where the writers are
The Writer's Life (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed my realization that my writing system was irretrievably broken. This week I'll show you how I plan to fix it.

We writers are a superstitious lot. We set ourselves up with certain pads of paper, certain pens and pencils, certain books ready at hand. We have specific music playing, or sit at the same table in the coffee shop each day. We need, no, we crave the ritual. Without it, we can't produce.

So the first part of reinventing my process is to reinvent my ritual.

Twyla Tharp, in her spectacular book, THE CREATIVE HABIT, (which you'll see me discuss more in the coming weeks) talks about ritual in a way that makes it seem like magic. Without it, we can't hit the marks, get our daily word count, or otherwise finish the tasks we set out to complete. Her ritual is to drag herself out of bed every morning at 5:30, go downstairs, hail a cab and tell the driver to take her to her gym. What's interesting to me is she doesn't consider the gym, working out, etc., the ritual so much as telling the cabbie to take her. That's the magic, the step that leads you to the next level.

Okay. This is an actionable step toward redefining my process. What is my ritual? Yes, I like to write in my chair in the living room instead of my office. I like to work 12-4. I like to have all my notes in the same place so I can access them easily. But none of that is a ritual. So I dug deeper, and here's what I saw. My ritual is as follows: get out of bed, slink still half-asleep into my office, open my browser, check my email, check Murderati, check Facebook, check the news, then roll back to my bedroom, get dressed, go downstairs, brush the cat, get a drink and do it all over again. Then, and only then, do I start to write. 

This, my friends is an example of a very bad ritual. It's backwards. The very first thing I do is clutter my mind with thoughts unrelated to my current work. No wonder it takes me a couple of hours to settle down enough to get into the manuscript.

At 43 Folders, Merlin Mann talks about the writer being assailed with a constant flow of information that must be dealt with. He described it thusly - a doorbell hard-wired into your brain. Now that makes sense to me. Think about the distraction you feel when you're deep in the groove and the phone rings, when someone knocks on your door, when your email button chimes forty times an hour, or even once an hour. It yanks you right out of your work and you're in the now again, the immediate, the what am I going to make for dinner? and does my husband have clean underwear? world, which is the last place you need to be when you're creating.

There is more to the writing life than just writing, unfortunately. But we do need to do business, as well as create. There are conversations with agents, editors, marketing, PR. There are the commitments we make to others, committee work, blogging. The trick is not to over commit, and know that the writing comes first, before the business. If it's an emergency, your team is going to call you. Usually, there's nothing a two hour delay is going to change. The rest of what's going on is procrastination. And yes, we need a little of that. It helps keep us sane. But it's very, very easy for that five -minute internet excursion to turn into a real problem. We've all lost time on the internet. It happens. Your job is to control how much it happens.

I know I'm not the only one who struggles with the business side of writing versus the creative side of writing. There are things that need to be done, and since I'm not a multimillionaire, I need to do them myself. One day, I hope to be able to have an assistant to deal with many of the day-to-day issues that need addressing - newsletters, list maintenance, travel arrangements, etc. In other words, I'd like to be handled. That's why I use an independent publicist in addition to my house's fantastic publicity team - I want to be free to spend as much time writing my book instead of worrying if the local paper is running a review. And I'll tell you, it's been the wisest investment I've made outside of my laptop.

Balance. It's what we all strive for. Balance allows us to make room for everything we need to get a book done: ritual, meditation, creation and business.

I started another great book this weekend, one that I actually bought and read in college, called THE WRITER ON HER WORK. In the introduction, Janet Sternberg writes a sentence that especially resonates for me:

"The true writer either retreats and pays the price of isolation from the human stream or opens the door and pays the price of exposure to too many diverse currents."

This was written in 1980, long before email and Facebook became as common as sneezing. It seems the struggle between being creative and still living a life is one that's been around longer than I could possible imagine. And now the diverse currents are multiplied exponentially.

Managing the currents, managing your time, your ritual, your creative juices, that's what's so important.

As strange as it sounds, I do enjoy these moments when I realize change has become necessary. It's fun to think through what works, what doesn't, see how other people manage their time, find new resources and new products that help with this maintenance. I'm hoping that hubby will develop a nice content management system for me that pulls everything I do into a single spot that can be looked at once a day, maintained with little to no energy, and leaves me free to skip out on the things that don't matter. But until that day, I have to work as efficiently as I can with the tools I have.

Let's be honest. When you're starting your writing career, there's a feeling of MUST, MUST, MUST. You MUST say yes to everything and accept every invitation. You MUST be accessible to your fans, and you MUST be open for business at any time of day or night to accommodate the urgent needs of outsiders.

I'll let you in on a little secret, something that I've learned over the past year.

You MUST worry about yourself and no one else. You MUST keep your writing time sacred. You MUST ignore the distractions that look shiny and promising, and you MUST get over your self-importance. Yes, you're on Google. Yes, you have an Amazon ranking. Now get back to work.

Learning to say no was possibly the most valuable lesson I took away from my debut year. No is a very powerful word. Look, you're not WonderAuthor. You can't leap tall buildings in a single bound. So stop trying to pretend you can. Trust me, everyone close to me knows I racked myself a couple of times trying, and it wasn't pleasant.

So you don't think I'm a total hypocrite, I'm taking my own advice. I'm reinventing my process. I'm changing my ritual. I'm restructuring my world. Redefining my writing life. Admitting that writing IS my life was the first step. But it's even more than that. It's my passion, my job, the only thing I've ever felt like I was good at. And because of this, it needs to come first, and I mean that in a very literal sense. My writing life is going well. So well that I need to change my great "process" to adapt to the new and different world I live in.

On the advice of 43 Folders, and a wonderful series of ideas I read about here, here's my new plan.

Instead of 12-4 daily, which often gets pushed back by other issues and things on the To Do List, I'm going to get up, brush the cat, get some breakfast, sit at my table with my Moleskin, and set a goal for the day. You yogis out there call it an intention, something that you do before each yoga session. It doesn't have to be super special, or far-reaching, or specific. It can be something as simple as, "I will be happy with the work I create today."

As soon as that's done, I'm going to start writing immediately, before my head gets cluttered by the outside world. I'm going to work for at least one hour before I give myself permission to stop. I can get a LOT done in an uninterrupted hour. Then I'll let myself check out my email and do a bit of cruising. I've reworked my Google Reader to only include blogs I really care about, so I'll check in on the rest of the world. After fifteen minutes (tracked by setting the timer on my iPhone,) I'm back at it for another hour. Then another 15 minute break. Then one more hour. If I haven't hit my 1,000 words by then, I'm in trouble, and no amount of scheduling will save me.

That will leave me the afternoon, whenever I get to it, guilt free. I'll turn the phones back on. I can read, research, run errands, do some yoga, talk on the phone, work on my blog... Whatever. But with my work done first, hopefully I'll start feeling a little more rounded, and a little more present in the writer's life.

Doing this daily, five days a week, allowing myself one full day off with no Internet at all (that's Sundays from here on out) it will become a new habit. I did the 12-4 routine for three years, produced one book that first year, then two books a year since. Not bad, but I think I can do better. I'm curious to see if I feel more productive this way.

I know I'm perfectly capable of handling a change. I just have to train the people around me to my new schedule.

I will admit, Murderati takes up a chunk of time. We're nearing the three year mark, and coming up with new, never-done-before blog topics weekly is difficult. Two things need to happen for me here. One, please don't hold it against me if I bring in a few guests bloggers over the next couple of months while I'm restructuring. And two, I'd like to ask you, the reader, for some help. I've hit the point where I don't feel like my angst is getting the job done for you. I'd like to share the creative life with you through this series, talk about what's working and what isn't. But I'd also like to hear what you're interested in reading. I still don't feel like I have a lot of publishing experience, but I can get creative. I think that's the whole plan, actually...

A little battery recharging, a few New Year's resolutions, and a reworking of the processes. Merry Christmas to me. And may all the blessings of the season be showered upon you. Happy Holidays!!!!!

Wine of the Week: In the spirit of the holidays (and thanks to Grimey's) let's have a little holiday cheer, AKA "Ellison Family Grog Nog." You need a short glass, some ice, one part Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum, and two parts lowfat eggnog, (because we all need to watch our waists, right?) Pour, dash with cinammon, stir, drink. Repeat. But for goodness sake, stay away from the sleighs. This stuff is lethal.