Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing

A purple-blue statue of a rearing horse against tree leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; September 8, 2019; Back on the HorseThere’s an old saying that when you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to overcome that failure, and you may never get back on again. This post is about my experience with falling off a metaphorical horse, and getting back on. (ALSO: there’s a note at the end of this post about the particular horse in the photo.)

There’s a lot of advice around about improving productivity by changing how you define your tasks, by breaking tasks down, or by balancing work and writing. You can even use procrastination to be more productive. This is all great advice, and I recommend you check it out to see if it works for you. There are also those who insist that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, You Must Write Every Day. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that there are no one-size-fits-all rules that all writers must obey (I wrote a whole post about that a while ago). Over the years that I’ve been a writer, I’ve tried a bunch of ideas to see what works for me. Ironically, one that’s been pretty useful is to write every day. (Remember, this is about what works for me, not for anyone else. Your mileage may vary.)

About a year ago, I set myself a goal to at least touch the current work in progress every day. It might just be spending five minutes reading over a paragraph or two and tweak some words. It might be thinking about how to do something and making a few notes. Of course, it might also be really digging in and spending hours churning out words. Anything would count. With this system, if I wasn’t going to do today’s little bit, I had to justify it to myself. Otherwise, I would do something today, and tomorrow something more, and it all worked.

If I’ve missed a few days in a row, though, it got harder and harder to get back to it. The old saying about the horse proved true! I start to think I need a reason to write today, instead of a reason not to write. I haven’t written anything in days, or weeks, so why start now? It feels like starting up again is going to be a massive effort.

Strong man struggling to write with a bar that has many heavy weights on the other end. Text: How it feels to write after a long timeNot too long ago, that was me. My job was winding down to retirement, with a slew of things that had to be done and all my routines thrown off. Then I sunk my creative forces into other outlets: this weekly blog post, for one thing, and a role-playing game I was designing. I’ve got solid black marks in my calendar from June 16 to August 10. I got discouraged, wondering if I would ever finish the book. I wanted to write, so why was I not writing? I experienced looming dread over how hard it was going to be to climb back on that horse. The longer I stayed away the higher the saddle seemed, and the more impossible it felt. A recent blog post from the 10 Minute Novelists blog documents this problem, and describes one useful approach to overcoming it.

Finally, one day, I broke through. I dusted off the daily planner I had been using to keep my work life organized, picked the first day of an upcoming week, and put “Writing” down as an item on my to-do list. When that day came I took a deep breath, opened the document, and got back to it. Of course, it wasn’t as hard I had expected, and after that first day it’s gone swimmingly. I’ve only missed a handful of days in the last month, and expect to keep going with the little-bit-a-day plan for the foreseeable future. I’m still using the planner, and “Writing” is a to-do item on every day of every week.

So this is what works for me. I have no fixed word count or minute count to achieve each day. I just need to touch the work, to keep it warm, so that tomorrow it’s easy to do a little bit, and the next day, and the day after that. As long as I keep moving, I know I’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the bit I promised about the horse. Back in 2001, local artists around Rochester, NY joined in a community project called Horses On Parade, creating lovely and fanciful life-sized fiberglass horses to be placed all around the town. This one is called the Horse of a Different Color. It uses a color-shifting paint that looks different depending on how the light hits it. It stands today outside the Norman Howard School, a local institution dedicated to the education of students whose needs that are not met in traditional school settings. The horse reminds us that people may look different, but in the right light each of us can shine.

What are some techniques that help you stay on track to reach your goals?

In Praise of Boxes: Structure and Creativity

A pile of cardboard boxes. Text: Something for Sunday; June 30, 2019; In Praise of Boxes“Think outside the box.”

That’s a common piece of advice about creativity. Do the unexpected. Break through limits. Color outside the lines. Don’t be limited by those pesky boxes.

There’s certainly a lot of truth in that advice. However, I’m here today to defend the importance of boxes, and discuss how they can help our creativity.

Here’s a personal experience of my own. For years, I posted an image almost every week in response to a prompt provided by the WordPress Photo Challenge. (You can see some of my favorites here and here and here.) When they shut down the Photo Challenge just over a year ago, I was heartbroken. The structure of a weekly prompt was the box that inspired me to look at the world differently and more creatively. I missed it so much that for six months I ran my own personal photo challenge, posting an image every week based on a letter of the alphabet. It worked for me, but didn’t catch on and I dropped it after Z. Still, it got me thinking every week, looking for images relating to a particular letter, and that was good.

Here’s another example. I posted recently about how much I love writing haiku. In that post, you’ll notice that in every case the little poems are a response to a prompt: a letter in the A to Z Blog Challenge, a daily prompt in the #HaikuChallenge, or a weekly prompt for #ScifaikuSaturday. I can’t just sit down and come up with a haiku without some kind of structure. I need that box.

Structure helps creativity and productivity in many ways. Science fiction author Ferrett Steinmetz wrote a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog (“Five Things I Learned Writing the Sol Majestic”) in which he shared a number of suggestions for writers. One section is headed “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” He put rules on himself, limiting what he could do or how he could do it, and found this unleashed his thinking. Once again, the boxes helped.

There are any number of other examples. Why do people engage in NaNoWriMo or the more flexible Camp NaNoWriMo options? If you can write 1667 words a day in November, why couldn’t you do it in October? The key is the added structure. Daily productivity can be boosted with systems such as the Pomodoro Technique or a whole suite of suggestions from Elizabeth Spann Craig on “Setting Yourself Up for Success.” It’s nothing but boxes, and it works.

So remember: You can’t think outside the box without boxes. Thank you, boxes!

How does structure help you work?