I woke up this morning feeling stiff and tired and a bit grumpy. But I’d set my alarm thirty minutes earlier than normal so that I could get up and do cardio before going into work. I’m not a morning person and I don’t love cardio, so you might be wondering why I didn’t just roll back over and go back to sleep. I wondered the same thing for the next twenty minutes. I delayed starting my workout by scrolling through the news on my phone while stretching and warming up. But ten minutes into my workout, I remembered why I do this to myself: because it makes me feel better.
And then I thought about the challenge of writing when you’re stuck. Because, for me, the solution to both is ten minutes of making yourself do something you don’t want to, or think you can’t, do.
Working out is necessary for my mental and physical health.
Writing is necessary for my mental health.
Both require work I don’t always want to do. Or working through discomfort. Or finding energy I didn’t think I had. Both require sacrificing time that could be spent on something else, telling friends and family no sometimes, and carving out time from a full schedule.
But let’s focus on writing.
Everyone has a different process. Everyone. Still, I get asked about how I managed to write so much. I don’t have kids, for one. But I do have other obligations and demands. I still have to fight for my writing time. I just have more flexibility with my ‘free’ time than my fellow writers who are raising children. Beyond living that kid-free life, I have a full time job with a good income, which is a luxury too. But people are usually asking because they’re looking for writing tips, suggestions for discipline. I tend to annoy folks by saying, “Sit down and write.”
Sometimes you can’t! Right?
Well, yes. Sometimes it’s very incredibly hard to get words on the page that make any sense and further your story, or even express the idea you have. Write those words anyway.
In high school I took a creative writing course that required 10 minutes of free-writing at the start of the class. Some days I loved this, and wished I could spend the entire class time writing on my projects. But sometimes, especially in the early days of the class, I loathed those ten minutes because I had nothing to put on the page. The teacher told me to put words, any words, onto the page. For ten minutes.
I still have my notebook from that class, and there are pages where I’ve written over and over again, “I have nothing to write. Blah blah blah. Nothing to say.” and other such things to fill the time. Some entries started that way before shifting abruptly to some story about my day, or even better a really story. Fiction. An idea. The start of something.
When I get stuck now, I don’t sit down and write I have nothing to write. Instead, I alter my expectations. I tell myself that I’m going to spend the next ten minutes exploring. It’s time to play and whatever I write isn’t going into something I’m eventually going to show people. It’s just a dive into the world and characters I’ve created. Sometimes it’s purely dialogue. Sometimes I describe a location. Or a character’s feeling about something. Or I turn dynamics on their head and see what happens when I put a character across from another character in a new way.
Am I progressing my project? Yes.
Writing isn’t just writing a zero draft that gets turned into a first draft, and then revised and revised and so on until you publish it. It’s long walks thinking. Conversations with your critique partners. Brainstorming. Research. And writing bits and snippets that never go into any draft ever.
If people ask me how I finish so many projects, I still tell them to sit down and write, but I usually follow it up with the advice of moving forward without editing as you go. Leave a zero draft a mess. Get the bones down. Have brackets and indicators in various sections for what needs to go there (especially if you’re like me and struggle with names) and then keep going. You can’t edit what you don’t have done. I mean, clearly you can. You can spend ages editing an unfinished draft, but if what you’re looking to do is finish, then finish! Leave editing for later.
In short, don’t be precious with your words.
Throw words on the page. Be an abstract expressionist about it if you have to. It’s not like you only have so many words you can use ever. If you’re stuck, write something for ten minutes. Don’t sit there thinking about what you should or could be writing. Write. More times than not, I end up finding a thread of something in that time, or a spark that ignites my creative engine again.