Sunday, 8 December 2013

Reflect on your writing

I have two twin pillars that have helped me shape my life closer to what I want it to be and make my writing happen. One is Jinny Ditzler's book, Your Best Year Yet; the other is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Between them, they help me straddle that eternal creative conundrum of product versus process, setting out to achieve something and finish something versus allowing space to play and make mistakes. Both have helped me see the value of reflecting. These are the questions I use to think about my writing practice, for your own use. I've given my own answers beneath each one.

What am I most proud of?

I wrote 175,000 words this summer, without setting any word count goals, and found a new and freer way to approach my writing.

What times of day do I write best?

After 10 or 10:30 in the morning; the time before that is always a waste. After 7 in the evening is also good, especially for more exploratory writing. I have a slump around 4 in the afternoon when it's difficult to start a new section or do anything requiring optimism.

What makes it easier to fit writing into my life?

I plan my week on a Sunday or a Monday, so I know all my domestic and work obligations will be taken care of and I don't need to even think about them when I write.

What rules of thumb have I learnt... for the actual writing? in my writing life?

My best rule of thumb: stop while you know what happens next. I've also discovered a new one this summer: follow it and see where it goes, even if it feels rubbish at the time. Some of my best characters came out of passages that I thought were cul-de-sacs or that I'd secretly dismissed as nonsense for weeks. In my writing life, Protect my writing time like an angel with a flaming sword. My writing time is not buffer time for life's overruns.

What helps me write?

A clean house and a sense of calm. Setting the time aside in advance. Slipping back into it gradually by rereading what I've already written.

What makes it difficult to write? How do I work around that?

Fear that it won't be good enough: that what I'm writing now won't live up to what I've already written, or that it won't live up to my vision for the project. Working around that is a work in progress, but it helps to use a line I stole from my art teacher: "You're here to do it, not to judge it. You can judge it in two weeks' time."

How do I break through when I get stuck?

Change location: go write in a coffee shop or in a different room. Write by hand instead of on the computer. Go for a long walk.

Taking the time to reflect is valuable in itself, as a process. If you use it to help plan your future writing, a few words of advice. First, setting goals increases your motivation at the start of a project, but once it's started, you do better if you focus on the process of what you're doing than the goal you're trying to hit. Setting word count goals helps keep you on track, but you're more likely to fulfil them if you focus on the writing itself:
By focusing on the ultimate goals of an activity, we risk destroying our intrinsic motivation all by ourselves.
So, whether you’re about to begin a diet, embark on a novel, or start on a new French course, the lessons from this research seem clear. By all means visualize your goals to help get yourself started in the first place, but once you’re underway, try to let your long-term mission fade a little into the background. Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line.
Christian Jarrett, "How goals and good intentions can hold us back
Secondly, if you don't meet your goals, don't beat yourself up. Ask why. The answer is never "Because I'm shit." Even in the unlikely event that you are just monumentally shit, you still need to work around that, so look further for the more interesting answer. Because I was tired. Because I was stressed. Because it meant so much to me that I felt paralysed. Because I secretly knew that I wouldn't actually be able to fit that much time in, but I really wanted to, so I made that my goal anyway. Then use the answer to find a solution that doesn't depend on you Being A Better Person, but on how you actually work. I call this "hacking myself".

And lastly, when you find a good writing practice, do keep using it but also keep tinkering with it: there isn't one final answer. Just as your writing continues to evolve, so the way you approach it keeps changing:
My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
Oliver Burkeman "This column will change your life: don't know what to do next? Wait and see"
There isn't One True Secret - there are many little secrets, all true for a time, which means we get to be as creative with how we write as with the writing itself. That makes me very happy.

Enjoy the reflection questions. I'd love to hear any answers you're willing to share in the comments: as we tinker with our processes, hearing about other people's is always interesting and useful.

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