On Being an Undisciplined Writer

The following is a guest column I wrote for Tel Asiado, a friend in Sydney, Australia. In addition to being an author of many books and a prolific Internet content writer, Tel has a vibrant Web site, Inspired Pen, which is full of a writer’s tips and treasures. Tel asked me to write a piece for the site’s On Being a Writer section, which puts me in some seriously good company. I'm not worthy, but I'm not passing up the chance to share my secret to squeezing out a small amount of discipline in a day of writing.

Years ago, I read about a woman who became an overnight success as a novelist. You know, the kind of writer who toils for 20 years as an unknown to become a sudden sensation. Her first book wasn’t just a bestseller. It was hailed as good literature and something smart people should read.  In an interview she was asked how she found time to write a big, fat novel with three or four small children at home.

She said she got up before dawn and put in a few hours of writing before anyone else in the house woke up.

I hated that writer for a long time.

At the time, I, too, had small children at home and I was hoping this kindred spirit would share some secret, a magic formula, to balancing full-time motherhood and anything besides diapers, bottles and cutting the crusts off of PB&Js.

I would have preferred a painful surgical procedure to having to wake up before 6 a.m.

Needless to say, I did not write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel when my kids were 6, 2 and 6-months. I could hardly get a school permission slip written without mistakes. Nor did I write any novel at all when my kids were in various stages of elementary school. Nor when they were in high school. And, nope, not when they were in college.

Now that two of my three children have flown the coop and I only have one, easy, independent daughter at home, I still have some trouble settling myself down to write for any block of time.

I realize that it wasn’t the little children that kept me from writing. It was my complete and utter lack of discipline. I have no self-control. I’m like a little kid whose mom leaves him home for the first time without a sitter. He runs around in his underwear, singing, eating Oreos on the good couch, and blasting the volume on R-rated movies.

Except that my mom left me at home alone 20 years ago and I’m still working on those Oreos. I’ve trashed the couch and I ran out of movies. And I no longer look so cute in my undies.

I’m a little bit better at disciplined writing now. I have learned a few tips to get some writing done when you don’t have a boss standing over you looking at his watch. And unlike some people, my tips don’t involve getting up before 6 a.m.

1. Keep your short story, article, book or whatever you’re procrastinating working on handily on the desktop of whatever computer you work on the most. You know, the computer on which you play Spider Solitaire, watch YouTube videos, Tweet, and Facebook. Don’t bury it in a file marked Recent Novel in a folder marked Things to Work On, which is in a folder named Writing, which is in the Stuff to Do mega-folder. Leave your half-written piece hanging out there in the wind, flying solo, waving at you, (“Hey! Here I am!”) every time you turn on your computer.

2. Don’t wait until you have two uninterrupted hours to do any writing. Got 10 minutes before you have to leave for your mammogram? Sit down and spend 10 minutes writing. You may be surprised to find that you can get good, quality writing done in a very short period of time. Especially if you’re anxious about your mammogram.

3. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. “I’ll start writing for the day right after I finish this last load of laundry.”  “When I finish making these calls.”  “I’ll be able to concentrate better if I’ve eaten breakfast . . . and lunch . . . and dinner.”  “When this show is over.” “I better do my nails first. My fingers look so much cuter on the keyboard when they’re Conga Line Coral.”  This isn’t the movies, folks. No one is filming you sitting at your desk writing your wonderful story. No one cares what you and your house look like or what piles of unfinished projects you have sitting around you.

4. Don’t wait for inspiration. You’re writing . . . you’re writing . . . you’re writing . . . and it’s crappy . . . and it’s crappy . . . and it’s crappy . . . Just keep writing! I spent an entire year trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I kept getting lost and threatening to go back to the beginning and “do it right.”  My husband, an amateur Joyce scholar, kept telling me, “Just keep reading.”  But I don’t understand what’s going on. “Just keep reading.”  But I can’t figure out whether this is happening or if it’s a flashback or an opium trip. “Just keep reading.”  When you “just keep writing,” you may end up deleting the whole mess later, but there’s a chance you’ll come up with something salvageable, or something will spark.

5. Set good habits and break bad ones. I’m a three-day habit whore. If I do something consistently for three days, it becomes a habit and I’m a sudden slave to it. If I can stop doing something bad for three days, I’ve broken the chains that enslaved me. Set a reasonable writing goal and try like the dickens to stick to it for three days.

I hope these help. And if these aren’t your cup of tea, you can always try getting up before dawn. I understand that works for some people.

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