“What no wife of a writer understands is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.”
– Burton Roscoe
Before I took my writing life seriously, I lived in the banking world. Productivity and quality were the lifelines to how much cash we took home in a year. Every day/hour/minute in a call center revolved around whether you were logged in. How many calls per hour did you average last week? Your supervisor tracked your handling time. Someone always knew if you were screwing around on company time—especially you. This type of work left you with a constant awareness of how productive you were, or were not.
How does that translate for a writer? Our fingers need to be moving. We need to see the results on the screen. How many pages do we have to fill, in a single session at the keyboard, to consider ourselves productive?
For a long time, I believed that productivity in writing meant that x number of pages had to be drafted. It didn’t matter that my story was predictable, or that my characters were lifeless meanderers, because I was writing. Unfortunately, my writing was shit. All that clicking of the keys felt productive, but you can’t submit shit. Well, you can, but I wouldn’t advise it. Revision might save some of the crappier pieces, but you might find that you’re not really revising at all, but instead rewriting (because it was shit). You spent all that time on the first draft, and now you’re doing it over? How is this productive? In the corporate world, we called this rework. Evil time-sucking rework had to be eliminated. It’s a mindset that’s difficult to change. In the world of art and writing, I had to learn that rework, or rewriting, is just part of the process of creating. It’s okay to pull up that piece you wrote three months ago, read it again, revise passages. It’s acceptable to start over. No one is going to glare at me from over a cubicle wall if I’m rewriting, because rewriting is writing. Let it be so.
And what happens if no pages get written? Some might wonder—did you write, or did you only dream about writing? A productivity rut can happen (call it writer’s block if you want) if you get down on the quality of your writing. To a point, many writers are perfectionists, and their writing will never be finished unless they have a reader that can pound it into their heads that the piece is good, fine, submit it already! For the sake of this article, we’re not talking about perfectionists.
You may find that you’ve created a few shit pieces in a row, or that the feedback you’ve received from readers and workshops on a piece is too overwhelming to bother with. Suddenly, you’re not in the mood to write.
For whatever reason you find yourself not in the mood to write (with the exception of major events in your life), you have to fight it, or you could find yourself in a motivational rut. I used to wait until I was in a creative mood before I’d bother to sit down at all. I figured I’d be more productive and write less shit if I was in the right mood. I tried watching Men in Black to get into a science fiction writing mood. I watched Cedar Cove to get into a love story writing mood. I should have been overwrought with ideas and character quirks, my creative nerves twitching to write something passionate. But instead, after watching TV, I was hungry. I created a tuna sandwich. And I didn’t show up for work.
In David James Poissant’s essay, “How to Balance Writing, Family, Work, and Life: An Unhelpful Guide for the Perplexed,” he gives wonderful advice: throw away your television. Of course my husband wouldn’t be too happy if I tossed the TV, but you get the idea. Or as Poissant would say, “No, seriously, step away from the remote.”
The fact is, we can’t wait to be in the mood because it may never happen. You really do have to sit down at the desk and start typing. If you find yourself writing shit, then switch tasks for a while. Find a writing prompt or write in a journal instead. Journals are private, so you can write as shitty as you want to. No expectations there. The point is that your butt is in the chair, and you’re writing. Also, there’s a chance that your shitty writing might spark something—a voice, an attitude, an answer to a problem in your piece. The reality for people like me, who have to shed the old business idea of productivity, is that if you keep your butt in the chair for a designated amount of time, then you showed up, and you can be proud of your effort, even if it feels like you’re writing shit. It truly wasn’t for nothing.
So let’s say that your butt is in the chair, and you find that you’re rewriting more than you’re writing? In the corporate and manufacturing worlds, there’s a ridiculous and sometimes unattainable balance between quality and productivity. If you want better quality, then the productivity falls. If you want more production, then the quality begins to suck.
So what does this look like in the writing world? With your butt in the chair, you stay and write for the allotted time. For this example, let’s say it’s a 3-hour keyboard session, and you type type type, without editing as you go, and you come out of the session with five double-spaced pages. In my opinion, that’s a good session. Five raw pages is productive. But what is the quality of that writing? In a different example, say you edit as you go along, you might get only 2-3 pages written in the same 3-hour session, but the writing will be better quality. Hence, the productivity and quality balance exists in our world too. Damn. How do we tip productivity in our favor without giving up quality?
To reduce the time you spend rewriting and editing, you have to draft better quality writing in the beginning. How? The more obvious answer is practice, but more specifically, it’s about habit.
Robert Olen Butler touches on this in his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. In his lecture, “The Zone,” Butler explains not only that it’s important to write every day, but also how to utilize functional fixedness; which is to find a specific place and use specific objects to associate with the one task of writing. Based on his lecture, I keep a reed diffuser on my desk (Sage & Citrus). The scent is relaxing. I sniff it often. I play soft piano and guitar music, no lyrics (Pandora has a station called “Piano/Guitar”). I change the page color in Word to a light green. This takes away that blaring blank white page and sets a mood for my space. Lastly, I almost always have a cup of coffee or hot tea sitting on a cup warmer within reach. If you write in the morning, I’ve found it helpful to spend a minute preparing the writing space for work (booting up the computer, turning on the music, refilling the reed diffuser with oil, setting the blinds/lighting, and removing anything not related to writing from the desktop). This way, when I return after breakfast, or with a cup of coffee, the space is inviting and conducive only to writing.
Identify the process that works for your space and practice it. If you discover that each time you sit down, it’s easier to get typing, then you’ll know you’ve found functional fixedness. There you will find the zone, and it gets easier the more you do it. In his lecture, Butler also suggests ways to practice getting into this zone so that it’s habitual. And we all want our writing to be habitual, right? Habits make us more productive.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we got paid to dream? We already dream about romantic writer studios surrounded by singsong gardens, or log cabin mountain retreats. I know I do. But that kind of dreaming won’t pay for a tin of coffee. But who (besides Burton Roscoe’s wife) says you can’t dream as part of your work as a writer? In From Where You Dream, Butler also supports the idea of working within a dream state. Imagine how excited I was to find out that I was allowed to sit there at my desk, close my eyes, dream up moments of story, and write absolutely nothing down (except some notes on paper.) And this is considered working! It was like a huge anxious weight was lifted. I must clarify here that Butler’s book is about writing fiction, but nonfiction writers can and should be open, at all times, to stealing techniques from the fiction processes. If they can sit back, close their eyes, and dream about made-up scenarios, then we can sit back, close our eyes, and remember scenes from our past, or dream up possibilities to expand our research.
If you find that the words aren’t there, or you don’t feel productive, don’t beat yourself up just yet. Do something else within the tasks of the writing world. Finish some overdue research. Offer to read a fellow student’s work. Pick up the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, put your feet up, and read. Because if you made your way to the desk/coffee shop/library, and you actually sat in the chair, booted up your processor, and put some shit on the page, then you showed up for work. Give yourself a break. Eventually you’ll find something sparkly on that page, and you won’t even notice that you haven’t drafted shit for weeks—because you’re writing. You’ll be in the zone.