Getting in the Writing Place Every Day

By now, participants of NaNoWriMo are more than halfway through writing 50,000 words. That’s about 1,667 words a day. Not necessarily that many good words. But the point of it is to get you to start, so that by the end of November, there’s a novel. A whole novel!

I’ve never been able to do NaNoWriMo. The thought of all those words the first day — 1,667 probably pretty stinky words — is enough to make me run to the sofa and turn on the TV instead. I know I’m good at that.

The Starting Challenge

The blank page of any project — writing, exercising, making, learning, doing — is paralyzing. It’s the weight of great expectations and unmet aspiration. It’s the fear of finding out that you’re no good, of failing, of looking stupid. It’s laziness. It’s the specter of busyness that looms over your shoulder saying you don’t have the time and energy for this, to do it “right” — and you listen.

Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:

It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.

In the same vein, Cheryl Strayed would bestow two words upon you, sweet pea: humility and surrender:

You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.

We get the work done on the ground level.

How to Get to the Ground Level

Lindsay Zoladz struggled with starting to write in her early 20s. She sat around, “not-writing” a lot. She figured out how to get to the ground level by taking up the practice of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Beautiful and the Damned, Gloria, who keeps a “line-a-day” diary.

From where I sit

This is how Lindsay recommends keeping your own line-a-day diary:

Write one sentence a day. It can be anything — a quote or an observation from your workday or a one-sentence-short story or a very plain summary of what you did that day. Play with the drooly elasticity of sentences; experiment with colons and semicolons and run-ons and grammatical inaccuracies. If you are going through something that makes it difficult to write even one sentence, just write the date, or a period with no words before it, or maybe just the word, “Nothing.”

Gloria isn’t a writer, but Lindsay, line by line, page by page, becomes one — from not-writing, to sometimes-writing, to full-fledged “I’m a writer.” She has written at publications, including Pitchfork, Washington City Paper, Salon, Slate, and The Believer. That’s pretty awesome.

Write something every day. Anything. One line. One line is easier. And then another.

How to Keep Going

Alexander Chee also became a writer. He learned, through a nonfiction writing class at Wesleyan with Annie Dillard, that talent was nothing without work:

Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work.

Portable Plotting Kit

Once you’ve overcome the hurdles of starting, you have to keep going, with good work habits. One habit that Chee practices is a daily writing journal for his novel. It gets him in the right place to start every day:

I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like “page 77 is still a problem!” or “return to page 13!” I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. If I’m working on an edit like I am now with a master copy, I include the page number from the master.

When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.

Maintaining a writer’s work diary like Chee is a great way to leverage the progress principle to keep motivated and moving. Record your progress, plan your next steps, think things through, and focus on the work of writing.

We’d love to know how you got started writing, making, and doing, and what methods you use to keep going!

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