Why do writers sabotage their own success by creating unrealistic goals for their writing practice? Deadlines and structure are good motivators. Yet, what happens when writers latch onto a discipline for their writing because they’re temporarily inspired by the conditions of a workshop or have preconceived notions of how much they need to accomplish before they sit down at their desks? During Carolyn Forché’s workshop at Southern Oregon University, she shared her theory that the Muse visits writers daily, soaring over their homes and peering down to see if they’re sitting at their desks. When the Muse notices an empty chair day after day, she’ll eventually change course and direct her sights on other writers’ homes. Following Forché’s logic, dedicating habitual time to your writing ensures the Muse’s presence.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a student at Centrum Writers’ Conference. The prose workshop that Jason participated in required that each student write five pages daily. While that page quota had been a challenge for Jason during the 10-day workshop, he was determined to meet that daily goal throughout his life. Since I’d met Jason on the final day of the conference, I inquired about his life after Centrum. Hearing that Jason held a few odd jobs, was a free-lance photographer, and was the only child of an aging mother, I wondered how truly successful he’d be at actualizing the lofty goal of five pages daily. Couldn’t he anticipate that he’d have to take an extra shift or that his mom could need medical attention, for instance, and that he’d have to make a contingency plan if he missed a day of writing? Would he have to write ten pages the next day to account for it? Suppose that three days elapsed. Would he hold himself to 20 pages on the fourth day? While I imagined Jason calculating the number of days missed times five pages per day, I wondered if there would be an emotional component to all that math? Would missed days and missed page counts all add up to disappointment and regret? Finally, I asked, “Aren’t you, perhaps, setting yourself up for failure?”
Not many writers in our society have the luxury of simply writing all day everyday. Many writers teach or edit, have professions outside the literary world, or have busy family lives. One of my friends from graduate school is a high-paid executive who travels for her job about half the year. When she was working on a novel, she set the pace for herself of 500 words a day. Although her corporate life was supposed to support her literary aspirations, her occupation made it virtually impossible for her to get her own writing done. One day my friend spent the entire afternoon visiting a lighthouse and interviewing the docent in order to research how her protagonist, a lighthouse-keeper, lived and worked. Though, she’d spent hours in the service of her novel, she hadn’t actually drafted a sentence. She went to bed that night, knowing that her day’s goal of 500 words was not met. She chastised herself and vowed to get down 1,500 words the next day: 500 for the day with the lighthouse-keeper, 500 for the next day, and another 500 words as punishment. Writing a novel, for example, takes more than just drafting pages, it takes reading and research and revision. Yet, in setting forth the goal of writing 500 words a day, I could see that my friend wasn’t honoring the time necessary to complete those other tasks.
What’s your writing practice? Does it set you up for success? Have you figured out that you need absolute silence or the din of humanity? Indoors or outdoors? At home or at an office? Writing at dawn or late night? Typing on an Underwood, computing on an Apple, dictating into a recorder, or composing long-hand? All writers must arrive at their own methods for their practice and process: Virginia Woolf had purple pens, James Joyce had pencils, Anne Sexton had her children’s bedtime, and Hampton Sides has his coffee shop. In terms of writing goals, do you give yourself a time frame, a page count, a word count, or do you just produce when the mood strikes?
About a week after my conversation with Jason, I had lunch with a pianist friend who I’d met at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Although William was an internationally renowned concert pianist, playing for admirers such as Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, that afternoon he was lamenting to me his lack of discipline and how the seduction of the Internet was injurious to his piano practicing. He confessed that he’d made a habit of staying up late, watching videos of world news reports, and, so disturbed by what he had watched, he often suffered from anxiety-produced insomnia. “I have a beautiful grand piano in my living room, but I just haven’t been able to play. It’s been a week!”
I thought about what advice I could give to my friend. I couldn’t imagine that a musician would ever give himself a note-count goal – note-counting seems as ridiculous to me as word-counting. Similarly, I couldn’t imagine that counting measures was the approach. As a whole, I wondered, are musicians concerned more with the quality of their practice? While I’ve never met a writer who had established that her writing practice success was contingent on the quality of her sentences, I suspect that that type of writer exists. Given that musicians work in time, I finally answered, “How about 15 minutes?” William stared at me blankly. I continued, “What are you doing for the rest of the day? Surely you can find 15 minutes to play some notes, right? Would that improve your mood? To simply play some notes today for just 15 minutes?”
For a minute, both William and I were silent. As my suggestion hovered between us, I grew more delighted by the argument: Of course a person could find an extra 15 consecutive minutes in his day, even if he were juggling many jobs or had to attend to a family emergency. “OK, I can do that,” he eventually said, breaking the silence, “but are you going to join me?” I thought about what a 15-minutes-a-day approach would mean to me. Rather than a page count or a word count, I figured that a span of time would honor all the tasks a writer must accomplished when working toward a writing goal. Through this method, I could just research, conduct an interview, read an article, revise a paragraph, or decide if a particular sentence needed a comma or not. And, all that work would count toward my new, temporal goal.
About ten years ago at a Seattle bookstore I struck up conversation with a would-be writer and her partner. The gal was jazzed about the books she was purchasing – mostly how-to books about writing and publishing . Her partner said that they were going to spend the rest of the week clearing out a spare bedroom and setting up a desk. The gal was gearing-up to write, although, when I asked, she said to date she hadn’t written a word. It’s good to get excited about embarking on an artistic endeavor; however, I wondered how much gearing-up people do versus actual time spent at the desk. I thought about the Zen proverb: “walk when you walk, die when you die,” and how “write when you write” could be an appropriate addendum. Today, I’d be curious to know if that spare bedroom suited the needs of that aspiring writer and if she’s still working on her craft.
I once made ice, grouped my socks based on thread type, and gave my cat a bath, all in the service of stalling work on a poem due for class. What are your time-management and procrastination tactics? Is your excitement for the desire to write eclipsing the actual process of writing? The idea of being a writer is titillating! There’s such glamour, for there’s the promise of winning an Oscar, the boundless love from the throngs of adorning fans, a rave review from Michiko Kakutani, and, of course, all that money to burn! The reality, though, is that what writers do with the blank page is the thing. The limitations of the mind and the bright glare of the blank page hold no glamour.
I read somewhere that in this country, over 25 million people self-identify as a creative writer. Yet, I wonder how many of those people participated in their writing practice yesterday? I’m going to guess it was 439. If you want to excel at something, the key is creating obtainable goals. I suggest the 15-minute-a-day approach because most of us can find that little bit of time in our busy daily lives. Fifteen minutes is the minimum time, but there’s no limit. Whether you can only manage fifteen minutes or that initial time frame leads to hours, you can feel satisfied in that you actualized your goal. Remember that it was 15 minutes that launched Marcel Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time, the epic poem, “Mahābhārata,” and Edward Gibbon’s, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
When I was a student at Centrum in the late 1990s, I remember a classmate in Poet Olga Broumas’s workshop asked Broumas about the solution to finding time to write. Broumas responded, “Yeah, finding the time is tough. When I returned from my last book tour, I had enough fan mail to fill a bathtub, and I had no idea how I’d manage all those letters.” In that moment in class, I remember thinking how ludicrous both the question and the response were. Wasn’t it impractical for Broumas to share a personal qualm that none of us in that poetry workshop could relate to? And, why wasn’t the efficacy of the student’s question challenged? Now that I’m a teacher, I respond to students that if there’s something that they truly value, they’ll find a way to make time for it. If time passes and you haven’t created space in your life for the goal you had in mind, then you don’t value the thing as much as you thought you did. The matter is not complicated. If you want to write, then write. Through the 15-minutes-a-day method, without any extra time spent on your writing projects, you will have logged in over 91 hours in a single year.
When I suggested to Jason that he attempt the 15-minutes method, he responded with, “You should be an app!” While I don’t know anything about apps, I do know what’s helped me succeed as a writer and I hope it’ll help you as well. Now that you’ve just finished reading this article, start your timer and get to work! I recommend removing all impediments to your writing by just taking this approach day to day. Enjoy meeting today’s goal, reward yourself for it, and then consider the 15-minute method for tomorrow. Go it alone or create a 15-minute challenge among your friends. Good luck, Writer, and let me know where 15 minutes takes you!