Today’s article comes from writer, coach and workshop leader Hillary Rettig. Her book, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way was published by Lantern Books in 2006. For more information on Hillary, including abundant free downloads, visit www.hillaryrettig.com. Thanks Hilllary!
NaNoWriMo participants aim to finish a 50,000 word novel in a single month, this month. The NaNoWriMo Website says NaNoWriMo is for, “everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.”
While radical attempts at self-improvement generally don’t work, see, for instance, last year’s New Year’s resolutions, NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on alleviating the fears that can block productivity is a good one. NaNoWriMo’s reminder that “you will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing,” is, in fact, exactly what underproductive writers need to hear.
Even with that sound advice, however, many NaNoWriMo participants never finish and right about now, when the initial excitement starts to fade, is a danger point. Here are five strategies for making it past the dreaded “Week Two Doldrums”:
Build Your Sitzfleisch via Timed Writing Exercises
Get a timer (like this one or a kitchen timer) and set it for five minutes; then, during those five minutes, write on your NaNoWriMo project. Ignore any concerns that may crop up about the quality or content of your writing! (As mentioned above, it will probably be crap, and that’s okay!) The point is put in your time while, moment by moment, resisting the urge to judge yourself or your output. In Zen terms, you want to be attached to the process but not the result.
When the buzzer rings, take a break and stretch (because procrastination often begins in, or is catalyzed by, the body), and also be sure to allow yourself a few moments of honest pride. The latter is important because perfectionists usually have a strong habit of denigrating their achievements, you need to counteract that to stay motivated and reinforce your sense of accomplishment. (Visually recording your progress with colorful charts, gold stars, and other props is also a terrific idea, and very motivating.)
If you want, you can reset the timer and repeat the exercise as often as you wish, but stop immediately when you feel yourself getting tired or stressed.
If you don’t make it to five minutes, don’t waste time feeling bad: just take your break, and then set the timer to two minutes, or even thirty seconds, and write.
When you get so that you can write easily for a given duration, you can increase the timer no more than 25%.
What you’re doing in this exercise is building your capacity for zero-fear, nonperfectionistic writing which, in turn, leads to sitzfleisch, or the capacity to sit and write for long periods. Here’s a more detailed set of instructions.
Perfectionism and writer’s block are huge topics; you can read more about them here.
Novice writers tend to see their projects as long strings of words. And there’s a natural tendency, when you have that viewpoint, to want to start at the beginning of a piece and write straight through till “The End.”
It’s much more productive to view your work as a landscape with topographic features, in this case: hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts, dialog parts, visual description parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc. When you do, your project immediately becomes more accessible, resembling an illustrated map or one of those miniature landscape models you see in museums.
And now you can use a visualization tool I call the “writercopter” to land on whatever point of that landscape you feel like working on. The moment you feel you feel you’ve taken a particular piece of writing as far as you can go at this particular time, “hop” on your copter and take it to another section anywhere in the piece. Work there for a few minutes or hours, until you run dry, and then reboard the ‘copter and hop to another part.
Writing might sometimes be difficult, but it should never be unpleasant; if you’re feeling tired, frustrated, bored or stumped – that’s not an indication of any deficiency on your part, but simply a signal to move to another part of the project. While it’s okay to practice “writing past the wall,” and sticking with a difficult section a bit longer than comfortable, don’t perfectionistically dig in your heels and become an antagonist to your own process.
Equip Yourself Generously
A big problem for writers is that they underequip themselves. Writing a novel is like running a marathon, in fact, any serious writing vocation is. Make sure you’re working in a place, and using tools, that support your productivity.
So, ask your family for privacy and quiet, if you need it, or head out to a library or coffee shop.
Also, ask them for time in the form of their taking on some of your chores. Or, pay a cleaning service. Or, make fewer meals from scratch and get more takeout.
Make sure you’re writing on a computer that works well, and on furniture that’s ergonomic. (An ergonomic desk doesn’t have to be expensive, by the way: mine was created using four precisely cut dowels and a board.)
Instead of wasting time berating yourself for not having the willpower to resist email, Facebook, Solitaire, etc., and do what professional writers do: solve the problem definitively by writing on a computer that’s not hooked up to the Internet. (And remove the games, too.)
Windows and Macintosh users can use Freedom to disable their Internet connectivity for predetermined lengths of time. That’s far better than nothing, but it’s even better to eliminate the possibility of connectivity entirely.
Used computers are cheap and, often, free so you should be able to get one and customize it around your writing needs.
Write in a Community
U.S. culture in particular often celebrates solitary achievement (tortured genius in the attic, etc.), but very few people create in isolation. So find a writing buddy or, better yet, a writing group and schedule writing dates. And stay in touch between those dates to support each other in staying on track.
NaNoWriMo.org offers lots of online support, and there you’ll also learn about the many regional groups where you can find local writing buddies and other support.
If your writing pace slows, avoid the temptation to retreat into isolation and shame. This is exactly the moment you should reach out to your buddy or group and say, “You know, folks, I’m stuck. Any ideas?” I can almost guarantee that your group will get you back on track, especially if you follow the rest of the advice in this post.
Examine Your Fears and Ambivalences
If you’re stuck, rather than wasting time bashing yourself for being lazy or not having enough discipline, figure out why you’re stuck. Laziness, boredom, etc., aren’t causes of procrastination: they’re symptoms of it. The real cause is disempowerment meaning that you’re not lacking energy, discipline, etc., you’re simply separated from your reserves of them. (It’s a “block,” after all.) So start journaling around what might be causing that.
In other words, ask yourself why you’re feeling lazy, bored, etc. What you’ll probably find is that what you think of as a giant monolithic block (I always picture the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey) is really a giant “spaghetti snarl” consisting of many fears and ambivalences. This is actually great news, because a snarl can be unraveled much more easily than a block can be…scaled? Chipped away at? Toppled? (You get the point.) Moreover, the more you unravel, the easier it is to cope with the remainder of the snarl.
You’ll also find that:
1. Many of the strands are small and easily dealt with. Sometimes just giving a name or identity to a fear is enough to defuse it. “Oh, so I’m stuck because I keep thinking my main character should be a Martian. Okay, I’ll make her one!” (You should write from complete freedom whenever you’re writing, but especially during a liberation exercise like NaNoWriMo.)
2. ALL of your fears and ambivalences are reasonable. I’ve taught and coached hundreds of people, and every reason anyone ever had for underproductivity was valid. Procrastination is just a suboptimal response. So don’t bother bashing yourself for being weak when you have good reasons for your behavior: just focus on developing more productive ways of coping.
3. Procrastination always has a cause. Sometimes it’s external (a noisy environment), and sometimes it’s historic (critical parents or a toxic rejection), and sometimes it’s in the project (you’ve hit a hard patch of writing). But there’s always something. Figure out the cause, and journal around your fears, and you have a good shot at mitigating or even eliminating a fear.
That’s it! If you have any other suggestions, tell us about them in the comments. Communal problem solving empowers everyone.
(c)2010 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reproduce this article noncomercially so long as full authorship and copyright statements are included.