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Adapt to Change and Become More Productive

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evolution by Esther Dyson, from Flickr’s CC

Mud oozes out of primordial swamps. Fish drag themselves out of the mud, grow legs, and crawl up the hill to the beach. A little farther, there are amphibians…then reptiles…Fast forward millions of years to one human writer sitting in front of her blank computer screen.

I may have skipped a few years (and evolutionary steps), but I’m talking about adaptation. According to Wikipedia [1], “adaptation refers to both the current state of being adapted and to the dynamic evolutionary process that leads to the adaptation. Adaptations enhance the fitness and survival of individuals.”

That’s biological lingo. But in writing? Adaptation is more like Nicholas Cage sitting in a small room, a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter on the desk in front of him, desperate to figure out how to adapt The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. That’s Adaptation the movie [2]. And for the purposes of this blog: how we as writers adapt to be more productive in times of change.

Even Good Change Can Cause Ripples

I used to be a work-at-home mom—I wrote when my kids were at school. After our kids went to college, it took me a while to find my stride, but I did, and I wrote a couple of novels at a local coffee shop. Then, when my husband lost his job and became depressed, my writing spiraled down, too. I’m not going to lie, that was the hardest adaptation of all, but bit by bit I was able to carefully craft a schedule that got my writing back on track.

Lately, though, my writing schedule has been scattered to the wind. Sometime last spring, I lost confidence in my current work-in-progress. I was mid-way through, and I tried to get a rhythm going, but nothing really worked; every word felt forced. Then much to my joy, my daughter moved east after living in California for three years, and I didn’t care about writing—all I wanted was to spend the summer having fun with my daughter and the young, energetic dog she adopted. The last time we had a dog in the house was our very old and very lame lab, that we lost two years ago, and to be honest, I’d forgotten what a puppy is like.

I had been getting up at six every morning, exercising for an hour, then sitting on the couch to write. Although I have just as much time in the day and the puppy is only with us sporadically these days (my daughter has started grad school two hours away), I work hard to find a moment to write let alone to have a cogent, cohesive thought. For instance, as I was writing this, I had the brilliant idea to include something about not being able to concentrate and my time disintegrating into binge watching Netflix and eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars…but then I got a foot cramp and forgot why it mattered at all. (See what I mean?)

To be honest with you (and myself), the fabric of my writing life had begun to unravel long before Milo (the very cute and sweet rescue dog) appeared on the scene. Still, she’s a handy metaphor for the purposes of this blog. Case in point, I like to write sitting on one corner of the couch, but that’s become Milo’s preferred sleeping place—and I need to write while the puppy sleeps—hence, I’ve adapted and write on the footstool.

Adapting Like Crazy

I’ve identified three kinds of adaptation a writer may have to make. (Note that I’m talking here about figurative adaptation, not the literal kind. I’m not adapting a book into a screenplay, and I’m not evolving out of a swamp.)

On a daily basis. Or…the forty-five-pound-puppy-in-the-lap kind of adaptation. Whether it’s puppies or your in-laws staying with you for a few weeks, these are the daily ebbs and flows, or how we squeeze in writing when everything else needs more attention, whether it’s partners, kids, or broken washing machines.

Over the long run. Or…the transition from mom of school-age kids to empty nest. Don’t downplay the emotional adaptations you need to make—it’s not only about time. With an empty nest, there’s more freedom (of time), less freedom of spirit. That is, it’s also adapting to how our hearts and souls are pulled and what’s weighing on them—like when my husband was depressed, you have a new baby, or you’re caring for aging parents.

The way we write. Pantser vs. plotter, word count vs. timer, solitary vs. group—all of these are up for grabs as you adapt to changing circumstances. When I started writing fiction, I outlined everything. In detail. Chapter by chapter. Then I wrote one novel as a pantser. I’ve now adopted a more hybrid approach. This has changed with how much time I have available but also with experience and with input from other sources (blogs, classes, conferences, writer friends’ advice, etc.).

The Only Constant is Change

Sometimes it feels like the only constant in writing (and life) really is change—and the real skill is how to adapt our minds to deal with that and still be productive as writers (even when you can’t do things in the same way you always have). Here are a few things that work for me (right now) while I’m learning to adapt.

Have laptop will travel. My laptop is the one constancy in my writing. I can take it anywhere, and I do. That way I’m ready to write when the muse strikes. For you, this may be a journal and pen or Dragon dictation. Be open to switching to a new writing medium.

Set goals. Whether it’s word count or the amount of time you’ll write each day or the time of day you’ll write (or something else entirely), it’s not just comforting to have something to work toward, experts believe it helps achieve results. You may shift your goal as things change; that’s all part of adapting. I used to have a goal of writing at least a thousand words a day; my goal right now is to write some kind of fiction every day.

Seek out writer friends. I’d be lost without mine. Hearing their struggles and successes, how they adapt, helps me look at things from different angles and gives me new ideas about how to adapt my own writing life. I talk to one of my friends, my “accountability partner,” every Monday, and we set goals during our conversations then report back on progress the next week.

Read more. In times of great change, I try to read more (when I can concentrate; sometimes that’s a challenge in itself). Recent studies suggest that reading helps us deal with problems in our personal lives and can help us make sense of the world.

Keep writing. Something. For me, when my time felt more fractured, I started writing short fiction, even though I’ve always enjoyed writing longer fiction, and I’ve only written a handful of short stories before. Shorter fiction feels more manageable and finishing something is key to my adaptation. Today, writing this post is a success.

Finally, be kind and patient with yourself. Remain positive and flexible. If all else fails, take a day to cuddle on the couch with the puppy, eat ice cream bars, and watch Netflix. Tomorrow is another day to crawl out of the swamp and re-attack the WIP—fast forward to some undesignated year in the near future: one human writer sitting at her laptop, typing for her life to get the words out that have built up in her brain while adapting.

What life changes have demanded your adaptation? What do you do to adapt as a writer? What goals do you have and how have they changed?

About Julia Munroe Martin [3]

Julia Munroe Martin [4] (@jmunroemartin [5]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.