No matter where you are in your writing life, there are times when – in order to get up and running again – your writing needs first aid.
Here are the essentials of your Writer’s First Aid Kit:
- Writing time that is non-negotiable. Whether it’s half an hour, two hours, or four, switch off the phone and the alerts on your computer. For that time, writing comes first.
- Energy in the writing. Go directly to what has the most energy in what comes up for you to write, and write that. Don’t worry about leading up to it; this is writing, not life. You can always go back and lead up to it later.
- A “no” to the Inner Critic. Don’t second-guess yourself. Leave exactly what you said on the page and keep going.
- Be kind. Leave a hint at the end of your writing time as to where to start tomorrow. (If it has no energy tomorrow, you’ll write what does.)
- Stop when you stop. There will be plenty of time to think about writing during your next “writing time”.
Do you have a lengthy writing project you always thought you would undertake? COVID days that seem to melt away, one by one, into nothing very much? Consider the Long Haul Project. Might this not be just the time to get it done?
Yet it can seem discouraging even to contemplate taking on something big. As writer Amy Shearn has put it: “Why on earth would a person take on an ambitious, sprawling, impossibly time-consuming project that may well, by its very definition and scope, never reach completion?”
For me, the answer is in her interview with Tommy Caldwell, soon after he had free-climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. He said, ‘I loved the way it made me live. You know, to have this goal, to be training, to be climbing every day, to feel so focused.’
The narrow focus, daily practice and open-endedness of the Long Haul Project may be just what your being craves right now. What may be worth it is the way it makes you live.
The ease with which your writing flows at a residential FreefallWriting™ workshop is due at least in part to the phenomenon known as “the recency effect” – the fact that whatever we have experienced most recently will tend to be uppermost in our thoughts. When there are no interruptions between sleep, in which your subconscious predominates, and writing (except maybe breakfast), the writing comes so much more easily. The good news is that you can re-create that situation at home by taking care to not to interrupt the time between waking and writing. Let your writing derive full benefit from the recency effect.
All too often, in autobiographical writing, I see writers dodge the knotty, meaningful moments when they changed their minds about something significant. Yes, those moments often feel hard to write about. But if you open out those pivotal moments, you’ll find they’re the places that most clearly show your reader who their subject is..
What made that moment meaningful? (This will show your values) What did you decide to do as a result? (This will show how you lived your life). And don’t just open out these moments, but also remember what you learned by doing that. Moments like these will instantly show your readers what has value for your fictional characters. And why they live their lives in the way they do.
Writing Is a Process (that Your Inner Critic Treats as a Product)
Do you ever feel suddenly convinced that you can’t write one more word (of your novel, memoir, Ph.D. thesis, etc.) without going back to revise what you’ve already written? Suddenly you’re walking in cement boots, dragging your way forward. “Go back!” your inner critic cries. ”Get it right and then you can keep going.”
What’s just happened is this: you were engaged in a process, which by definition means that you can’t know where it will end up until you get there. But your Inner Critic wants to stop that process in its tracks. ”What have you got here?” (product). “This is no good.” (product). “Go back over it and make it better.” (product). Pay no attention. Keep going, whatever happens, by reminding yourself: writing is a process. There will be plenty of time to revise once that process is complete.
To be open to writing is to be open to all the familiar parts of the writing process: the elation, the discouragement, and all that lies between. Welcome discouragement. Without it, you’ll get nowhere, even though it can be the hardest of your old friends to love.
Most of us are aware of the oft-cited truth that the passive voice (‘The ball was hit by the boy.’) does not work as well, when you’re writing creatively, as the active voice (‘The boy hit the ball.’) You can immediately see that there’s more energy in the latter. But I’m often surprised by how typically people resort to other passive constructions to convey the world in which their story is set: “The chair was by the window,” or the ubiquitous “There was a chair by the window.” It’s as if the chair is sleeping there, just waiting for someone to come in and give it a shake.
At the final, copy-editing stage, when such considerations come into view, wake up your settings. Use active verbs, rather than citing passive states: “The chair stood by the window” or “waited by the window”. You’ll find your writing gets a sudden burst of life.
Especially these days, when time can flow by unmarked in a way we have never experienced before, I worry when people say, “I can only write at such-and-such a time”. Yes, it’s always good to have a routine to give yourself a boost. But you can’t write at any other time? Really?
My worry is that any hard-and-fast rule we can come up with about writing is manna to the Inner Critic. Of course you can write any time of the day or night. The writing may look different then, but is that such a bad thing?
Experiment. Stay curious. And remember (to borrow from Ed Lawrence, CBC Radio’s gardening guru, who says “The best time to prune is when you have the secateurs in your hand”): the best time to write is when you have some time. End of story.
As the decade draws to a close, look back and appreciate how much closer you’ve come to the realization of your writing hopes. During this decade, the world has become vastly busier (The number of emails sent, for example, has more than tripled. Working people now receive an average or 120 emails a day). So not only have you made progress: you’ve made progress against increasingly stiff competition from daily life.
Writing requires that you reach into the depths of yourself — that’s what makes it so profoundly satisfying. But to do that, you need time, and relief from the tasks of life. Take some time, right now, to consider what it is you want for your writing in the new decade. Then set aside some time each morning, coffee in hand, to dig a little deeper “before others are awake” (as William Stafford puts it). Put some words down daily, and all the rest will follow. Believe me; I know.