At this time every year, we are bombarded with exhortations and advice on ways to change ourselves for the better, to become a NEW! IMPROVED! BETTER! version of ourselves. It’s the curse of a society that genuinely believes that anyone can achieve anything—if they try hard enough.
This column is not about that, because you are fine just the way you are. Right now, in all your messy human imperfection and failed projects, with your soft fleshy body and your unquiet mind. Or to quote Pink, “You are f****ing perfect.”
What I have for you this fresh clean New Year’s Day is a list of three gentle suggestions for you and your writing. Each takes the form of a practice, rather than a resolution, so it’s okay if everything isn’t all hospital corners on the bed and never a grain of sugar in your mouth.
Nothing can ever get written if you don’t create pockets of time for it. Create a tender relationship with your writing. Create as much comfort and delight in your space as you are able, and make dates to hang out with it. Show up, see what the writing has to say, engage with it.
Practically, that means setting dates. Don’t go running away in a huff now. Just be gentle with yourself and see what you can do. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll figure out the best times for you to write, in this order: the time of day when your creativity is at full tilt, and then, the times you can actually get the work done. So if you like to write at midnight, but you also have a day job, come up with some other times. I am a morning person, and a morning writer when things are at their ultimate best, so that’s how I try to arrange my life. However, sometimes, I need a second block of writing. I cannot do it in the afternoons….my brain is just not at all there at 3 pm (so I go to the gym and schedule appointments at that time of day). But I can, after I’ve had a little dinner and had time to relax, squeeze in an hour in the early evening. I never thought I could, but once I gave myself permission to see what worked, I found that time was fairly productive.
Once you find your time frames, call up your muses and ask them to meet with you at that time. Make a nice cup of cider or pour a beer and go hang out with them. Do it reliably, even when you don’t feel like it, even when the last thing you’d want to do is write. There will be times the work doesn’t go well, but that’s fine. It’s a practice. You show up for practices because that’s how a person gets things done. I practice cooking a new ingredient until I can reliably get it right. I face the free weights even when I’d rather read, and now I can haul three bags of cat litter in from the car without blinking an eye.
When can you spend time with the muses to practice your work? What are your best writing days and times?
A friend of mine used to say we are all motivated by one of three things: Adventure, Security, or Recognition. Like most writers, I am driven toward recognition, with a heavy helping of adventure. As Gretchen Rubin says in The Happiness Project, I am a person who wants gold stars for my actions.
I have learned over the years to give myself rewards. These can be large or small. I love to go to the movies on weekday afternoons, so when I make my page goals for the week, I can run away to a movie. If something is very challenging—a tough block of research to do, or a large number of pages to write or a deadline that’s racing my way—I’ll make the reward a big one. I’ve given myself a camera, a trip, a new pair of hiking boots. I switched from my local YMCA to a swanky new gym in my neighborhood after a tough book was finally finished—and for one pretty silly reason: I love the eucalyptus steam room there.
Choose some rewards you would enjoy. Make them things you would not ordinarily let yourself have, so they are really rewards. Do you like to go to a certain restaurant? Do you like pro ball games or rock concerts?
Come up with small rewards, too. If you actually show up for a whole week or month, give yourself something to celebrate. Have a piece of pie, go to the movies, meet a friend for lunch, take a weekend afternoon off to do nothing at all.
What kind of rewards can you imagine giving yourself?
Reflect and Continue
It takes a long time to write a book, or change a habit. Keep track of the times you show up and the times you don’t, and every month or two, check in. How are you doing? Are you able to show up for most of the commitments you’ve made, or not?
If you are, bravo. Give yourself a gold star or another reward (you can’t have too many).
If you’re not keeping that commitment to your writing and yourself, don’t start giving yourself that mean voice about what a loser you are. Instead, take a look at what’s getting in the way. Is there a pattern to the missed dates? Is there something you can change to make things work more easily? Did you set a goal that was too hard to meet? How can you kindly, gently, lovingly revise your commitment to make it easier to show up?
What are some other ideas for kindly, gently taking care of your writing? What sweet hints can you offer us on this fresh new day?