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Writing Takes Time: On Vanquishing the Demon of “Productivity”

…the fact remains that writing takes time. To write takes dreaming and remembering and thinking and imagining — and very often what feels like wasting time. It takes silence and solitude. It takes being okay with making a huge mess and not knowing what you’re doing. Then it takes rewriting and struggling to find your story and the truth of the story, and then the meaning of the story. It takes being comfortable with your own doubts and fears and questions. And there’s just no fast and easy way around it. — from Meditation #12 of Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement

In the last few weeks, my writing has not been going well.

Part of this is due to what sociologists would call “environmental factors.” Husband and I are always hit hard by the December holidays (which for us encompass 2 different religiousish traditions, 3 different nuclear family branches, travel and/or out-of-town guests [this year featured both!], at least 3 or 4 additional non-familial celebrations and our anniversary). This year, both of us caught the Cold of the Century in the last two weeks of 2014, and I started a new part-time teaching gig at a new institution the first full week of 2015 after not having taught at all for seven months. So there’s been all of that conspiring together to complicate my ability to sit in an upright position in front of my computer for long enough to get into a state of flow. But that’s not all that’s been stymieing me.

When people ask what stage I’m at with my book, I tend to say I’m working on a second draft, which is true insofar as I have a prior version of this story that’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. But when I sat down to my new draft in June of last year, one of the things I knew was that huge swaths of my plot were going to have to be ripped up and completely rewritten. I knew there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work, motivations that were hazy, scenes that didn’t fit with the overall backbone of the tale I was trying to tell; at that point, I couldn’t even have told you what the central theme of the book was. So in a lot of ways, what I’m working on still has many elements of a first draft; I’m taking the key points of my story, the stuff I know I want to keep, and trying to make them fit together in a more coherent way. Meanwhile, a lot of the rest is being completely thrown out and rewritten — and this section of the novel, the piece of the plot arc I’ve been working on since late September, is particularly full of dross that needs to be winnowed away.

What that means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of my writing time these days asking questions like this: “Where should I start this chapter?” “Why is this character doing this?” “How can I keep this plot revelation and kill the scene it’s a part of?” And more often than not, I don’t get an answer right away. Sometimes, I can go days pounding my head against the keyboard or throwing words down in what I know is the wrong direction before I figure out where the story’s supposed to go.

In my schedule, Mondays are blocked off as “writing days”: I make no appointments, undertake no major home improvement projects, and don’t allow anything on my social calendar until dinnertime. And so, in my results-oriented head, I tend to think a “successful Monday” is a day when I’ve sat at my computer for at least 4 hours (with 6 being preferable) and/or pushed out at least 2000 words. Made the best use of my time, starting first thing in the morning when I’m freshest.

This week didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t sleep well Sunday night; then, because of various unavoidable teaching- and life-related commitments, I didn’t get started with “Writing Monday” until after lunch. And when I finally sat down, staring at the opening lines of a chapter I’ve been hammering away at for two weeks now, nothing happened. In 3 hours, I managed to tug about 600 words from my subconscious, and even as I wrote them, I was pretty sure most of them would be going right back to the scrap pile. By the end of it, I was frustrated, disheartened and feeling like a fraud. This is a state I’ve been in quite a bit in the last few weeks. One of my personal artistic demons is the need to feel “productive,” and if my word count’s going up, I can point to that and say that I’m doing something. If it’s not, I can quickly get to feeling like I’m wasting my time, at which point I turn into the Bad Writing Day monster and stalk around the house terrorizing Husband and the cat.

But today was different. Because as I was about to go off on my usual “this-is-all-garbage” rant, I remembered the writing meditation I’d read this morning, reproduced in part at the top of this post.

I picked up Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously on a whim in a bookstore a few days into the new year, and immediately decided it was coming home with me. It includes 365 one- to two-page reflections on the writing process, and unlike most writing books I’ve seen, it’s not meant to teach you how to write better: it’s focused entirely on encouragement, and I was sold when I saw that Day 1’s meditation ended with this quote:

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. — John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, dear readers. The guy whose books are almost-universally regarded as triumphs of literature. He didn’t know how to start his writing sessions, either.

I’m coming to realize that in my writing life, tiny revelations like that are often exactly the kind of reality check I need (I follow many of my favorite authors on Twitter for the same reason). We all need a reminder from time to time that we’re not alone — and for writers, that includes the reminder that on days when the words won’t come, it might not have anything to do with your talent or your legitimacy. It might just mean that your plot’s not done stewing yet.

So yeah, I only wrote 500 words this Monday, and I’m probably going to trash most of them the next time I sit down. But I also figured out what’s wrong with the beginning of this scene, and I know what needs to happen to fix it. I don’t know how to make it happen yet, but I’m confident that’ll come. It might be on a walk, or in the shower, or a Facebook-free pen and paper brainstorming session. Or maybe I’ll just sit down at my computer and make a mess and see what comes out of it — because, as I was reminded today, writing isn’t all about putting words on the page. Sometimes, you just have to give it time.

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