Motivation and the Writing Life (Part 8 of 8)
DEVELOPING (AND STICKING WITH) THE WRITING HABIT, PART 2
One of the worst fears of my past was of lying on my death bed, reflecting on my life, and asking, “What the hell was that all about?” I don’t know about you, but that scares me. So if you’re serious about becoming an accomplished writer, it’s imperative you make writing a habit.
I’ve heard it said time and again that it takes only three weeks to establish a good habit; likewise it takes 21 days to break a bad habit. To become a published writer you must write, and to write consistently, it behooves you to make it a habit. Strive to condition your mind and body to sit down at a regular time and work for a set length of time, or until you’ve achieved some predetermined goal. If you’re serious about this profession, it’s imperative you plant your butt in the chair, place your fingertips on the keypad or a pen in your hand, and write. It may sound absurd, but how many writer wannabes do you know that love to just sit around and talk about writing but never write? Yes, writing is damned hard work, publishing your writing is even harder, but to do either you have to start somewhere and keep it going. Procrastination is not a viable path to a successful writing career; if fear is the mind killer, procrastination is the time killer.
So how do you go about developing the writing habit? First, make sure you’ve answered the question discussed at the beginning of this article: Why do you write? Seriously, sit down and have a long talk with yourself as to why you want to write and what you hope to accomplish in your writing. Do you want to write to sell your work, or do you write because it’s a fun and creative outlet for your inner muse? Do you hope to make a living at it, or are you satisfied to dabble in it as a hobby? Are you writing to vanquish demons or to help you understand who you really are, and why? Do you feel you have something to say, and the best way for you to communicate is through writing? Is writing your art form, your way of expressing who you are and why God put you on this earth? Are you writing to satisfy your curiosity or to stimulate it even more? Finally, ask yourself this: Are you ready to do this thing for real? If the answer is “yes,” welcome to the funhouse!
Once you’ve decided to throw your heart over the bar, choose a place where you can hole up, go there consistently, and write. It can be a spare bedroom, a closet, an office, a coffee shop, a bookstore, or the library, as long as it’s “your” place to escape to. Choosing a place to write is important to establish a response similar to Pavlov’s dogs to the ringing of a bell. When you see your computer, when you smell those leather-bound Britannicas lining the bookshelves, when you feel comfortable in your writing nest, you’ll practically drool with creativity and energy.
Next, set a time and a goal for each writing session. Choosing a time is important to establish a rhythm to your writing habit. You go to bed at 10:30. You wake up at 6:00. You eat lunch at 12:15. You go to church at 9:00 every Sunday. You mow the lawn every Thursday after work. When you forget to set the alarm, you wake up at the proper time anyway. You’re conditioned. Your body does it automatically. So do the same thing for your writing career. Condition yourself to it.
When I was working on my novel, On the Inside, I rolled out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and wrote for a half-hour every day, seven days a week. I usually didn’t set a goal for number of pages or scenes written, I just wrote until I had to start getting ready for work. I finished the novel in about three years. Just think: If you write one 250-word page a day, every day, you’d produce a good-sized novel in a year. One novel a year ain’t too shabby. And that’s only one page a day! Just think of what you can accomplish banging out four or eight pages a day. Remember, we all have twenty-four hours every day. If your writing is that important to you, you must set aside the time to work on it. It’s your decision.
LEARN SOMETHING NEW, THEN WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom, “Write what you know.” I dislike that saying. Why? Because I really don’t know that much. And if I wrote about what I knew, I wouldn’t learn anything. Everyone reads to learn something new, and I’m convinced one reason we’re writers is because we have an insatiable curiosity about how life and the world works. Nowadays, even readers of fiction expect to learn about some exotic land or how to hack into a national security system. So take a deep breath and learn something new. Jump out of an airplane (with a parachute). Research how identity theft is accomplished, or how a computer virus can wreak havoc on an economy. Go behind the scenes at a country-western concert. Eat at a different restaurant every week and write a year’s worth of reviews. Learn, learn, learn. The day I stop learning is the day I die. Then I’ll start over again by interviewing St. Peter at the Pearly Gates and asking his opinion about joy.
As a family, Mary and I try to experience new things as often as we can, and we strive to expose Hannah to as many fun and exciting adventures as our calendar and budget allow. Because I’m relatively antisocial, I long ago appointed Mary as “cruise director” of our household because she’s not one to sit at home very long and veg. Last weekend our future niece, Michelle (no pressure on you, Matt!), a school teacher and dancer for the Texas Legends basketball team, offered us a block of tickets for an upcoming game. Mary jumped on it, but I hesitated: the game started at 7:00 on a Friday night in Frisco, Texas, an hour drive from Aledo in no traffic. I didn’t relish the thought of spending that long cooped up in the car stuck in Dallas-Fort Worth gridlock. But Mary prevailed. “You’re always saying you want to go on adventures,” she reminded me. “Here’s one of them.” So off we went, and not only did I thoroughly enjoy the game, I mined enough material from that experience to put together a sizable future blog post (about the fact that I couldn’t just watch the game–I had to put up with all the distracting marketing crap with which sporting events are now fraught). I learned something new. In fact, I learned a lot new from that one adventure! All I had to do was step out and be willing and flexible enough to immerse myself in it.
Ardath Mayhar, a fiction writer I knew many years ago, used to wear sharpened knitting needles in her hair bun because no one suspected a little old lady would hijack an airplane (this was before 9/11). This quirky woman once wrote a sidebar for Writer’s Digest about fear. Paraphrasing her, she said there’s no room for timidity in this business. Obviously someone who would dare to get on an airplane with sharpened knitting needles piercing her hair is not very timid. But if the dream is strong enough and the desire powerful enough, you’ll have the courage to stare down the fears, shove them aside, and turn your dreams into reality. Now take a deep breath, put pen to paper, and do it.
As Jackie Collins once said, “If you want to be a writer—stop talking about it and sit down and write!”
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes