There is writing, and there is not writing.
I wanted to share this podcast from the Warwick “Writing Challenges,” because I believe it helps clarify the exact challenge that derails most writers the most often: our inability to sit down and get into the intense level of thinking and focus that is the “writing zone.” (If you haven’t had the chance to listen to it yet, go ahead and listen to it before reading any further—it’s only six minutes long. I’ll wait here.)
Professor Morley likens writing to a switch that we have to flip in order for the lights to come on—or you might think of it as a door which you must open and walk through in order to enter your writing zone. As someone who writes for a living, I know what he is talking about. There are certainly times it feels like that door is lock, with there are others when I am definitely “in the zone.” When I am, writing flows like honey: thick, sweet, and constant, even as I want to squeeze the bottle a little to get it to come out faster. It’s what I refer to as “white hot drafting,” the place you can lose yourself in what you are typing and arrive at 4:00 in the afternoon wondering where the time went, realizing that you missed lunch (and that you are rather hungry now), and feeling suddenly exhausted in that good sort of way that only happens when you have been intensely concentrating for a long period of time on something both fascinating and cathartic. (Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean anything you have written during the day is any good, only that now you have something to mine for the nuggets that are inevitably in the mess of words you just strung together. The good news is you now have something to mull over and edit—but that’s a subject for another post.)
This is the place where writing really happens, and though it is tough to get there, the good news is that for those of us who know we have a book in us, it can be addicting. It is the place where the muse kisses us. And it can quickly become a place we long to return to again and again. The other side of the coin, however, is that it can also be as elusive and fleeting as a questing beast—we might only get glimpses now and again, and then go days without so much as a track in the dirt or a broken branch indicating we are still on the right path. It’s a pursuit that can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating, but if we are to attain our dream of having a book, it is also something we can’t give up on.
Most established writers will say, in one form or another, that the try key to writing is writing. It usually boils down to the acronym: BICFOK (Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard). (And, yes, that does sound like a dirty word.) Or something like, “If you will start showing up consistently for your writing, it will start showing up for you.” As rather prolific author, Isabel Allende, put it in an interview:
What I have learned in time, in thirty-two years of writing, is that it’s a lot of work, and if I just show up, and I work and work, there is a moment, a magical moment, at some point, when it gives.
Suspense writer Val McDermid echoed this in here instructions to “Carve out a regular ‘writing time’ and don’t make excuses. If you can’t commit to your own writing, why should anyone else commit to it?” Short story specialist and humorist George Singleton advised anyone who wanted to be a success as a writer to “Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” Novelist Jackie Collins put it more succinctly, “A lot of people talk about writing. The secret is to write, not talk.”
Far too many of us sit down to write, and if we are not lost in writing in the first thirty seconds or so, we get distracted by anything from e-mail to Facebook to dishes in the sink. That is why I like this particular episode of the Professor Morley’s podcast—first because I think it helps to think of writing as an activity we have to sit down and consciously switch on; and second because free-writing exercises like the one’s he suggests here are a great way to start. Doing something like what Julia Cameron called “morning pages” in her The Artist’s Way book—getting up, getting your coffee, and getting to whatever place you have deemed a creative spot for the day, and just churning out thoughts on paper for either a set time period—five minutes to ninety minutes, depending on what you have after—or a number of words (250? 500? 1,000?) or pages (Cameron suggests three). This is a great way to get your thoughts together each day whether you plan to write a book or not. Once you get this habit down, then you can move towards focusing more on the topics that will lead towards your book.
The thing is, if you are going to be an author, you need to turn on this switch, step through this door. To me, there really isn’t any such thing as writer’s block, there are only days you decide to write, and days you decide to let yourself get distracted by anything that isn’t writing. As Professor Morley so concisely put it, “There is writing, and there is not writing.” Writers write. Authors write long enough on the same topic that they can edit (have it edited) into a book. Those who aren’t writers or don’t care about having a book don’t. It’s as simple as that.
So, what’s your practice? When and where do you get your writing done? Or, if you haven’t really started, what will be your practice starting today? (Or tomorrow morning at the latest!)
(If you like the above podcast, you can find Professor Morley’s “Writing Challenges” on iTunes.)