Last night, at a reception for a retiring art professor at my university, another member of the fine arts faculty asked me how my retirement was going. I was extremely busy, I told her, with the writing projects I had been putting off for so many years.
“That’s good,” she said. “I worry about my own retirement. Whenever I’ve had a sabbatical, I get kind of crazy. It’s just me and the blank canvas, alone in the studio, day after day after day.”
I ungenerously said that I didn’t have that problem because of my work strategy. And, indeed, it’s one that has stood me in good stead in many a situation when the blank page could have been an intimidating desert. Sadly, I could not make it work while I was teaching. Every morning of my professional life during the semesters, I had to get cracking on those papers, because if I hadn’t set upon them first, they would have slavered over me all day, fouling the emotional energy I needed for any other task. Summers, after a good whole-body shake, I could get back on schedule—for about ten weeks, enough sometimes to get an academic article out, but not enough for the deep-gut work of a novel. I know many people find the resolve to both teach and write creatively, but my resolve foundered on all those stacks of student words.
I want to write one day soon about reading and responding to student writing, which I consider one of the most important and necessary tasks any person of reasonable intelligence and goodwill can undertake. But anyway: Here are my strategies, for what they’re worth:
I never say, “Today, I have to write a whole chapter,” anymore than I ever said, “Today I have to write a whole article.” (Wish I could have convinced my students of this very simple rule.) Nothing makes a writing project more frightening that when it stretches across a whole day (and night!) and can’t be abandoned until it’s done. Now, I could actually handle this kind of mandate during my abortive foray into romance writing, but in that case, you have your outline, you know how long each chapter needs to be, you’re not hoping for any happy surprises. Totally different head.
Instead, I use one of two strategies.
Set a timer. While that timer’s running, you do nothing but sit in front of the computer and type words on your chosen task. It doesn’t matter how many you type (or handwrite, as I often do). It doesn’t matter how good they are, or whether they’ll even end up in the finished product. It doesn’t matter how much you slow down to self-edit or how much you kick infelicities aside for a more focused assault later. It only matters that they pile up for that particular task. You can’t feed the dogs or take out the compost. Every time you find yourself saying, “I’ll just. . . .”: No. Start short, say thirty minutes. Surprise, surprise, if you don’t have another task on your agenda, the next thing you know, the timer will go off and you’ll ignore it. There’ll be sentences lined up waiting to be written. You’ll write three times what you planned.
The other option is similar, and I’ve used it effectively many times. Say to yourself, “All I have to do is fill up this page.”
A variation on these options is the “45-15” rule I recently read about in my email newsletter from Freelancers Union*: Forty-five minutes on task, then fifteen to feed the dogs, clean up the breakfast dishes, write that thank-you note or check your bank balance. Then another forty-five on task, fifteen off. I never make it work out quite this cleanly—I tend to keep writing too long and impinge on the fifteen. But I like knowing I can get the banal necessities done AND keep writing.
Finally, unless you’re on a hot streak, STOP at a reasonable time. Your brain needs, demands, incubation time. Do something completely different, AFTER your writing quota is done. These days I generally go ride my horse. But I remember that I wrote well when I was a waitperson in the evenings. As anyone who ever waited tables can tell you, in any moderately busy establishment, from the moment the first table fills until you pull your tips out of your pocket hours later, you think of nothing but getting out the drinks and food. You get up the next morning and find out that things have happened in your brain while you were not there.
Everybody, of course, has his or her own strategies and methods. If you’re on deadline, never mind. But the next time I’m on deadline, if ever, I want to be well past the “creation” stage when that page can be so blindingly empty.
Excuse me. My timer went off ten minutes ago.
*If you’re not familiar with Freelancers Union (www.freelancersunion.org), get familiar with it. Invaluable resource.