Write, Reflect, Ask
A break for some writing advice
“Do what scares you! Follow the urging of your brain parasites beyond the firelight and into the unknown night! Find the mysteries of the universe and place your head between their fangs. The Admirable Self-Flinger approves of your recklessness.”
Hello, readers of The World’s Other Side and newcomers. Let’s share one of my writing habits, where every Friday I put aside my current project and spend my writing time on whatever I want.
Today, I want to answer Alejandro Piad Morffis more fully. Alejandro writes "Mostly Harmless Ideas" about Computer Science, Teaching and Creative Writing.
He's been posting notes on Substack asking about how one can write or get anything done with babies and young children in the house.
I sympathize deeply with his desperation. I assured him that my own children have burned away my impurities, so now I get more done in two hours than I used to do in a day, and I told him "write every day, keep a journal, talk about it." Alejandro asked for more details.
I remember sitting in front of my computer like a trainee astronaut in a centrifuge, pressed back into my chair with the force of my word count. I was using a tracker I will not recommend, which put number of words on the Y-axis and time on the X-. My job, I thought, was to increase the slope of the line between them.
My wife was doing load after load of baby clothes, my older daughter was recovering from the last in a long line of major surgeries, and although I didn't know it at the time, I had a tumor growing in my large intestine.
I thought twice about writing the above. Maybe you'll think that I just associate deadly gut pain with tracking word-count because of a tragic coincidence. But I actually think I was writing back then in an unhealthy way. I think that being smashed by pressure is worse than being open to inspiration.
During my recovery, I tried to return to the way I wrote when I was fresh out of college. Inspirations strikes, you feverishly get it out of your head and onto the screen. But “feverishly” doesn’t feel good when you’ve recently spent a month in the hospital. And what happens when you’re mid-sentence and the baby wakes up? You need a writing process that won’t shatter into a million pieces when it hits your life.
I tried different schemes and kept track of what worked and what didn't. Chew mint-flavored gum, listen to a playlist, use a specific notebook. I built up triggers that allowed me to slip into the writing mood more easily. I would take a walk and think about my story, then sit in a particular chair with a superlative mocha in my favorite cafe and start typing. Dang. I've made myself super nostalgic. I don’t go to that cafe any more.
Because life hits you. Chaos spills out over the neat lines you've drawn in the sand of your schedule, and now you're working from home, your kid has to be at school by seven god damn thirty, and you're trying to stay low-carb, so mocha is out. But you can still reward yourself after writing with a small piece of dark chocolate.
I track what I do and when I do it in my google calendar. If I accomplish a good job of work or take a thoughtful walk, I record that as an event. I make the event repeat on a weekly basis. Next week I'll try doing the same thing at the same time, and maybe it will work again. Over time, patterns emerge. I know what time I write best, and with cunning and persistence, I can keep my family from bothering me for those two hours every morning. The gyroscope wobbles, but it rights itself if I just keep spinning it.
I'll pause here to recommend some books:
Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Deep Work by Cal Newport
One of my google calendar events is called "journal." It's 15 minutes after my writing time usually ends.
I began the outline of 3rd realm. 3 major scenes, 6 characters, problem and solutions, theme of creative conflict. Try writing things out in notebook before typing in? Channeled bad dream into part of story.
When I write problems or questions in my journal, I remind myself to stay open to answers and solutions. And when I'm open, inspiration is that much more likely.
I had another flash of inspiration and wrote the scene with the worm. Absolutely from no where. Meditate! And maybe I resent myself for giving myself goals?
I also reward and celebrate inspiration, on the assumption or hope that it will come back again if invited and fed.
What my inspiration feeds on is research. On days when I sit in my chair and nothing comes to me, that's when I have to think and learn. The main character of Third Realm is based on architect Zaha Hadid, so what was her childhood like? I'm listening to the audiobook of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and I hear, "It doesn't matter if you speak innocently. What matters is whether we listen innocently." Where can I put that line? Looks like someone in my story is getting captured and interrogated by the Organs of the State.
And, on the subject of Children, here's an entry from October 6th:
I had to sit with Ellie which made everything harder. But I got out a short newsletter about my fishtank. I'm tired.
Sitting with my younger daughter and helping her with her homework is like running with wrist and ankle weights. But people do that. It must be possible for me too. After several weeks of repetition and reflection, I've figured out some ways to make sure both Ellie's work and mine get done. Here's that fish tank newsletter, by the way:
I only now realized I never actually posted that to Substack. Well…my advice is still pretty good.
I'll pause now to recommend Ray Bradbury's essay "How to Keep and Feed a Muse."
Until this year, I only gave people two pieces of advice: write every day and keep a journal. That was because, honestly, I was scared of talking to other writers. In order to have real conversations, you have to go up to someone who intimidates you, someone with the power to harm your writing career, and reveal your ignorance. I have a question. Please tell me where I'm wrong.
How did the architects of the Palace of Versailles make decisions? In what ways do children deal with the divorce of their parents? In what countries did a popular revolution make life better in the short term and how? How do you talk to authors whose work you don't enjoy? How do you go up to the creator of the book that set a new course for your life and ask them a question? How do you write, or get anything done, with young children in the house?
These questions are frightening because they’re real. That reality is the friction that moves art forward.
One last recommendation: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Thanks and appreciation go out to the Sci-Friday writers:
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Readers, thank you as always. Newcomers, please consider subscribing to this serial scifi story, The World’s Other Side, an alternate history scifi thriller.