Ugh, discipline

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

– Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence he ever said this.

I do a good impression of a disciplined person, but more often than not, I lapse into slug mode. Inertia is no joke when I try to kickstart myself into action from a dead stop.

I’m at a dead stop often. I’ll have a burst of productivity for a day or two or a week and then nothing. Burst, stop, burst, stop. Interval training works for exercise, but in other areas of my life, I prefer consistency.

It doesn’t help that the things I want most feel so far away. Mastering anything takes decades of sustained effort. Getting over the initial “I suck” hump alone can take years. I’ve taken classical guitar lessons for a year, and while I’ve improved a lot, I still struggle with chord changes and knowing what notes are where on the fretboard. And writing? Oh jeez, I’ve been writing all my life, sold my first short story in 2006, and I still consider myself a newbie–I have so much to learn.

Sitting down to practice writing or guitar is difficult even though I love both. Perhaps that love is what makes it tough. I’m feel like I’m climbing a mountain and have made it only 3 feet up, or like I’ve hit a plateau thinking I’ve made good progress and see that the mountain is even taller than expected. Some people find big goals motivating, but I find them demoralizing.

No wonder I’d rather read or surf the web or snuggle the cat or take a nap than practice. Practice takes effort. It might be why there are people who spend more time shopping for guitars than playing them. (This is so common it has its own acronym: GAS, for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)

But yeah, I’m dealing with an old-fashioned discipline problem, and I suspect it’s because I’m thinking too long-term about where I want to be. I need to force myself to put my head back down and focus on daily processes and systems for my practicing instead of distant end results. My brain can wrap itself around a single day. Any longer than that, not so much. I have to trust that if I stick to a solid daily system, good results will happen as a byproduct.

And I have to remember that checking the internet yet again is simply what I want now, NOT what I want most.

Rules? What rules? Making Camp NaNoWriMo work for me

A baby writer tries NaNo

My first NaNoWriMo attempt was back in 2001 (that’s not a typo). NaNoWriMo was only three years old at the time and I was in my first year of trying to write for publication. I hadn’t written fiction since high school and I’d never attempted a novel. They were huge, intimidating beasts to me and I figured I needed a big push to even try writing one.

I technically “won” that year by writing 50,000 words in November, but the words I wrote were definitely not a novel. It didn’t even have a noticeable plot. I tried again a few more times over the years, but by 2012 I was over the whole thing.

Lessons learned from more writing experience

I’ve learned two important things about my own writing process since then: (1) word count goals don’t work for me because I spend more time focusing on the word count than what the story needed and (2) I hate writing sloppy first drafts. Both of those things fly in the face of conventional NaNo advice, which encourages you to write as much and as fast as you can and fix it later. For me, later never came. I never got around to revising those drafts because I really hate rewriting. I’d rather edit as I go, write the cleanest draft I can, then move on to the next project.

But I still like the energy and the camaraderie of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve learned to take what works for me and leave the rest. That gave me the confidence to revisit their website after ten years of avoiding it.

Trying NaNo again, but on my own terms

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo (their off-season NaNo event, which is more relaxed than the annual November frenzy), but I’m tracking my writing minutes instead of the word count. That way, I can take advantage of the things that motivate me on their site and ignore the rest.

Many writers and other creative people look for “rules” to guide them, especially at the beginning. I was no exception, but after a while we need to view those “rules” as mere suggestions instead, especially when it comes to the creative process. Every person is different, and that means we each have to cobble together something that works specifically for us.

I think I’ve found the way I work best, at least when it comes to NaNo. I have two projects (a novella and a short story) that I want to finish this month, and I hope participating in Camp NaNo will help me get there.

Writing any I can

Confession: I’ve never had a formal, structured writing habit that’s lasted longer than a few weeks. I’ve read lots of advice on how to create one and sometimes I wonder whether that contributed to the problem.

The worst advice I’ve read

In my opinion, one of the worst pieces of creative advice I’ve heard is to make writing (or whatever your creative work is) a ritual with a specific time, place, and accoutrements like a special tea or a candle or a pen. My first thought was: what if a piece of that ritual is missing? What if you run out of your tea or lose your pen? Or worse yet, what if something wipes out your scheduled writing time? If I were that precious about my work, I’d get nothing done.

Grabbing slivers of time

When I first tried writing a novel, I was intimidated by the daily word counts people said you needed to do. I had a soul-sucking day job at the time, so writing 1000-2000+ words every day felt impossible to me. So instead, I kept an Alphasmart Neo (a low-tech electronic typewriter) in my tote bag and added a few sentences or paragraphs to my work-in-progress whenever I could grab a sliver of time.

Those slivers eventually added up to four novels and a handful of short stories and novellas, which surprised me because most of that work was written in 5-15 minute chunks and I believed I couldn’t finish even one novel that way. My “grabbing” habit taught me to be nimble, able to write anytime, anywhere, on anything. Right now, I’m typing this on my trusty Neo while standing at my kitchen island.

Using my phone for good

These days, I’m lucky enough to have a schedule that allows longer writing time blocks, but I’m also relearning how to grab those precious slivers of extra time. I love Scrivener for iOS for writing on the go because it syncs to the cloud and lets me smoothly switch between working on the phone and the computer. Yeah, I have to type with my thumbs, but it’s no different than texting. I don’t have social media, games, or an internet browser on my phone (yes, I removed the Safari icon), so if I have a few minutes and am fiddling with my phone anyway, I might as well write a few sentences. They add up!

My goal now is to increase both the quantity and the quality of my work. I want to be prolific, which is something I’ve never been, and that means trying new processes, habits, and attitudes that are outside of my comfort zone. I have nothing to lose–following conventional wisdom made writing so miserable that I quit altogether, so I might as well try something else and see if I’m more productive and happier that way.

Are you taking a new approach to an old activity? What made you decide to change things up and how has it worked out so far?

Tick, Tick…Boom! is a must-watch for anyone who does creative work

This is a movie about failure and getting back up, and his masterpiece is ahead of him. And it’s hopeful because maybe so is yours.


Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of Tick, Tick…Boom!

It’s been over six weeks since I first watched Tick, Tick…Boom! on Netflix (I reopened my Netflix subscription for one month just to watch this) and I still can’t stop thinking about it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s an adaptation of a rock monologue by Jonathan Larson, who would later go on to write the smash hit Rent.

Tick, Tick…Boom is all about the “before,” when Jonathan was still working in a diner, rewriting and sweating over a futuristic dystopian musical he’d been working for 8 years with no clue whether all his efforts would be worth it. He turns 30 in eight days, his girlfriend wants to move to the Berkshires, his friends are dying from AIDS, and his best friend has given up acting to take an office job on Madison Avenue.

Far too often, the stories we read about artists are all about the successes, and we think that if we simply do what they did, then we can be successful too. This is the definition of survivorship bias. For every successful person out there, there are thousands of others who did the same things but didn’t have the same outcome. We never see hear those stories, though, and I think that’s dangerous. It makes creative success sound less like a crapshoot than it actually is.

I’ve even met writers who refuse to believe in luck, thinking that if they did all the right things, they can be the next Rowling or Patterson or King. Maybe, but that’s like saying if I buy a lottery ticket, I could win the Powerball–it’s technically correct, but it ignores how little control we have over the outcome. You can be immensely hard-working and talented and still not achieve conventional success because there are simply too many candidates for too few spots.

What I love about Tick, Tick…Boom is that it captures the strength and folly of choosing to persevere in the face of rejection and the sacrifices it requires to do so. Jonathan Larson chose to do a show revealing a vulnerable time in his life during a vulnerable time in his life (while he was working on Rent).

Sadly, he died the night before Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview performance. He was only 35 years old. He didn’t live to see how successful his work became or how he influenced a new generation of creators, including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m not a genius like Jonathan Larson and my 20s are way behind me, but I still connected with his decision to just keep working despite the rejections and indifference from the powers-that-be. I’ve learned to get satisfaction from writing stories and releasing them into the world with no expectations. As Jonathan says in the song “Why,” “I’m gonna spend my time this way.”

There are SO many great videos and interviews covering Tick, Tick…Boom!, but the one that resonated with me the most is this scene where Jonathan learns that the musical he sank 8 years into won’t be picked up by a producer (and receives excellent advice from his agent):

No matter what, keep working on the next project.

2021 reflections

It’s the time of year when many of us reflect on how we spent the last 12 months. For me, 2021 was the year I reclaimed a lot of my time and attention:

  • I quit reading the news (I highly recommend it–the stress raises your cortisol, which in turn suppresses your immune system and that’s the last thing you need right now).
  • I quit all volunteer activities except for writing Postcards to Voters. For some activities, like community theatre, it was a difficult decision because I enjoyed making props and decorating sets. Other activities were easy to quit because I always felt used.
  • I started learning guitar. For me, this was the key that clarified the rest of my priorities. I found it easier to say no to time-wasters when I had a weekly lesson to prepare for, and committing to music rejuvenated my commitment to writing.
  • I quit trying to be traditionally published and embraced self-publishing. I wrote more about it here, but I have to say this is the best creative decision I’ve made in the 20+ years I’ve been writing. My brain is full of ideas again and best of all, I’m having fun. It’s been too long since I had fun writing.

The world is filled with people and organizations who will gladly tell you how you should spend your time. The best thing to do is ignore them. Your life is too precious to squander on people who see you only as a tool for their own agendas. If your goals and their goals align, great! But don’t let someone else’s priorities be your priorities because of peer pressure or guilt or other mindgames that reveal how little they respect you.

Each of us has unique gifts to share to the world, but if we don’t give ourselves the space to explore and develop those gifts, if we let others yank our attention all over the place, if we spend too much time reacting to the immediate instead of working on the long-term, those gifts will die. Your soul likely will too.

Remember, when you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to everything else. Make sure it’s worth the tradeoff.

What will you say “no” to in 2022? What more important things will you say “yes” to instead?