Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ramp It Up

Sharon Wildwind

Recently one of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing. About how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching hault. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.

Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing stone-still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.

One thing I found helps is to set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, you’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince yourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.

Gather your favorite writing tools. Even treat yourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether you work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort your buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google your five best friends from high school to see if you can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with your eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there is a writing fairy calling to you, but you must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.

When you feel like it, pick up your pen or pencil or rest your fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.” Just write, one word after another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All you’re doing here is practicing putting one word after the other. You’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.

Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.

It’s okay if you go through the entire week without writing a single word. By day seven, if you’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, you can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in your life to be putting words on paper. If this happens, give yourself permission to not be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory from the simplest airs to laments and piobrachs. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.
Writing quote for the week:

I don't believe in inspiration. I was educated by the nuns. They are a lot tougher than any muse.
~Nora Roberts, romance writer


Sandra Parshall said...

I don't think I'll ever reach the point where I feel it's okay to go a whole week without writing a single word. Maybe it's because getting published took so very long to happen -- when I'm not writing, I feel the time passing and I begin to panic.

paul lamb said...

Supposedly, Hemingway would stop writing at the end of the day in the middle of a sentence. That way he could begin the next morning with part of the effort already done. I've never gone to that extreme -- I can generally get going be re-reading what I wrote during my last session.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I can just see the results if I tried Hemingway's method. Future scholars a hundred years from now would get graduate degrees by determining the exact sentence where I stopped in the middle and where, the next day, my story took a completely different turn.

Sandra, I can really understand that panic feeling of time passing. I don't know if younger writers are afflicted in the same way.