Write, Don't Write. Just get out of your own way!
by Lisa Romeo
Aren't writers an interesting bunch. We say we want to write, we long to write, we crave more time to write. We need to write, we say we can't not write, we may even have writing deadlines, contracts, or specific writing goals.
And then, in a hundred different ways, we find ways to sabotage ourselves. Oh, we claim it's all about time, day jobs, kids, elderly parents, complicated relationships, non-supportive spouses/friends/lovers, the stubborn manuscript, that pesky next draft.
But really it's all about us. We just can't get out of our own way.
I teach (no, I should say I lead or facilitate) an online class (more a set of guided exercises) called *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp for Procrastinators and Busy People.
So, I've heard it all.
Every excuse, reason, rationalization, problem, obstacle. We think we have good "reasons" -- but they are really excuses. We think we have legitimate "obstacles" -- but they are really just situations. We think we have ingrained, intractable personal traits that limit us -- but they are really just habits. We think we have unique lives and families and obligations that constrain our writing time and ability to focus -- but really we just don't use our creativity in ways that let us work around/within those circumstances.
The first week, I ask participants to list every single thing that's keeping them from writing, or from writing with more regularity and consistency. Everything from the dog getting older and needing more attention to the dwindling bank account requiring more hours at the day job to the uncomfortable chair at the writing desk to the spouse who says you're wasting your time and the cousin who threatens to sue if you put the events of 1984 in the memoir.
Then we systematically go about the messy, important, sometimes embarrassing, often surprisingly revelatory and necessary work of figuring out how to debunk, work around, obliterate, acknowledge and accommodate, alter, tame, eliminate, live with or otherwise find a way to deal with the obstacle and still get the writing done.
It doesn't always work.
But usually it does.
And by the end of six weeks, people are writing again, or writing with more intention and according to a schedule and routine they've designed that takes into account their individual situations.
Here are my basic (maybe brutal) tips for helping writers get out of their own way. They work. I know because I use them myself.
- No one else has the answer. But YOU do. Really you do. But first, be willing to admit all of the ways in which you make it difficult for yourself to be a writer.
- Make a comprehensive list of everything you perceive as holding you back from developing the writing life you want. Everything.
- Then, write the ANTI-list. All the ways everything on that first list might be managed. Be wildly ambitious, bold, far-flung.
- Next, look at the first list and admit it: there's a difference between something that genuinely will prohibit you from doing more writing ("my child is ill") and something that is nothing more than your mind or emotions acting up ("I just don't feel like a real writer"). The first kind of obstacles are real, you may not be able to eliminate them (but you can work around); the second kind are excuses. Stop it.
- Now, look at the list of REAL obstacles. Choose which one to tackle first, then second. Be methodical. Creative. A little ruthless. Hire the dog walker. Sleep a little less. Shame your lazy sister into sharing some of Mom's doctor visits.
- Find someone to hold you accountable. Another writer or someone who respects the time spent writing. Someone who will – just before you said you were going to finish X – send an email or pick up the phone and say: "I'm holding you to it. Is X done?" It helps if this is someone you would feel terrible about disappointing. Someone whose opinion you value, who you want to be proud of you.
- Like the characters in your stories, the words on your page, YOU can change, edit, revise your life to make room for writing. The question is: Are you willing to make changes that others may not like?
- Be a grown up. Stop whining. Stop talking to other writers (and emailing, texting, tweeting, posting to Facebook) about the reasons you can't seem to get the writing done or the writing you did do or the writing you hope to do. Just shut up already – full stop. Use that time and energy to write.
- If the obstacle you claim is keeping you from writing (or from writing more, better) were brought to you by an employee, child or service person, how would you respond? What if that person said, "Email and Facebook are too distracting"? How fast would you reel off solutions: Turn off the internet! Turn off your smartphone! Download a program to lock out the internet while writing (Freedom, Cold Turkey)! Set a timer! Write longhand in a notebook! Grow up!
- Write your ideal, dream writing routine, writing room, writing life. Be gloriously detailed, delightfully outlandish – the ocean in the background, an antique desk, three hours a day to yourself, Yo Yo Ma playing his cello in the corner. Now, before putting the description away, pick just one thing and find a way to inch closer to it. A small CD player? A tabletop fountain? The tween from next door watching the kids a few hours here and there?
- Pull that list out from time to time and inch toward one other dream item.
- Or, be grown up and admit that you don't need any of that to write – you have everything you need already: a brain, a notebook or computer, some time.
- Speaking of time: learn how to use small chunks of time. Very small – 10 minutes here, there. Carry and stash tiny notebooks, put a note-taking app on your phone. A few lines here, a snippet of dialogue there, an idea, list, title – capture it somewhere. It all adds up.
- Adopt a mindset of "I'll try it and see what happens."
This last one to me is the most crucial. I had a writer tell me she could only write in the early mornings, propped up in bed with three pillows, some herbal tea, cat at her feet – and yet she wasn't managing to write regularly. A few weeks later, after agreeing to "try it and see what happens," she was writing for 45 minutes three days a week during her day job lunch hour at a coffee shop she didn't even know was there before.
Try it. See what happens. Who knows, you may get out of your own way long enough to get something (else, more) written.