Should we succumb to ‘the mood’ to write?
We all have trouble getting to the desk. Loads of articles, blogs, chapters, and seminars by writers for writers advise how to get to it, stay at it, and finish the damn thing. And some of them help, like Schumann’s (2019) dictum to do fifteen minutes a day or the pomodoro method (Cirillo, 2018) of twenty-five minutes on, five off. Schumann and others also counsel that inspiration is a cheat. If you believe you must wait to write until the right mood strikes, you’ll never get much done. Many writers nevertheless persist in this myth, supporting it with impressive rationales.
Some blame external circumstances:
- “I can only write in the cold weather—it’s so invigorating!”
- “I can only write in the spring. The warm breeze caresses my fingers, and I melt into the keyboard.”
Other writers invoke their own insides:
- “I’ve got to get ten hours of sleep. Otherwise, my eyes burn, my head fogs, and I can’t think.”
- “I can’t work if I have the least headache, backache, stomach ache, earache, shoulder ache, wrist ache, finger ache, toe ache, or hair ache.”
If you depend on cold winter air to inspire you, your writing will wilt in the summer. If you think you can write only with enough sleep or flawless health, you’ll spend most of your time not writing.
Do you assume you have to be in the mood to show up in the classroom for your lectures or appear in your office? Must you be in the mood to feed your family? Do they assume this—and buy your whining absence—at dinnertime?
Once you renounce the myth that you must be in the mood to write, you’ve accepted writing as your daily business. This is the only way to complete your projects and reach your goals. Without regular, if not daily, writing, your zeal fades, you forget where you were, and you lose touch with your intuition. You’re sure you’ll never be a real writer and succumb to cleaning out the garage.
I used to give in regularly to the must-be-in-the-mood-to-write myth. After long struggles and reading of others’ battles and victories, I adapted some of their approaches and developed effective strategies for vanquishing the myth. Especially when you’re tempted to evoke the Writing Muse Myth, these may work for you too.
Schedule Realistic Times to Write
This suggestion means more than yielding to spurts of excitement. A beleaguered mother of four I know scrawled in determined letters on the refrigerator chalkboard, “Put the kids down for their naps. Write 3:00 to 4:00!” What happened? Her writing hour was consumed with calls about the car pool, the PTA, and the class play costumes.
The lesson? Schedule regular and realistic times for writing. Base your schedule not only on your daily responsibilities but also our self-knowledge. You may fantasize about writing at 6:00 a.m. and savoring the hush and new light. If you’re truly a morning person, you’ll have a great session. But if 6:00 feels like 3:00 a.m. and all you want to do is stagger back to bed, schedule your writing sessions to honor your needs, body clock, and duties. By the way, that mother revised her writing session to evenings after the kids were bathed and bedded—and it worked.
Mark Your Calendar
Enter your scheduled writing time like you would a dental hygiene appointment or car tune-up. Your writing session with yourself is an appointment—and possibly more important than any other.
When You Stop for the Day, Plan Exactly What to Work on Next
This is time-honored advice. Hemingway said, “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” (Plimpton, 1958, p. 6). Faulkner said similarly, “The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. . . . Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again” (Temple, 2017, para. 7).
After I began scheduling specific writing times, I’d show up at my desk but always give in to opening email, checking my favorite websites, sorting through a few files, or bolting up to wash the three dishes in the sink. When I complained to a consistently productive colleague, he shared his method, crediting Hemingway and Faulkner: “Before I quit the current session, I decide exactly what’s next.”
Exactly means the specific description, for example, of your data collection methods, the holes you see in the just-published rival article you discovered yesterday, the two sentences for your conclusion you scribbled out during a TV commercial. Or, if you’re writing fiction, a mini-essay on the suspicious behavior of the protagonist’s best friend, the essential bar fight, the hand-wringing wife confessing she wants a divorce. Following this advice, now when I type my “next” notes, with the Word Bookmark feature I also type: “STTTTT.” And I know exactly where to STTTTTart next.
Start With Something Easy
Sometimes the starting notes may not be enough. Most of us need to warm up. So, for effective and time-using warmups, do something easy. It counts as long as it relates (by any stretch) to writing— check three references, update your bio, investigate a potential journal, brave a draft of a query letter. However, these tasks won’t take long, and you may be tempted to scrap your exact starting point. So . . .
Set Small Goals You Know You Can Meet
With your very specific exact place to continue on your project, turn your (tomato) timer to five or fifteen writing minutes or vow to finish a paragraph or a page. If you clock your words, settle on a small daily quota. Want perspective? Hemingway averaged 500 words a day—that’s two typed pages; Barbara Kingsolver 1,000 (Patterson, n.d.). And—possible solace for us all—Tom Wolfe, 135 words! (“The Daily Word Counts,” 2017).
Sneak Into It
If you’re still having trouble starting, try another variation. Instead of beginning at your specific starting point, go back a few paragraphs to what you’ve already done and glance at the screen or page. (True, this tip may be contrary to writers who demand no editing until the first draft is done.)
When you go back and read, after the inevitable lament about how horrid the draft is, your editing reflex will pop up. As you delete one thing, add another, change that other, you’ll have eased into your session. If you need a more severe version of sneaking in, retype several previous paragraphs. You’ll sail into the new writing.
Make a Master List
Maybe as one of those starting-with-something-easy warm-ups, type or write out a list of all the steps in the project. The list keeps you organized and motivated and wards against overwhelm. Contrary to another myth, lists do not diminish your creativity or metamorphose you into a left-brain drudge. Artists have to keep lists of painting supplies, sculptors inventories of muds. Writers need to keep lists of paper, pens, ink cartridges, laptop batteries, references, subheads, scenes, characters, characters’ characteristics, etc., etc.
Your list is your master plan, like a blueprint. When a book proposal froze me, I finally made a list of at least fifteen necessary sections (introduction, main chapter titles, promotion plan, competitive books, sample chapter, bibliography). And then, I did the next thing . . .
Choose One Thing From Your Master List
Even though you may be a linear left-brainer and feel it’s sacrilege not to begin at the beginning, trying to do so can just add to your paralysis or procrastination. Instead, plunge in with whatever’s easiest.
With my book proposal, I began near the middle, with the section on competitive/complementary books, not too difficult for me. Starting there not only broke my ice but also gave me a perk: I had to ask myself what my book had that the others didn’t—which is the point of a competitive books section and a selling point. So, examine your master list for what you can ease in with.
Use the “Diaper Method”
Another technique I’ve shared often with my dissertation coaching students and colleagues to combat the incipient engulfment is the diaper method. Once you’ve made your big list, take a pair of post-its, index cards, or sheets of paper. Choose one thing from you list and stick or clip the “diaper” to the list so it blocks out everything but the single item you’ve chosen. Now you and your mind can focus on what you see.
When you finish this segment, move the post-its or cards so they show only your next selection. As you do, you’ll probably feel a sweeping sense of accomplishment (I always do), and the excitement will move you forward.
Keep a Log of Your Writing Time
You may be groaning at keeping more records, but a weekly or monthly log has significant benefits:
- It helps you see what days you miss. Is there a pattern? Do your weekends without writing ooze into Mondays?
- The log helps you become more conscious of where you’re choosing to spend your time. And it’s always a choice.
- The log helps you practice forgiving yourself for not (never) writing as much as you think you should.
- When you analyze the log, you’re spurred to figure out how to devote more time to writing.
- The log bolsters your conviction in yourself as a writer. As you enter each session, praise yourself for your steadiness, persistence, and increased (or intended increased) hours.
Accept Your “Moody” Feelings
Despite all these pointers, if you simply can’t settle down to write, accept the feeling. Berating yourself will only make you feel worse. Instead of giving up totally, though, bargain. Ask yourself, “How can I tease myself into a just a leetle stint?” Your first answer may be to check out a website, draft an email, take a stab at an abstract or synopsis. Go.
With these suggestions, your writing won’t be buffeted by changes in the atmosphere, either outside your window or inside your head. You’ll stick to your schedule, sit down, and write regularly because it’s your business to. You’ll banish any restrictive myths that you’ve got to be in the mood to write. And you’ll finish the damn thing.
Cirillo, F. (2018). The Pomodoro Technique. New York, NY: Currency/Crown. See also website: https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
Patterson, A. (n.d.). The daily word counts of 39 famous writers. Writers Write. Retrieved from https://writerswrite.co.za/the-daily-word-counts-of-39-famous-authors-1/
Plimpton, G. (1058). Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21 (issue 18). Paris Review. Retrieved from https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/ernest-hemingway-the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway
Schumann, R. (2019, February 19). The hardest part of writing is restarting. Chronicle Vita. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/2162-the-hardest-part-of-writing-is-restarting
Temple, E. (2017, September 25). 20 pieces of writing advice from William Faulkner. Literary Hub. From a 1957 talk with University of Virginia writing students. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/20-pieces-of-writing-advice-from-william-faulkner/ See also Faulkner at Virginia, Coleman’s Writing Class, February 25, 1957, http://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio01_2#wfaudio01_2.4
The daily word counts of 19 famous writers. (2017, December 4). Word Counter. Retrieved from https://wordcounter.net/blog/2017/12/04/103207_the-daily-word-counts-of-19- famous-writers.html
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
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