Louis L’Amour has a quote I love: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I use this quote often in my classes. I even have this quote posted on the bulletin board in my office.
Why, then, why why why do I need to re-learn this at least once a year?
This fall has been an overwhelming, but exciting time for me. I combined households with the love of my life, not only moving but putting my old house up for sale and the relentless cross-one-thing-off-the-list-then-add-three-more insanity of that process, all while also starting a new venture in teaching online fiction courses…and attempting to finish the draft of my new novel.
What does this have to do with turning the faucet on, you might ask? Well, I do this thing, when life gets too frenetic, where I begin thinking things like, “Let me just go finish spackling and then I’ll come back to write,” or “I’ll be able to focus on the writing better if I just go ahead and unpack my office boxes,” and “I have to get everything ready for class tonight before I sink into the writing.”
Blah blah blah. I’ve been here before. I know better! But I fell into the trap again. Please tell me that some of you do the same thing and I’m not alone in this? And here’s what happens: with each passing day, it gets easier not to write. After a week, self-doubt creeps in and you begin to wonder if the project is even worth your time anyway. Two weeks out and you lose sight of what you were trying to do with the story at all. You begin to believe your stupid lie: “I’ll write again when I figure out where the book is going.”
What shamed me out of it was the “Inspiration & Motivation” class I was teaching. In that class, we spent half the time on prompts and exercises to help writers start (or finally finish) a project, and the other half on some aspect of the writing life…such as creating and defending a writing schedule (see where this is going?).
I caught myself rushing from my old house—paint still in my hair, grout under my nails—to get in front of the camera to tell my class how writers must carve out a writing schedule and keep it sacred, how we must defend it ruthlessly, how it’s unrealistic to always expect large chunks of time. I told the story of being on faculty with Andres DuBus III at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in July and hearing his amazing keynote speech in which he told us he wrote the entire first draft of the gorgeous, award-winning The House of Sand and Fog in twenty minute intervals. In his car. Parked in a cemetery. Writing longhand in a legal pad propped against the steering wheel after a full day of teaching before he went home to his wife and little ones.[pullquote]Louis L’Amour has a quote I love: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I use this quote often in my classes. I even have this quote posted on the bulletin board in my office.[/pullquote]
And during class I thought to myself, “You haven’t written in weeks. You are such a hypocrite.” And, before I could filter that thought (filter? What’s a filter?) I blurted my admission to the class. That confession caused some wonderful things to happen. It started a conversation about how keeping a schedule is often the hardest part of this very difficult thing we do, even if you are many times published. We talked about how writing forces you to be a beginner over and over again, in so many different ways. The class members were appreciative of my honesty. I told them what was happening with my life—how I felt my mind, focus, and discipline had become as scattered as every other possession of mine (are they at the old house? The new house? What box are they in?)—and I vowed to take my own advice. Which included:
Create the Schedule that Works for You
The schedule doesn’t have to be the same every single week. You can adjust as need be. Look to the week ahead and block out time. Put those time slots on the calendar the way you would any other appointment or commitment.
Make the Schedule Challenging but Doable
If you set yourself up with a schedule that’s impossible to keep (“I’m going to write five hours every single day!” or in my case “I’m going to keep the same writing schedule even though my life is now turned upside down.”), then as soon as you fail, you get discouraged and give up, like someone on a diet who eats one cookie and then decides “What the hell, I’ve blown the diet, I may as well eat the whole box” (Note: there is nothing inherently wrong with eating an entire box of cookies. Especially if those cookies happen to be Girl Scout Thin Mints. I just needed an example).
You see, people commit to absolutely grueling schedules during big pushes like NaNoWriMo or when your book-under-contract is almost due, but you can sacrifice a lot in those temporary rushes that you could never sustain in regular life. You want to find the schedule that keeps you mentally healthy and prevents you from being the crazy cat lady hermit (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with having cats. Or liking to stay home. Cough. I just needed an example).
It may sound pathetic and paltry, but during the move and house prep time, I told myself I would write one hour each morning.
Don’t Turn Your Nose Up at Small Chunks of Time
An hour felt small too me, compared to my usual writing schedule. But it’s astonishing how much you can accomplish in a small, consistent amount of time. One hour a day was enough for me to keep momentum going forward, to keep my finger on the pulse of my novel, to prevent that crippling doubt from setting in. Once I truly committed to it, the one hour never felt like enough…and it’s a wonderful feeling to stop writing when you want to keep going, when you find yourself hungry to get back to work the next day.
Remember Andre DuBus in his car in the cemetery. Twenty minutes. The House of Sand and Fog. Just sayin’…
Pay Yourself First
Just like the financial advice about saving money—pay yourself the writing time first. You will find the time to grade the papers, to do the laundry, to mow the lawn, to paint the front door, to go to the paying job because you have to. But I guarantee you, if you do those other tasks first, believing you will write when they are done, you will run out of time. You will feel too tired, too depleted. And you will fall, as I did, into the trap of thinking that it’s best to put off the writing until tomorrow. And, again, tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. Paying myself first in writing time, even during the move, made me happier and saner. Not only was I honoring my writing, I was not a crazy person. Bonus.
I told the truth to my class. We “checked in” with each other at the start of each week, like we were in AA or Weight Watchers together. And I was happy to report that once I made myself accountable to them—because I didn’t want to be giving advice I didn’t follow myself—I fell back into the writing.
Which brings us back to the quote: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on..” L’Amour knew what he was talking about. And I add a silent “every day” after that “start writing,” as in Keep writing, no matter what. One hour a day may seem like a silly drop in the bucket, but it was better than four weeks of not writing at all.
My new writing office is now unpacked. There is a sale pending on the old house. And the draft of my novel is rising toward the final chapters…because I finally left the faucet on, dripping steadily, through it all.
How do you keep the faucet flowing?