Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Spice of the Writing Life

I’ve been having a lot of trouble keeping up with my writing goals for the past several months. I still write, and I think I write a fair amount when I compare it to how much time many other starting-out writers spend writing, but I still can’t seem to meet my measly little one hour a day goal. Oh I come close, but I haven’t quite hit the mark in some time, and it’s frustrating because an average of one hour day doesn’t seem like much to ask of myself.

This has been throwing my whole world off balance, if you want to know the truth. My entire sense of identity, and my sense of what makes life worth living, they’re both entangled with my image of myself as somebody who writes often. Somebody who writes not just because she thinks she’s going to hit it big one day, or because she has this pretentious image of herself as “artiste,” but because she really genuinely loves to write. But if I haven’t been writing much, if I haven’t even been hitting an average of an hour a day, it makes me stop and wonder: is that really who I am? Have I been fooling myself this whole time?

To try to get to the bottom of this problem, I sat down and analyzed my life as a writer for the past few years. Before going to grad school, I wrote often – probably not every single day but on the days I did write, it would usually be for at least a couple of hours, and some days I would spend the better part of a full day writing. My guess is that I was clocking not much less than an hour a day if averaged over the course of each full year.

My first semester in grad school I pretty much stopped writing altogether. I wrote a few new stories . . . for workshop . . . because I had to, and that was it. That winter I got extremely depressed, asked myself what I was doing in grad school if I wasn’t even going to write, and made some hardcore resolutions that ended up sticking. From that point forward I wrote . . . a lot. When I actually did start logging my time spent writing, I found that I was spending a little less than an average of two hours a day writing.

Now, after grad school, I seem to be back where I started before I went to grad school. So what gives? Well, beside the fact that I certainly had more time to spend on writing when I was a student (the real world’s a bitch, you guys, I’m telling you!), there is one key factor that I think might be at the core of the problem. Variety.

I’m going to extend a metaphor to the breaking point here, so bear with me for a minute. When you’re trying to lose weight, you might go out and find a new diet plan that seems interesting and appealing and will give you the results you want. You start the diet plan and usually stick with it pretty well for the first little while. Encouraged by your results, you plow through for a few weeks, maybe even a few months. Somewhere along the line, though, you start slipping. You splurge. You tell yourself you’ve had a bad day and deserve this donut or that cookie. Eventually you realize you’re basically not on the diet at all anymore. Then what happens, at least to the true weight loss fanatic, is that you find another diet plan and start all over again.

Yo-yo dieting is a common and oft-made fun of phenomenon, but the thing is, what I believe is at the heart of this jumping from fad diet to fad diet is our need for variety in life. We get excited by new things. We feel encouraged when we’re starting some new program, embarking on a new resolution. But after we’ve been doing something for a while, even if we’re seeing positive results, it just starts to feel stale. We start to feel less motivated. I think that when I made up my mind to overhaul my writing life, it had much the same effect as being an overweight person who hits rock bottom with that one last piece of cake and makes the decision to start a new diet program.

That is to say, it worked. It worked wonders, at least for a little while. Then somewhere along the line, I added logging hours into the mix: a new addition to my “diet” program that kept it fresh for a while longer. But I think what’s happening now is that the freshness has gone out of it a bit. It isn’t that I don’t love writing – I do! – and it isn’t that I can’t somehow steal an hour to write each day - I can, I know I can – but I think what’s happening is that I need something new – a new sort of goal, a new type of resolution – to keep me motivated and keep me feeling like I’m working towards something, like I’m moving forward and not just spinning endlessly in a circle.


PancakePhilosopher said...

Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I mean I know in "life" we like variety, but I never thought of that in regards to the writing process itself. I think you've just discovered the key ingredient in most people's writer's block.

It makes a lot of sense. For example, I could go to grad school somewhere traditional and close, like Penn State. But no, I want to go to Alaska because I want something *different*. It totally makes sense in application to the writerly life. Maybe getting a factory style punch-clock would do the trick :).

Or maybe, instead of making a goal about time, maybe make a goal about style/type of writing? Like, "this week I'll work on short stories, next week I'll work on novels, the week after that I'll work on children's stories, and the last week I'll work on revisions" or something like that.

PancakePhilosopher said...

Also, I think--especially in conjunction with the punch-clock idea--that maybe hiding clocks/time measuring devices while writing might be a good idea. Like just sit down and somehow record your starting time, then hide/don't look at clocks while you write, then when you're done record your finish time.

Ashley Cowger said...

Oh man! That is a GREAT idea, to avoid looking at the clock while I'm writing. I didn't even think of that but I think it might make a HUGE difference. Right now I notice myself glancing at the clock often, even once I get into the groove of it, and as I start nearing an hour I start losing steam. It's also a good idea to start setting some other kind of goal, instead of time. I think I'm going to start doing that, too.

Justus said...

Here's another thought as far as goals go. Pick something specific that has a deadline--a contest, a fellowship, a journal that closes to submissions in a month, whatever--and then write with the date hanging over your head so you know you want to finish a revision of X story by then or have the first chapter of your novel ready as a writing sample for that application.

I like having firm deadlines that I'm not in charge of. If I say to myself that I want to have this story revised by next month, I can always change my mind and decide to do it by the following month or whatever, but if I'm going to apply for a fellowship or submit to a contest, I have to have my work ready by that date.

Ashley Cowger said...

That's a good idea, too. I have noticed that whenever I'm planning to submit for something that has a deadline I feel way more motivated than when I set my own arbitrary deadline.