I've been on the all-writing-all-the-time (more or less) plan for almost a month now and here's what I've learned so far (with a bit about what I'm working on thrown in).
1. No to social media until I'm done writing for the day.
This is rule number one for a reason. Social media barely existed when I was on sabbatical the first time in 2006. Now I'm on Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest, and even sometimes Instagram, not to mention good old email. I have to guard my time against these black holes fiercely. Any one of my 900 odd "friends" there will tell you I'm a bit of a Facebook addict. Believe it or not, I find reading it immensely interesting.
As an introvert, it allows me to interact with people and see what my friends and the world are doing all without leaving the quiet solitude of my house and my dog (writer Julia Fierro writes about this even better here). In fact, I find Facebook so interesting, especially the articles about current events that my friends post, that I could spend hours just reading and refreshing my newsfeed and often, accidentally have. As a result, I had to make a rule: no newsfeed reading until the writing is DONE for the day. Pre-sabbatical my habit had been: get up, read the newspaper, drink coffee, check newsfeed, then email, then write. Now that I've discovered the rabbit hole nature of Facebook, however, it's completely off the table.
I'm not gonna lie. The first few days were rough. After my daily Democrat Gazette I really found myself jonesing for some "trending topics" but I persisted until now I can pretty much ignore Facebook until at least the late afternoon. No coincidentally, this is also when I work out. I've learned reading my feed actually makes the time on the recumbent bike go faster. I always saved Twitter for the evenings and Pinterest for the weekend or when family movie night consists of an action/superhero movie that the rest of the household (all XY's) is a lot more excited about. I'm trying to not check email until the afternoon as well -- either good or bad news there can really derail a writing day -- but one addiction at a time. Once I've made it a couple more weeks without Facebook in the mornings, we'll see if we can kick email to the afternoon as well.
2. Stay with the flow.
If the writing is going really well, I try to stay with it. For example, this is the second essay I've written today (and I'm still in my pajamas, if you want to know the truth) but it's going so well I don't want to stop. And I'm not going to, until I start to feel the well running dry but still have enough to say that I'm ready to come back to the work tomorrow. Sure, if I have to sign for a package, facing the FedEx guy is going to be pretty embarrassing, but it's worth it to get the words down.
3. Break it down into bits.
Though I am an inveterate reader, I grew up with a mild learning disability, not diagnosed and treated until late high school, that makes it hard for me to attend to text for long periods of time without a lot of headaches and eyestrain. In order to succeed in school, then, I learned very young that I had to break large tasks, term papers, reading assignments, math sets and such, into much smaller ones or I would never survive the academy. You've heard the old joke, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." I hate that joke because elephants are majestic beautiful creatures I would never want to eat ( yes, I know it's a metaphor -- still) but the idea is the same. So I have to do a lot of planning for my projects -- outlines for my novels and books, to do lists for my other projects -- that involves breaking everything down bird by bird, as Anne Lamott relates in her book of the same title, (which remains, in my opinion, one of the best books on writing ever written).
At the beginning of my sabbatical, I made a list of what I more or less wanted to accomplish (draft new novel, edit a collection on studying creative writing in the US, draft memoir that is a series of letters to the daughter I never had, submit The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life book to indie presses) got out my calendar and broke down the next five months into daily increments , taking into account interruptions like trips and family events. It's a pretty flexible plan -- right now I'm already a couple of days behind -- but when I'm ready to work in the morning all I have to do is look at the calendar and know what small chunks of work I'm supposed to be doing that day.
4. Set up a rewards system.
Anyone who has to face the blank page and create something out of nothing knows that it's hard and sometimes you have to outwit yourself to keep from accidentally getting caught up in organizing your pens and pencils for hours. Figure out what motivates you and use it as a carrot. For example, I love coffee and keep it by my side during writing sessions. But, aside from the mug I use to jump start myself at breakfast, I only allow myself to drink it when I'm actually putting the words down (or rather, pausing to think about the next sentence). So while I'm writing this, I'm allowed to partake of the blueberry-flavored brew in the big mug sitting beside me. But when I'm checking email or reading an article online -- no coffee for me! I also put off lunch until I've done the bulk of my writing, and sometimes, if no one's going to be home, I put off showering as well (I probably shouldn't admit that). Lunch and a refreshing shower helps to clear my mind before I turn to the other more mundane tasks of the day, like answering email and reading other people's manuscripts, which, even while on sabbatical, is also part of the writer's job.
Maybe some of this stuff is obvious to you. Maybe it's not. I've been breaking projects down into increments since I was a teenager, but the "no coffee unless you're actually writing" rule didn't emerge until this past year. It really works. I hope some of this will help in your own writing life. Writing's not easy but there are ways to make it less hard. Got any ideas or habits of your own that make your writing day smoother? I'd love to hear about them in the comments. Are you on sabbatical? I'd love to hear about that too. Send me a tweet @wordamour #amsabbaticaling2014.
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