Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Writing and Goal-Achieving

In my validation book, there is a whole section about how to figure out how you work best in terms of accomplishing goals. In a world full of people pushing structure, deadlines, and pressure from other people on you, it can be really difficult to separate yourself from all of that and ask, "What works for ME?" The goal-setting section in the validation book is all about experimenting and trying different methods to learn what works best for you. In that spirit, I'd like to share some things I learned about myself while writing the validation book, that I never could have learned while I was on a school schedule:

1. I work best in my own apartment. I should have already known this since I've done creative work at home for my entire life. The issue is that when I got to college, I ended up spending a lot of time in the library. I will only work in dead silence, without other people around. When you're living in a college dorm, you pretty much have to go to the library if you want silence and want to be alone (not that you're technically alone in the library, but you're moderately safe from anyone interacting with you). I did everything in the library in college. Not just schoolwork, but my personal projects and fun stuff as well. (People *thought* I was studious because I was always in the library, but I wasn't there to do schoolwork - I was there to have silence and not have to talk to people). In spending all that time in the library, I began to think that that was where I worked best. When I wrote my first novel, I used to go to my local library every day with my laptop rather than just writing at home (I lived with my parents back then). I thought this would help me concentrate and make writing feel more like a job to me because I was leaving the house to do it, "going to work" so to speak. That summer I was working for my dad's business, and he works from home, so going to the library to write really was my daily getting up and going to work routine. The thing is, working in the library was not the best thing for me. At the time, it might have been because I lived with my parents, so the library felt more "alone." But once I started writing the validation book in my own apartment, I wondered why I ever considered going anywhere else.

When I'm here, I can pace around as much as I want, jump on my mini trampoline, go outside and walk around, get snacks when I want, etc. There are no limitations on what I can do here. One of the best writing sessions I had recently involved two hours of wandering around my apartment, daydreaming and talking out loud to myself, and then two hours of sitting and writing after that. A library environment is much more constrained, and I can't have that two-hour daydream session before I start working. When I'm sitting at a desk, I feel pressured to produce something, but when I'm sitting on the couch in my apartment with my laptop on the coffee table, I feel perfectly free to get up and run around. I get bored very quickly when I'm sitting down at a desk. In a library, I'm likely to spend much less time on my writing because I get bored quickly and want to go home - I don't have the option of jumping on my trampoline and then getting back to the writing when I feel like it. Since I want dead silence, being alone, and being free to move around and talk out loud and basically do whatever I want, the only place perfectly suited to me is my own home.

2. I need lots and lots of free, unstructured time. As I said, my best writing session recently came from a two-hour daydream session followed by a two-hour writing session. I need to have enough time to daydream and just think for as long as I want to. It doesn't work for me to squeeze in a little bit of writing here and there, between other activities. A lot of writers will advise you that you need to squeeze writing into your busy schedule rather than waiting till you have a lot of time, and that's fine if that works for you, but writing only works for me if I have tons and tons of free unstructured time. Time without pressure. If I only have one free hour to write, I feel pressure to get something written. One free hour is not good enough. I need very long stretches of free time in order to write, and I also need to know that I will have that time the next day, and the day after that. In other words, summer vacation never cut it for me. School breaks didn't cut it. Weekends didn't cut it. When I'm so busy most days that I don't have time to write, that puts way too much pressure on the little bit of time that I do have. I felt a ton of pressure to write my first novel in just the summer vacation months because I knew that I would have no time to work on it when the school year began. That deadline really messed with the way that I actually like to write, and took a huge toll on my enjoyment of the project. Limited time does not cut it. I need endless free, unstructured time to myself in order to write.

3. I do ETAs, not deadlines. I know everyone tells you that goals need deadlines, but I hate deadlines, and placing a deadline on anything - even something I love - can instantly turn that thing into something I don't want to do. I like to have a rough estimate in my mind about when I'd like to finish, but I treat it as an estimate, not a deadline. It's like when you're going on a very long road trip to visit someone, and you don't know exactly when you'll arrive. When we go to visit my family in Virginia, the drive can take anywhere between 8 hours and 10 1/2 hours. That's a huge variance. But the longer the trip is, the more variance you have. When you're visiting someone that far away, you don't have a definite meeting time. You can't say, "Let's meet at the coffee shop at noon," the way you would with a local friend. It's assumed that when the drive is that long, you get there when you get there.

And then there are tons of variables up in the air. Traffic, roadblocks, detours. Having to stop for gas, bathroom breaks, and food. Sometimes the route is smoother than other times. Sometimes the weather is nicer. Sometimes you may need to stop for gas more frequently, if you've been idling in traffic. Sometimes you'll grab fast food, other times you may decide to stop and eat at a restaurant. Sometimes getting to your destination quickly will be of the utmost importance, and other times you'll want to drive slower and enjoy the scenery and stop at places that look interesting to you. Sometimes you'll get tired and have to pull over in a rest area to take a nap (my dad has done this before). There are so many variables about how long the trip will take, you can't possibly promise a specific time that you'll arrive.

That's what writing a full-length book is like for me, or even just a very long blog project like The Unencrypted Truth. I can have a rough estimate of when I'll finish, based on my normal writing pace, the same way that google maps can multiply miles by speed limits and give you a rough idea of how long the road trip will take. But just as google maps can't factor in the weather conditions and rest stops and everything that could possibly affect your travel time, I can't factor in everything that could possibly affect when I will finish my writing projects. My initial estimate is always way off because that's the google maps estimate, saying that you'll arrive at your destination in 40 hours, without allowing you time to sleep. It's an estimate, not a deadline.

4. Going forward, my ETAs are private. I know I shared my ETAs this time around, but I learned from that experience that estimates of when I will finish are private from now on. I do not want anyone to develop expectations about when I'll finish a project. I don't want to feel accountable to anyone because I told them I'd probably be finished by a certain date. I decided to announce it when I hit 60,000 words and again when I reached 70,000, but that was because I'm very close to the end. 70,000 is probably my last benchmark until the book is fully finished. (I'm not aiming for 80,000 words because that would be too long - there is a delicate balance between being long enough to get taken seriously and also brief enough for people to want to read it). Announcing 70,000 words was sort of like when you're towards the end of a 10-hour drive and you call your family to say, "I'm about an hour away." If I had made an announcement when I reached, say, 40,000 words, that would have been bad because then people might have asked me how much farther I had gotten during times when I wasn't feeling well enough to work on the book at all.

5. I cannot be putting more effort into anything else that is less important to me than my writing, because then I will have to mimic that unwanted behavior when I write. I want to live a free, unstructured life, and I want to approach my writing in a free, unstructured way. People sometimes tell you to treat writing the same way you would treat your job, but the problem with that is that I don't really want to treat anything the way I treat my job, including my job itself. I don't want to work when I don't feel like working and push myself to keep going when I don't feel well. I don't want structure and rules and deadlines. The problem is that when I have something in my life, such as schoolwork, that I am treating that way, I cannot reconcile going through stuff I hate for school but not doing those same things for what actually matters to me. To do my homework when I don't feel like it, but not push myself to write when I'm not feeling well, would be to say that my homework is more important than my writing, which it's not. The reality is that I don't want to be treating my homework the way that I'm treating it, and the way I approach my writing more accurately reflects that way that I want to do everything. However, I can't be free and unstructured in my writing if I am being more rigid and structured in things that I don't actually want to do. In short, I cannot be treating anything that is less important than my personal writing as if it is more important.

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