CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF FIRST THING – ON THE PAGE!
I find that when I’m particularly stricken with creative panic, the first thing I stop doing is facing myself. I fill myself with other people’s words, other people’s music, and I avoid my notebook as if it were infected with the plague. Journaling and miscellaneous scribbled coffee-shop observations and little plot and character ideas I jot down while stuck in traffic cease completely. THIS IS AN ENORMOUS MISTAKE. Even when you feel you haven’t got a thing on earth to say that would be of interest to anyone else, even when you think everything you’ve created or attempted to create is crap, IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT YOU KEEP CHECKING IN WITH YOU. You feel an overwhelming desire to stop “working” on your current project? Okay. Indulge it if you have to. But at all costs, keep talking to yourself in your notebook. Julia Cameron recommends daily “Morning Pages,” three pages of longhand journaling to clear your head. Dorothea Brande recommended this decades before Cameron, suggesting you write first thing, before even getting out of bed. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was eight or nine and first read Anne Frank, but in the last decade or so I’ve realized daily morning pages are indispensable to me. Even when I can’t write another thing, I can go about the rest of the day, post-morning pages, knowing I’ve exercised the writing arm for at least three pages … and usually more, since I’ve taken on Brande’s advice that you write these pages until the steam runs out.
REPETITIVE PHYSICAL ACTION IS KEY TO KEEPING THE GEARS OILED
I am not the first person to think a daily walk is key to keeping myself open and aware enough to let inspiration strike. This is not to say that on every walk I find myself fixing a problem in my narrative, or figuring out what it is I want to write next. Most days, really, I’m mostly thinking “Damn, it’s hot, and I really, really, don’t want to walk up that hill right now, but hell, I’m out here and the only way home is up it, so up it I go.” That said, after every walk I’m more focused, more dropped down to myself, and even if I don’t go straight to the page, I clean the house with real verve and precision. But with practice, when I manage to keep my daily walks actually daily for any extended period of time, I do find that more often than not, inspiration does strike, or better, the repetitive physical act of putting one step in front of the other quiets my worries enough to allow me to get back to work. Also, walking from here to there shows me I can get from start to finish with all my projects—if I want to get to THE END, then I just have to remember, I do have it in me walk up that hill. I do it everyday, after all. (Biking, riding, kayaking, surfing—these probably are equally good activities to attempt. As long as you can’t read the newspaper doing it, it’s a good repetitive physical action to try. This is why I don’t think the treadmill at the gym is a substitute for a good old-fashioned walk—watching Dr. Phil on the monitor, or skimming a magazine, blocks out every “I’m open, I’m open” impulse the activity I recommend is geared towards nurturing.)
Don’t bring a stack of magazines. Don’t carry “other work.” Go somewhere where it’s just you and your notebook, or you and your computer, and be there. You can’t do the work if you’re not at the table. Period. You’re much smarter when you’re writing then when you’re thinking about it. Prove me wrong, why don’t you?
NO IMPULSE IS THE WRONG IMPULSE ON THE PAGE
That’s not to say that every impulse is right, but how are you to know the difference between right or wrong until you get to the end of your story and figure out what’s there? So don’t ever let not knowing what comes next stop you. Write down whatever comes to you, or skip to your next certain beat. You can always erase a misstep, or fill in the blanks to the next beat that’s calling to you—even better, often times, you’ll realize you don’t need to fill in that missing moment, it’s assumed just by getting to that next, vital, breathing beat.
DON’T EVER WALK AWAY FROM A PROJECT WITHOUT KNOWING WHEN YOU’RE COMING BACK
As I’ve said before, I generally get the impulse to walk away from whatever I’m working on somewhere in the middle, just as the first energies of the new voice I’ve discovered is no longer able to do all the work of supporting the story without something else to back it up. This, for me, is where my “I’m a talentless hack” song starts to scream at me so loud I can only silence it with an entire Entemann’s coffee cake. You’ve got a few options at this point. You can, if you’re a better, stronger person than I, skip the coffee cake and write through the internal screams, following the “NO IMPULSE IS THE WRONG IMPULSE” rule I’ve stated above. Or you can move to another project on your docket, and work on whatever is calling your passions more strongly for a little while. This is not exactly the wrong move, because at least you’re moving forward on something you love. That said, if you find yourself getting to a point halfway through that second piece where you stall out, thinking you’d give your left arm to be working on something else, you’ve got a problem. If this second roadblock sends you back to the first thing you’d walked away with, you may have a workable system, moving back and forth, back and forth, until completion of both, but if you’re anything like me, I’m assuming it’s not quite that easy. So here’s what I do:
1. WHEN BEGINNING A PIECE, I WRITE TO THE FINISH BEFORE STARTING SOMETHING ELSE.
This rule is easiest to accomplish with stories, essays, poems, articles—things in which you can actually envision the end of a first draft coming to you in under three months. Any longer, and it gets harder to sustain, so I no longer force myself to adhere to this rule with novel-length projects. Instead, I consider chapters of my novel discreet pieces of work for this project. That way, I can say, “I AM FINISHING CHAPTER EIGHT BEFORE GOING ON TO SOMETHING ELSE” as opposed to “I AM FINISHING THIS 400-PAGE NOVEL BEFORE GOING ON TO SOMETHING ELSE.” Much easier to swallow. And it may be, that after Chapter Eight, I decide Chapter Nine has my most passionate attentions, so Chapter Nine comes next. Or I decide to go on to a story or essay I’ve been thinking about for awhile—and I write that TO THE END before going on to something else.
2. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO INTERRUPT YOURSELF.
Of course, sometimes life intervenes in your start-to-finish plan. Deadlines on other projects, or sheer panic, can lift you from what you’re attempting to write straight through. So promise yourself that once you’ve FINISHED this other, interrupting-piece, you will return to what you’d previously started, until you finish that, too.
These rules are why my writing docket looks like this right now:
a) COMPLETE DRAFT 2.0 OF TRAVEL ESSAY: My first priority, only because it has a deadline attached—I have to bring it to my Writing Group next week.
b) COMPLETE DRAFT 1.0 OF CHAPTER EIGHT: I had to interrupt work on Chapter Eight in order to complete TRAVEL ESSAY for Group, so once I’m done with Travel Essay, it’s back to Chapter Eight I go..
c) COMPLETE DRAFT 1.0 OF CHAPTER NINE or COMPLETE DRAFT 2.0 OF TRAPEZE NOVELLA or COMPLETE DRAFT 2.0 OF DOCTOR/NURSE STORY: What I do following Chapter Eight’s completion will depend where my head is when I get there.
d) IF I COMPLETE A NON-NOVEL PROJECT FOLLOWING CHAPTER EIGHT, I MUST RETURN TO THE NOVEL NEXT—I MUST NEVER MOVE AWAY FROM THE NOVEL FOR MORE THAN ONE PROJECT-CYCLE AT A TIME.
Finally, for endless inspiration:
SEE NEW MOVIES, READ NEW BOOKS, HEAR NEW MUSIC.
Enjoy what’s out there. That’s what you want to be a part of, right?
BUT ALSO, JUST AS IMPORTANTLY, SEE THE MOVIES YOU LOVED AS A KID, READ THOSE BOOKS, LISTEN TO THAT EMBARRASSING MUSIC.
Remember who you were if you want to really know who you are when it’s just you and your keyboard. That person who considered Skid Row deeply profound wouldn’t have for a second thought she wasn’t good enough to lay it all out for everybody on her own damn page.