic community, this practice, and the implied invitation to begin again have always appealed to me.

Of the five disciplines, going to bed at ten and being at my desk within 30 minutes after rising were the most productive for me. I adhered to them quite strictly--until tonight, when I've declared a bit of a holiday.

"Nulla dies sine linea" was also empowering. (I've even been chanting it, thanks to a suggestion from Karen DeGroot Carter!) Even on a day when I had to be out of town, and had no serious writing hours, I still opened up my work in progress and wrote one line (literally.) It didn't do much to move the story forward, but it kept it in the forefront of my subconscious, and reinforced my commitment. I WILL write every day

I was less consistent in my promise to be out of my pajamas and dressed for the day before I began writing. Carleen Brice might be right when she called it writers' heresy! But I haven't given up on it yet.

Most difficult of all was disciplining my use of the internet. I even tried using the program Freedom (recently featured on Salon), which shuts off the connection for one to eight hours. But after it crashed my computer twice, I'm back to relying on my own wavering will power--that and the sense of momentum a good writing week brings.

So on Monday we begin again with four new disciplines and Chapter on Friday. When I originally conceived this blog, I thought the 100 days would be consecutive, but I'm now envisioning weekends off from the blog--but not from the essential commitment.

Nulla dies sine linea.

Happy Easter and Passover to all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Day 5: This is Huge

Great cartoon, right? Funny, and in my case an uncomfortably spot-on depiction of how some days go--or rather DON'T go. (They even got the cat right!)

So laugh, yes. But don't allow yourself to believe this is how all writers spend their hours. Stephen King wrote every single day except Christmas for years; Charles Dickens was so focused he could add pages to his work in progress and entertain guests at the same time; and Haruki Marukami gets up at five a.m. to do his daily four hour stint. Most successful, prolific authors have similarly disciplined habits. Do we want to be one of them, or do we want to be that well-fed and rested, socially popular guy in "Slush Pile?"

Easy answer, right? So for Day 5, we're going to strictly limit our internet time.

My time on-line will be from 7-8:30 p.m.. If any of you catch me on Twitter or Facebook outside those hours, I expect you to call me out!

10:17 already. Damn, I'm late for bed...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 4: Up, at your desk, and WRITING within 30 minutes

All right, remember this is all cumulative. So we've set a bedtime and we're adhering to it just like we did when we were in school and had some serious learning to do the next day. We've banned pajamas after nine a.m. And we've got signs all over our house that read "Nulla dies sine linea (damnit!)"

Now we're ready for some real work. Tonight we set our alarms early enough to create a space for writing (7a.m. for me, probably earlier for those who have to get kids to school or themselves to their "second job.") Then, in the morning, we leap out of bed as soon as the alarm jangles, roar our battle cry (you know it) and--this is the important part--be at our "desks" and writing within 30 minutes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Day 3: Writing "when your soul is thin as a playing card"

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Nulla dies sine linea. The Latin axiom "Not a day without lines" sounds simple--and it IS simple--once it becomes a habit. That's what 100 days of discipline is all about--building the habits that not only support your goal, they facilitate it. They make it easy.

Of course, the goal is to write more than a few lines. (We'll get to that later.) But the first step is to make writing a practice: habitual, necessary, a part of the rhythm that is your day.

It doesn't matter if it's Saturday and the world is taking a day off, if you're not "inspired," (highly overrated) if it's Christmas and you're cooking a six course meal for twelve, you're still going to have your coffee, right? And during the course of the day, you're going to perform at least a dozen other tasks--some good, some not- that your subconscious has been trained to perform without struggle.

Nulla dies sine linea.

We're talking one line here; excuses are not allowed. If you've just worked a sixteen hour shift (been there), or even if "your soul is as thin as a playing card" as Joyce Carol Oates memorably said (ditto), you can still open your notebook or your laptop and sit with your work for a few moments. You can still write your line.

Then, if possible, follow it with another one until you have a page or three pages or maybe even a chapter. But if all you have is a paragraph or a three word sentence, give it. Give it with all your heart. (More on that later, too.)

Then go to bed at 10 p.m. That's my cue...

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Long after he retired, and even after he finally gave up his apartment and moved to a nursing home at age 96, my grandfather got up early and dressed in a shirt and tie just as he had when he was working. When asked why, he said "dressing for work" reminded him that he still had something important to accomplish every day.

And he did.

On the other hand, there's me--the renegade granddaughter who frequently doesn't shower and dress till noon. Why? Because I'm "only writing" and my pajamas are SO comfy. But lately I've started to think that maybe sitting around in my flannel pants and t-shirts might be giving my subconscious the idea that it's a day off. I can start writing at 8, or I can read the New York Times for hours and start at 11.

So for Day 2:

I will get up and dress like someone who considers her work a "real job"

...and I will go to bed at 10 p.m.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Originally uploaded by *helmen
Athletes go into training, alter their diets and sleep patterns, sacrifice activities that impair performance. Is writing a novel really a less rigorous pursuit?

This is my attempt to build the habits that will get me to the finish line that's called THE END, one small step at a time.

Each day I will add one new discipline:

Day 1: Go to bed by 10 pm.