Find your writing “why”

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When I made a career change and launched into a full-time, non-writing job seven weeks ago, my mother, a writer, said that this would be a defining moment for my writing life. Whether I make the time for it now would likely dictate whether I continue showing up years from now—and continue to be a writer. Gulp. Dose of reality. (Why is my mother literally
always right? It’s maddening. Love you, mom.)

This unsolicited advice didn’t come from nowhere. My mother knows me well. She knows my tendency to procrastinate and let my soul-sustaining habits—like writing and exercising—fall by the wayside when the rest of life feels all-consuming. So then I did solicit her advice on finding the time and motivation for writing, even though I knew exactly what it would be. “Ass in chair,” was her Anne Lamott-esque response.

My mother walks her talk. Her years-long routine of 5 a.m. writing sessions before heading off to work while raising three daughters still has me in awe. If she can do all that, certainly there’s no excuse for me.

Like me, many of you are not full-time writers. Or for some of you who are, what you write at work doesn’t elicit the same passion that your at-home writing does. To varying degrees we likely all experience stretches of productivity, but periods of inactivity can creep up fast and lead to major guilt feels. But guilt has no place in writing. Guilt doesn’t put words on the page. Guilt doesn’t get books published.

Guilt has no place in writing. Guilt doesn’t put words on the page. Guilt doesn’t get books published.

At work, one of the owners gave a class and spoke about the importance of finding your “big why”—the thing that motivates you to show up and put in the work even when you don’t feel like it. The same can be applied to our writing. What keeps you coming back? If you struggle to stick with writing, you’re gonna have to get more specific than “I need to.” What, specifically, are you doing it for? What’s the desired outcome of a day’s or year’s worth of writing?

It helps, too, to have your own writing metric to strive for and attach to your big why. One that’s ambitious but realistic and that suits your definition of a successful writing week, not someone else’s. Many published authors insist that you must write every day, and while that would be ideal, I don’t believe it’s realistic or helpful to impose that standard on every writer. Instead, your metric could be a page count or number of writing hours per week. Whatever works. That part you’ll have to figure out, possibly through trial and error.

Author Karen Russell said it well in this interview:

“I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story?”

Many of us have big goals like, say, to write a novel. Big goals are fine, but to be successful and ensure you’re going to make the time to write—especially on those crappy days when you don’t feel like it—you have to break the big goal down by months, weeks, and possibly days. Think of National Novel Writing Month: The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month, or 1,667 words per day. Without breaking down that large goal into smaller chunks, do you think so many people would actually “win” at NaNoWriMo?

Whether you write daily or not, revisit your big why daily. Meditate on it, write it on a piece of paper and stick it on your bathroom mirror, say it out loud.

Then lose the guilt. Make the time. And write.

#ResolveToWrite: A month-long challenge to keep 2016 on track

It’s already February. How’s that writing project going?

That’s right guys, we’re now in the second month of 2016. (Is anyone else still writing “2015” in their notes and furiously scratching it out every time?)

There’s a decent chance that these past few weeks have gone by in a blink of an eye for many of us who have been struggling with slow progress, stagnant attempts or missed goals in our writing—not the start of a new year most of us envision. This is totally normal, but frustrating.

Luckily, there are still 11 whole months left in 2016 to get back on track. I thought February 1st seemed like an apt time to come up with a writing challenge. So behold! Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to complete these 29 writing prompts for each day in February. (Turns out 2016 is a leap year—consider it a bonus.)

#ResolveToWrite: A February Challenge

The purpose & who it’s for

The goal is simple: My hope for you and me both is that we write something every day for a month—even if, some days, there’s only time for 15 minutes. I also want you to feel inspired and playful. Even though this is a writing challenge, it should be fun—not a chore!

I had so much fun coming up with unexpected, thought-provoking prompts that writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry alike would enjoy interpreting these prompts however they see fit.

How to participate

Starting today, dedicate at least a few minutes every day for a month to writing something—a blog post, a short story, a stream-of-consciousness diary entry, a microblog on Instagram, whatever. Document your experience, progress and anything you publish online using the hashtag #ResolveToWrite. (Tweet about it now.)

This challenge is not about arbitrary rules that don’t apply to your writing goals. So if you’re working on a novel and want to focus on that, you don’t have to use every single writing prompt. (Though you may find some of the prompts will spark inspiration for a scene, conversation or turn of events.) And if you join in late, no worries. You can start this challenge any time. As long as you use the #ResolveToWrite hashtag, I’ll be there cheering you on.

Perks if you join in!

If you join in during the first two days using the hashtag #ResolveToWrite, I’ll feature you and any work you’d like to promote in WTH Weekly, the newsletter I send out every Saturday. (You must also be subscribed to the newsletter—after all, you’ll want to be able to see it and forward it to your biggest fan!)

And if you participate at all during the month using #ResolveToWrite and are subscribed to WTH Weekly, you’ll be eligible to win this “Write Like a Motherfucker” mug from The Rumpus. (The Rumpus is not sponsoring this giveaway—I just thought the theme and the heart-shaped design were too perfect for a February writing challenge!) All you have to do is fill in your info using the Raffelcopter widget below to verify. See below for entry details.

#ResolveToWrite giveaway

photo and mug from therumpus.net

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Does that sound like fun or what?! I’m looking forward to doing the prompts along with you and will be tweeting updates from my personal account.

If you’re on board, sign up for the newsletter here, send a tweet (here’s a pre-written tweet for you), enter using the Rafflecopter widget above, then get to work! Let’s make the shortest month of the year count. Happy writing!

Don’t die a hoarder of your words

Don't die a hoarder of your words

One of the best stories I’ve ever written sits unpublished in a Google Docs folder.

I reread it for the first time in a long time the other day.

I reported and wrote it more than a year ago for a magazine writing class that focused heavily on creating vivid scenes through powerful dialogue and concrete details. It had been a long time since I’d done that kind of writing, which I’d mostly only ever attempted in fiction, but I became obsessed with the process.

The story lent itself well to such detailed description. It took place in an impoverished desert town a couple hours outside of Los Angeles, where stray dogs dart in front of cars and the streets have names like “Avenue R.” My main source was a vigilante on a mission, a tough yet generous woman, but the central character of the story was a dangerous, evil man—and the cause of a lot of division in the small community.

When I opened this story for the first time in months (with the idea of possibly fictionalizing it), I expected all its flaws to immediately jump out and remind me why the sole editor I pitched it to rejected it. But instead, all I thought reading it was, “I can’t believe I didn’t send this around. What was wrong with me?” As many publications as there are out there, this story could have and would have found a home, I’m now sure.

This lack of follow-through upon the completion or near-completion of a piece of work is certainly not unique to me. How many writers at some point in their lives have abandoned a story halfway through, given up after getting rejected once, or never let their work see the light of day because it’s never quite perfect? My guess is every single one. After all, no one shits rainbows every time.

But how many writers continue this self-defeating behavior throughout their lives, limiting themselves to mediocre success at best, disappointment and disenchantment at worst? More than we could ever know or guess, all because they’re not letting themselves be vulnerable to rejection and criticism.

Everyone has their excuses. For me, it was that the story still had some minor flaws in the structure I was unsure of how to fix. I didn’t have access to expensive court documents that would’ve taken it up a notch. I was afraid that the story’s central character—the violent, evil man—might find and hurt me. These were all valid concerns, but they were lousy excuses for letting the story die.

The kicker? The day after I dug this file up again, a major newspaper ran their own version of the story. The same central character, the same facts, even some of the same sources I’d written about and reported on more than a year ago! I have a feeling life will keep cheerily providing such lessons as this if I don’t make some adjustments.

Luckily, that was not the last good story I will ever write. The same goes for anyone else who blew an opportunity or is simply in a rut. Because contrary to the irrational yet commonly held fear that creativity is a well that runs dry, there will always be more to tap into as long as we remain open to it. We can’t be fully receptive to it, though, if we keep the things we create to ourselves. What good is shielding our hearts and our words from scrutiny?

If you still need further convincing, just remember, there is plenty of terrible writing readily available on the internet that’s thoughtlessly published every day by people who don’t even consider themselves writers. That content machine just keeps chugging. Don’t let those voices be the majority.

Death doesn’t discriminate, and it’d be a damn shame to die hoarding our work.

So quit tweaking, fiddling, second-guessing, and giving up, and start pitching, publishing, promoting and celebrating your writing. If you don’t, who else will?

A reminder about resolutions

A reminder about resolutions
Happy 2016, writer ladies!

If you’re like me, you love the fresh start a new year offers but are wary of making resolutions just for the sake of announcing them to the world (and promptly forgetting them). Still, when everyone else in blog and Twitterland seems to be making bold promises, it’s hard not to feel like we should be pushing ourselves to do more.

For writers, it’s the pressure to interact constantly on social media. To write and publish an ebook—then give it away for free. To promote your blog posts 12x a day. To write every day and not make excuses because you will never be a real writer if you don’t.

Do you feel guilty yet?! And that’s just the everyday stuff—never mind New Year’s resolutions.

So how about instead of setting ourselves up for failure and guilt because of this social need to set grand intentions, we all agree on something first: Do what you want and need. But don’t do anything that won’t help your process as a writer and human person because of external pressures—real or perceived.

In fact, maybe the answer is to stop doing certain things instead of adding more to our plates.

Listen, I do think as writers it’s important that we engage with our communities, put ourselves out there, and consistently show up to the computer even when it’s hard. (Because if we gave up the second things became difficult, we’d all be this guy.)

But if social media or marketing or writing content for the sake of having content is stealing joy away from your process and existence as a writer, maybe, like, do less of it. Maybe that’s your New Year’s resolution: Less social media.

If it’s more you’re after, however, set goals that don’t feel like a chore, that offer a little wiggle room and make writing fun. Don’t let anyone else’s big plans affect how you make decisions for yourself. Focus on the important stuff: the writing.

Cool? Cool.

2016, you’re shaping up to be a fine year.

 

How to persevere when you hate writing and everything sucks

How to persevere when you hate writing and everything sucks

National Novel Writing Month is more than halfway over, and everything I write is steaming garbage.

Not only that, but I’m completely stuck and way behind on my word count.

This was inevitable. I expected it. Welcomed it, even, in my naive enthusiasm for the daunting task that is/was my life’s dream. Just kidding, it’s still totally my life’s dream. Which is why it hurts so bad to suck. Anyone else feel me?

There’s nothing fun about getting yourself deep into a project only to realize this writing thing is, like, way harder than it looks, but that’s typically how it goes. There are a few ways to handle this. You could:

Stomp, scream and scare away your family, roommates and/or pets.

Give up writing all together and become an accountant or professional survey-taker.

Cry.

Or, you could try one of these more productive coping mechanisms that will help you get over yourself and this small hurdle. (I’ll be doing them myself!) After all, writing through the roadblocks is what makes you a writer.

Take a macro approach

Chances are once you’ve hit a wall, you’ll start making minor tweaks here and there without making any meaningful changes, quickly leading to despair (and possibly an existential crisis). Get yourself out of the weeds of your project and revisit your outline. If you started writing without one, now might be a good time to create it. Organize your material so it’s not overwhelming. Whatever you do, don’t get into nitpicky edits until you’ve worked through your bigger problems.

Use writing prompts to get the juices flowing

Maybe you’re just plain out of ideas or unsure of where to go from where you left off. Start anywhere—you don’t have to write chronologically. If you’re writing fiction, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction writing prompts are a great source of inspiration. If you sign up for the WTH Weekly newsletter, you’ll get 30 writing prompts to spark ideas.

Work on another project

Have multiple projects going at a time so that when you hit a wall on one, you have another to turn to that will keep you writing. It can be such a relief when you realize your fingers do in fact work, and all your brain needed was something new to focus on. And remember, not everything you write has to be publishable. It might be a welcome break to work on something that’s personal without putting any pressure on it to be good.

Read a book

Key word: book. Not blogs or articles online that will merely distract you or tempt you to procrastinate, but physical books that get you away from the computer and your mind someplace else entirely. You may draw inspiration from it or at the very least read something that reminds you why you want to do this in the first place. Reading a good book can heal most writerly woes and is never a bad way to spend your time. (i.e. No guilt.)

Check in with yourself

Make sure that what you’re writing is actually something you want to write. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in an idea we think will be popular or sounds very literary and don’t even realize it rings false because it’s not something we’re truly in love with. The key is knowing the difference between something we’re lukewarm about and something that’s hard, particularly once we’re in the trenches of a project and reach that inevitable wall. If even after a period of anguish and self-pity you still want to write the thing, pick yourself up and write the thing.

Do literally anything else

For the love of God, change out of your sweatpants, go for a run, cook a meal and interact with other human beings. Stop torturing yourself and go be a person who does normal-people things, even though you’re definitely probably not entirely normal. (That’s why we’re writers, right?) Trust that the words will come next time you sit down to do the work.

Cool? You’ve got this.

Related: What happens when we let fear dictate our art