A while ago I read the Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway and came across his response to the question of what his writing process looked like:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
That’s the life we long for! Having the freedom to dedicate every morning to a passion, which for me is writing but for you may be another creative or fulfilling endeavour. Sadly grown-up life requires gainful employment, family time, socialising, eating, sleeping, personal hygiene, house cleaning and a million other time consuming activities.
I’m very fortunate to have one whole day that I get to dedicate to writing, for which I’m deliriously grateful. Even with that full day, I often felt like I was trudging uphill when in came to my word count on WIPs. I quickly learned that the amount of time you have does not seamlessly correlate the amount of work you produce. More time did not necessarily mean more output or productivity.
Then in August 2013, I returned from a short stint of volunteering in a slum in Manila with a wild idea for a novel. While in the slum, I’d met and fallen in love with four small siblings: Angelo, Jonjon, Daidai and Dodong. The idea was a huge fictional story based on their character traits and the nature of their world. It consumed me, I mean burned in me, like no other story I’ve written. The excitement, and fear of losing this rapidly unfolding story, meant that I churned out the writing faster than anything I’d ever written. After three weeks, I had about 20, 000 words – which is not normal for me. I was still working and doing all the other things, but what had changed was:
1) I was (am) obsessed.
2) I was writing every single day.
I used every minute of “dead time” I had. I was taking my laptop EVERYWHERE. I would write on the forty minute train commute to work, on my lunch breaks or for an hour when I got home after work. On my writing day and on Saturdays I could pump out a couple of thousand words. But most of the daily “sessions” were 300, 500, 700 word hits.
Inspired by seeing what a manic daily writing can achieve with just a little bit of time every day, I feel totally convinced that daily writing is a core habit that I need build into my life in order to feel satisfied with my creative productivity.
I finished my first draft earlier this month (hitting 70,000 words in six months!) so March has been a month of editing and reworking. My word count is steadily increasing as I fill in the gaps and play around with scenes and language, but the focus has not been purely dumping words on the page as in previous months. I’ve been writing almost every day since August, so really this month has been about creating an intentional habit which I can sustain when the hysteria of this novel subsides.
So, here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away from trying to establish the habit of Daily Writing (or daily creative productivity):
1. Get it out of your head. If you have a WIP or an established idea – put your back into it and pump out the words. Dump your thoughts and inklings down. If you can’t get the flow, just write the things, scenes, action, chapters that is most vivid to you. You can always go back to fill in the gaps, write what’s hot.
2. Don’t edit. Everyone’s process is different. For me writing and editing are two completely different processes. Writing is about get it out in semi coherent form. Editing is about organising, clarifying and adding the finer details. Having some structure to begin with is immensely helpful, but you don’t have to be married to your structure when you’re creating. As long as you’re fiddling with and “perfecting” chapter one you will never get to chapter thirty, where you realise the your character’s side-kick has to die, which changes everything you thought you’d “perfected” in the previous chapters. Think about that the next time you find yourself obsessing over the perfect word to describe the exact shade of green of a character’s eyes.
3. Create helpful associations. One trick I use is going to the same cafe every writing day or Saturday for an hour (or four) to churn out some writing. The familiar smell, sounds, sites, staff and the perfect coffee kick my brain into gear for writing and I can honestly lose myself in my manuscript for hours! It’s bizarre, but it works! Mind you, this is after years of doing this. Other associations could be doing the work at the same time everyday or after doing some other automatic task.
4. Use “dead” time. Write during your commute. Get yourself out of bed earlier and write for 30 minutes while you sip a cup of tea. Switch off your TV or throw a trident through it or drop it out the window or whatever. Give up some other “luxury” like painting your nails every week or online “window” shopping or social media.
5. Kill creative guilt. This can be really destructive and will kill whatever shred of confidence and joy you have in your writing. If you’ve missed a few days, weeks (or months), here’s one fail-proof way to get on your feet again. Write 300 words. Right now. I have moments of hyperventilating about not having written anything for too long. I can articulate the precise depth of despair and torment that unproductive weeks wreak on my fragile soul…but when I finally shut up about it, sit down and write 300 words I immediately feel better, worthy, able.
Do neck exercises. Spend all your money into chiro, osteo, physio, remedial massage, tiger balm, heat packs, pilates… Neck and back pain is a curse, take care of your body.
Lessons learned: See all of the above. Also get a backpack for your laptop. Sure you look like Dora the Explorer, but when you look longingly at all those lovely girls with their cute handbags and perfectly combed hair ask yourself this question, when’s the last time any of them wrote 70,000 glorious words? I’ll tell you when. NEVER!
April habit: Wake Early. (deep breaths, deep breaths)