I sat down with the Nov/Dec Poets and Writers magazine to read an article called “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity,” only to discover it was written by Ellen Sussman, whose novel French Lessons I’ve just posted a blog about. Quelle coïncidence! I’m always interested in how other writers get it done, and hey, I’ll try anything. I didn’t resonate with the word “productivity,” but I suppose that’s what it comes down to. And I liked the promise of four steps. Four EASY steps, I was hoping… ((http://www.pw.org/content/novemberdecember_2011)
Well, the article got off to a slow start for me, as in YAWN. There was the old saw about how you have to “claim” (or is it “own”?) that you’re a writer. I don’t seem to be at many parties period, let alone ones where I’m put on the spot about what I do. I’m not sure how important it is to actual writing to say you’re a writer. Hopefully she was just warming up.
Next came “write every day.” Okay, I agree with that, if you can. And I was interested to see she sets a word minimum of a thousand words. I try to do that when I’m drafting, but revising is a whole different ballgame.
She starts her writing day with five or ten minutes of meditation, to calm and clear her mind. But the next thing was new to me. She recommended a software program called Freedom that blocks the Internet! It was actually a relief to see that she shares my addiction. You can buy Freedom for $10.00 at macfreedom.com and when you sign up, it asks you how many minutes you need to block at a time. Maybe I’ll try the Freedom thing, since I do find the temptation of the Internet and email quite a distraction. I remember being so impressed that Jonathan Franzen cut himself off completely from the Internet when he was writing. But then I remembered I’m no Jonathan Franzen, writing or otherwise.
Now here was what interested me the most in the article. Sussman calls it “the unit system,” and the idea is based on research into how to help graduate students structure their time while writing their theses. “Divide your time into units. Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a fifteen minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.”
Don’t do things like write something else, critique writing, make a phone call, email. Just do stuff like fold the laundry or clean up the morning breakfast dishes. Water the garden or do a few yoga poses. This release from the effort of concentration gives your unconscious (or whatever it is) time to do its thing, and you return to your work with some new ideas or insights, according to Sussman.
This advice reminded me of a quote Dinty Moore posted on Facebook recently: “The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head.” ~ Patricia Highsmith. (You too can be friends with Dinty Moore on Facebook where he posts a lot of great writing quotes (just ask him) or check out his website: http://www.dintywmoore.com/ . Moore is a non-fiction writer and professor at Ohio University, and the author of Between Panic and Desire [love the title], The Accidental Buddhist, and a writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Non-fiction. He’ll be giving a reading at The Loft, our literary center here in the Twin Cities on this coming Friday, Nov. 11, as part of The Loft Mentor Series.)
Sussman says the unit idea helps pace you, so that you don’t burn out your wrists and arms typing (as I am wont to do) or, in her case, it gives her bad back a break (my sympathy, Ellen). She also says that if she’s stuck or in a rough spot, knowing she only has, say, thirty more minutes in that unit lets her know she won’t have to sit there forever, struggling, like for the next two and a half hours. There is the reward of the fifteen minute break on the other end. “The unit system breaks down the long block of time I’ve set aside for writing into manageable segments. And it seems to break down my resistance to doing the hard work.”
I thought this advice made sense and I thought I’d try it today. But I forgot to set the timer for forty-five minutes, and I got lost in the funhouse of my novel revision for about two hours straight, coming to feeling slightly delirious, but happy to have forgotten about time, units and productivity. I had just been in the zone. One of the things I like best about writing is experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, that is the correct spelling and don’t ask me to pronounce it) calls “flow,” a state of consciousness that removes one from everyday existence, takes one to another place where one’s attention is focused solely on the matter at hand. I’m lost in the work, and when I “come to,” I feel a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi’s discussion of flow in his seminal book by the same name is fascinating and dense, way too much to do more than just touch on here, but this will give you a little taste of it:
“In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”
I’m not suggesting that I achieve flow in all or even many of my writing sessions. Far from it. But I think the desire to achieve this state is one of the main motivations for me for writing, as well as for other activities that require concentration, skills and the development of a more complex self. It isn’t just the fame and fortune I’ve achieved that I’m after!
I will try Sussman’s “unit” system tomorrow, if I can remember to set the timer. But I’m not sure I need it. For me there just seems to be a natural amount of time that I can actually concentrate and be in the “flow” of things, and then I pop out. But I think her idea is practical and probably worth a try, to see how it goes. I also think people are so different in their ways of being and writing that they have to find their own rhythms and ways to write. It’s good to hear how Sussman does it, but hey, maybe you’ll be like Kazuo Ishiguro, who has this thing that he calls “the crash.” According to Alan Hollingshurst, “He takes a lot time to prepare a novel, just thinking about it, and then he draws a line through his diary for three or four weeks. He just writes for 10 hours a day and at the end he has a novel.”
No units for him, I suspect.