A friend of mine was complaining the other day that she wasn’t getting enough writing done. She’s been working on a sprawling fictional manuscript for some years now – one that required research that took her all over the globe – and she’s struggling to find the time to write it up.
It’s a familiar refrain among writers, so I sent her a Tim Ferriss interview with Joyce Carol Oates. Ferriss was pressing Oates – the author of some 58 novels, in addition to plays, poetry and non-fiction spanning 50 years – about her creative process. He wanted to know, (as we all do, I’m sure), how on earth she is so prolific.
Building off of that interview, here are 5 tips to get your writing back in gear:
1. Figure out when you’re most productive. When I coach writers on productivity, I always counsel them to start by identifying the time of day when they are most focused and fertile. For some people like me, it’s the wee hours. (I’m a proud member of the @5amwritersclub.) For others, like my husband and my daughter, it’s late at night. It doesn’t matter. Identify that period and make it sacred.
2. Eliminate Distractions. Oates said a number of things about writing that stuck with me, but two stood out. The first was that a writer’s biggest enemy is distraction. That’s obvious, but something about the way she framed it really resonated. The trick is to identify whatever it is that distracts you – your phone, your laundry, your endless piles of admin – and put that aside. This enables “Deep Work” and it is exactly how so many incredibly successful people – Alfred Einstein, Toni Morrison, Bill Gates, to name a few – get so much done.
3. No pain, no gain. The second thing she said that stuck with me was to just sit in the chair and do the work. Again, not an original thought, but it was how she talked about the work that goes into writing that got me thinking. She said something along the lines of “I come from a long line of people who don’t talk about work, they work.” So, even if you’re feeling awful about what you’re writing, force yourself to keep going. It is the *only* way forward. If you’re really stuck, she advocates that you go for a walk or a run to get the creative juices flowing. Most of her best ideas have apparently come whilst standing on a hilltop about a mile from her home. (I feel the same way about swimming.) But then get yourself back into that chair.
4. Be kind to your writer self, but ruthless with your editor self. I stole this one from Jerry Seinfeld, another guest on The Tim Ferriss Show. Seinfeld writes with a bifurcated approach. Once he’s sat down and done the work – even if it’s just 30 minutes and even if it’s total sh#$ – he is very kind to himself afterwards. He knows how hard it can be some days to produce even a sentence, let alone a paragraph. So he rewards himself with a workout or a treat of some sort. But when he sits back down to edit that piece of writing, he is pitiless. At that point, he advises others, “You need to be Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.” (That’s the guy who famously shouts “You can’t handle the truth!” for those who’ve not seen the film). And how.
5. Join a writing group. I have a writer friend who once told me that his attitude towards writing groups was the same as his attitude towards therapy, i.e. it’s something best done alone. I disagree. Yes, you need to pick your group carefully, but writing groups can do wonders. Above all, they foster accountability. I’ve just joined a new one. It’s small, which means not more than two or three months can go by without me raising my hand to volunteer. If you’re at the right point with a draft, it’s a great chance to get feedback before you try to publish. In my last session, I shared something fairly raw with my group and they were able to point out which parts popped and which needed more development. I’m getting ready to submit the same material for my second time, and I can’t wait to hear what they think.
How about you? What’s your best writing advice?