Getting Back on the Creative Horse
I often hear people say “I wish I had time to write,” usually from people who have written before, at least in high school and similar situations where they had both structure imposed upon them and a comparative abundance of free time. And I hear the same typical advice that has been said since it seems like the dawn of time, and will be said until the heat-death of the universe: “Just get your butt in that chair.”
That’s not useful advice. Saying that sounds like actionable advice, but it’s really a shaming technique. Sure, some people are temporarily motivated by shaming, but I think it’s crap to suggest that. Instead, I’m about suggesting tools that work and can adapt to individual people and situations. The one I always start with, to help people get back on the creative horse, is something that combines structure we used to have with acknowledging that we’re busy people who don’t have the free time we used to.
- Every day, write at least 250 words on something. Not “sit down for 15 minutes,” because it’s easy to have nothing at the end of that time. That’s especially true if you’re counting down the minutes like this is some form of torture you have to endure. No, base it on words, and see if you can get 250 of them down. Now, don’t necessarily stop at 250 words — if you feel like you have more to write and want to keep going, do it. And even words you hate enough to crumple up and throw away count toward the goal, because 250 words is about getting something out of your head in the first place, not about making something inherently publishable.
- It doesn’t matter how or on what. You can write 250 words on a couple pages of a steno pad, or on your tablet. It would be nice if it could be all one piece (or part of a larger piece), but sometimes that won’t be the case and that’s okay.
- There is no such thing as a “make-up” day. If you missed a day, you missed it; there’s no “I’ll write 500 words tomorrow instead” at work here. And that’s because it’s too easy to let that snowball into something daunting, like feeling like you need to write 1000 words because you missed three days in a row. And when it snowballs, it’s easy to keep letting it snowball until you give up completely. Instead, just reflect on how often you don’t do it and what excuses you give for not doing it. Likewise, you don’t get a pass on the next day just because you happened to write 500 words on this one. All days are independent.
- You get one day off a week. Life happens, so take a day off each week without feeling any guilt. Pro writers do it. (Though, many of us also feel guilty for taking time off, so don’t model yourself after us in that regard.)
- Vary the time of day. If you’re finding a time that you thought would be a natural fit doesn’t work for you — typically people look at doing this when they get home from work — vary it up. I’ve done this exercise as a before-work, during-commute, lunchtime, after-work-but-before-going-home, and upon-getting-home thing. And none consistently worked 100% because life is crazy and dynamic, but I was more successful because I varied it up when one wasn’t working during a given time of my life. (Right now, writing when I get home is hard because it gets dark before I leave the office, and I feel tired by the time I get home.)
- Reflect. How often are you able to hit your goal? Do you feel like you could raise it (not that you necessarily should)? What reasons do you give yourself for skipping? Is there a time of day that’s working better for you? A place in or outside your home that seems the most or least productive? Any days of the week that are better or worse — not just for the quantity of your writing, but how you feel about its quality? Is there a particular time, condition, or subject where you find yourself blowing well over 250 words? Most importantly: do you actually enjoy doing this?
It’s a simple structure. It’s something you can do with a sense of small but consistent milestones, whereas “put your butt in the chair and write” is actually daunting as hell. It sounds monumental, because there’s no structure — there’s just a reason you’re writing, and often that reason isn’t as small as 250 words, so that mantra instead feels like “put your butt in the chair and write a sizable chunk of your future masterwork,” which has no structure.
This is, incidentally, one of the reasons I recommend blogging. This method worked for me, though I fell off the writing wagon on many occasions. That I could come back to it and say “screw it, let’s do 250 words today” always got me going again, until I no longer needed that structure because it got replaced with being a freelance writer on deadlines working for paychecks.
Folks who have been successful at continuing to write: what structures or situations have you used to get yourself back to writing?
 However, if I say “You know what you need to do, right?” and you answer with “Put my butt in the chair?” I’ll nod, because I’m not offering you advice — I’m making you offer the advice you think you need. Then I generally follow up with something structured.