The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

photo of path

Write a lot, write a little

I want to reflect on what helps me write a lot, or even just a little. I wrote about trying to dabble in a variety of writing activities to boost my writing practice. Which, as I said, I love doing, but I have a habit of focusing on one top priority (usually my novel) at a time—mostly because that seems to work. Yet I know I typically have the opportunity to work on more than just that one top priority.

I also benefit from stops and starts. I mean, if I get on a roll, then I stick with it until I lose steam. But otherwise, I tend to come up with a few paragraphs or pages, then something clicks and I need to switch gears.

One genre of writing that I find easy to do at any time is journaling. I have often used journaling as a way to foster my work, by journaling about what I might write, discussing questions with myself that then turn into tasks to add to my to-do list, or sometimes drafting new work.

Since I have reached a moment between larger projects, I want to see if I can broaden my reach. I’d like to write more, both in terms of quantity and genres.

So my idea is this—I will aim to journal throughout the day. Not a lot. Maybe a phrase here and there, between various commitments. And the journaling can be my springboard—I can then jump into a longer piece, or I can jot down ideas or questions to pursue later.

And if I find I can’t write anything, I could take a short walk. Not to steal Brenda Ueland’s thunder (and I think Anne Lamott mentioned this too when she recommended carrying index cards at all times), but walks really can help me write more. Of course, it helps if I get back to the writing as soon as I’m done with the walk!

Reading also helps me write more, especially if I could read a little, then write a little. Sometimes I just dig in and keep reading to finish the book, but if I do that, I often forget some of the insights or ideas that flickered in the background as I read. I think it could be very helpful if I would try a bite-sized approach to reading—read a little, then jot down any ideas or impressions as soon as I can.

I also think that this could help ease some of my anxiety as a writer, because there would be more energy and change going on. I don’t quite have to know everything I’m going to write before I write it. I just open myself up to what comes, and move on from there.

It occurs to me that this strategy will require some intentionality on my part, the commitment to turn it into a habit. That is, this strategy will totally work, but only if I actually do it. Hmm. That feels like a good epitaph for my writing goals in general—it could totally work if I actually do it. Sigh.

Still, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.

Variety and consistency are key

I’ve been more successful this year in cultivating an exercise habit. Avoiding human contact has meant I haven’t caught colds or non-headline-grabbing viruses, and so far (knock on all things wooden) I haven’t pulled a muscle or injured myself in some way that would cause me to lose all momentum. The biggest break in the routine was the week after I received the second dose of the moderna vaccine. I was wiped out on day two, and just a little lower energy and babying myself the rest of the week, trying to encourage my immune system to put on its superhero cape.

In a workout video, a trainer stated that “variety and consistency are key,” and this year I’ve definitely added more variety to my workouts, including more time and more intensity. I’ve also discovered that I do better if I take one day off each week and switch each day between high intensity and lower intensity workouts.

But this advice made me wonder if I should aim for the same in my writing. I admit that I make more progress if I identify one main project as my top priority, either for the day or for the foreseeable future. Consistency tends to help. If I work each day or every other day on a novel, for example, even if just for a half an hour, the story simmers on a back burner in my brain the rest of the time, and ideas come to me at random moments. I’ve even gotten better about writing those stray ideas down. So consistency and habits of some sort work for me. Variety, now that’s an interesting idea, even if it sounds almost antithetical to consistency. For example, compare a consistent diet of one type of food versus a diet full of variety. But I guess the distinction is that one should be consistent in making some kind of effort, or starting over after essential breaks, but also aim for some variety in the actual activity. I realize that I have also found it helpful to designate one or two days a week as “pressure-free.” That is, if I want to write, great. If I don’t, that’s cool too.

I like to dabble with various forms of creative and reflective writing. Yet I found that I am more successful if I work on whatever I’ve deemed top priority first. If I dabble first, that effort often saps most of my writing energy.

But I know that a certain playfulness helps me too, at least to enjoy life in general. I want to believe playfulness improves my writing. If nothing else, it supports my ability to keep writing.

I am on summer break from my part-time job at the local university so this is a good time for me to experiment to see if and how I can add more variety to what I write. I noted on the blog post by S.G. Browne that writing for fun can help when one hits a wall in the longer project.

So I will explore ways to add some variety while still making the top priority work, um, top priority. Stay tuned! I’ll report back later this summer on how it’s going.

Day One: Nanowrimo

It’s November, and some of us know what that means. No, not the election, but if that’s on your mind, this is the video that is giving me a burst of hope and determination despite some desperate acts of repression this weekend. And visit votesaveamerica.com to explore how you might help.

November is *also* National Novel Writing Month, the month where writers around the world choose to set a goal of writing at least 50,000 words on a new project, usually a novel, in 30 days. Or they set whatever goal they want because it’s just a chance to say, let’s write a lot, have fun, and not worry about getting it all right or making it all make sense. That’s my favorite kind of writing–writing for the joy of writing.

As someone who likes to manage time well, at least sometimes, I love that the power strategy to succeed is to write at least 1,667 words a day. Since I wasn’t 100% confident my head was in the right space to write, I decided to aim for just 1,667 words today. And my opening scene actually ended right at 1,668.

Seems like a good sign. Find out more at www.nanowrimo.org

A playful approach to revision

Lately I have been making tiny steps forward in my writing. The most effective strategy for me to be able to write anything is to NOT look at the news or social media. Because the news is so terrifying on so many levels (with the occasional flash of hope for something better in the future… which is almost painful given the circumstances), I can’t quit reading the news. But if I want to get anything done, I need to try to do my work before I let myself peek at the latest scenes from this slow-motion disaster. There are true villains in this drama, and I am also carving out time to try to change that by working with Vote Save America, which provides some solace, at least, to know I am not alone in wanting something better.

So anyway, that is step one for me to get writing done. But the other challenge is the same challenge as always: I just don’t feel as excited about revising my writing as I do writing first drafts. When I write first drafts, I am a rock star. I am creating something new and amazing. When I am revising, I feel like the lowest form of life imaginable. I can’t believe how much is missing or poorly executed. You won’t be surprised to hear that procrastination is a challenge right now.

I have found this blog a useful accountability partner, so I may start posting progress reports on here again. So for today, I want to remind myself of the ways I can make revision feel more creative and rewarding.

1. Journaling.
I love journaling, free writing, brainstorming. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing first drafts, I guess. There is no standard to achieve when I journal. It’s just a chance to let the ideas flow. And it seems to cheer me up if I tell myself, okay, journal a bit about what you are going to write or revise today, and then you can journal afterwards on how it went. If I journal specifically about the novel, I call it process-writing, and keep those notes in the same Scrivener file as the novel. If I journal more generally, that part stays in my journal file on Ulysses.

2. Timers
I know that timers are a source of torture for some people, but I have found it inspiring to set a timer to see how much I can get done within a time limit. This works with fresh drafts, yes, but it is a powerful tool with revision because it helps me commit to the moment rather than pondering ways to procrastinate. I can also count on the time running out, and then finding some small reward. Or even better, to get so wrapped up in the work that I keep writing, even though the time ran out.

That’s the irritating thing about my reluctance to revise. It’s so doable. If I can just start, I discover all sorts of ways back into the work, little fixes that are easy to make.

3. Reread my work.
Sometimes, when I feel most resistant to the work, I say, okay, that’s fine, why not just reread it? Just by reading over what I’ve written, I usually find myself making changes. It’s super easy and doable. It also helps to read the work aloud, but I tend to save that for editing, not revising.

4. Creative writing prompts
I love working on writing exercises from creative writing books. I think there are probably tons available online or via apps, now, too. It is perhaps what I miss most when I am trying to be disciplined about focusing on one main project. But creative writing prompts can be applied to revision, too.

5. Switching Point of View
If there is a section that needs work, I can try writing it from a different point of view to see what happens.

6. Conversations with the characters
I can write a conversation with a character asking them for advice on a section. Sometimes they are wiser than I am. And it’s just fun, too.

Takeaway: Be playful.

I have to admit that I prefer to approach writing with a sense of play rather than with some serious, grim Calvinistic demeanor. It is the joy of creative play that draws me to this work. It seems to me revising should be, or could be, just as playful as writing the first draft.

So my goal this week is to find ways to enjoy and look forward to the time I spend revising. I will report back here now and then on my progress.

I hope you all are finding ways to write, too, and possibly to find moments of joy in defiance of all that is so grim right now.

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.

Path

Clearing a path forward

I am glad to report that I am finding my way back to the words, though my progress could best be described as uneven. After spending a few weeks mostly journaling and blogging, I have decided to shift priorities. My top priority each day is to spend time revising my YA SF novel and to train on how to use my newly purchased Serif Affinity Designer app to help me, eventually, develop a new nonfiction project. Or perhaps it will just be a hobby, in case I’m not satisfied with what I’m able to create. I’ve realized that it may take some time to feel comfortable with this app, and I’m more motivated if I can approach this learning process with a sense of play rather than a sense of urgency. So call it a chance to dabble with an artistic tool each day, regardless of where it leads.

Now that blogging is less of a priority, I’ve decided to save time each Monday so that I post at least once a week. It seems like an achievable goal. Maybe?

At least it’s achievable today, and that counts for something. It is Monday, and the week lies before me, glimmering with opportunity. I take one step forward. And another.

Crumpled papers

Don’t overthink.

So today I will write on my most recent affirmation, which is “Don’t overthink.”

Which means, I guess, I should end this post right now so I avoid overthinking about why I shouldn’t overthink. Perhaps like many affirmations, success is not guaranteed :).

Why this affirmation? Recently I was second guessing all of my choices as a writer, as well as questioning the wisdom of submitting my writing for publication. There are many good reasons for doubt. There is no perfect choice of what to write or where to submit. Rejection is not much fun, especially because it is often justified yet simultaneously a result of the randomness of the selection process.

Indeed, I have been on enough hiring committees to know that wonderful candidates can be passed over mostly due to the random alchemy of views and biases of the committee members, of the way one quality is sought over another, and a lot of what I might call the quirks of the moment. It is not really a logical process, though we all go through the motions of trying to be logical and fair. We try. The people who reject my writing (and there aren’t many because I don’t submit my writing often) try to make the best judgement based on the moment. It’s not them. But it’s also not necessarily me. So  I stare at this random mix of meaning and meaninglessness, and think, hmm, maybe I shouldn’t play this game?

But then I come back to this. I need to write. Every day is better if at some point I spend even a few minutes with the words. So I can’t choose what to write based on what might be published. Instead, I need to write what I need to write. Don’t overthink it. And now and then, submit into the void, remembering it’s a void. Just because I don’t know what will happen, or that there are risks within both rejection and success, doesn’t mean I should back off. I have to tap into my courage, tinged with humility. I offer my ideas, my hopes, my reflections, my jokes, and even my grief into the void. I don’t have to be in control of what happens after that.

Just write, I whisper to myself, and to anyone else who is listening. Don’t overthink.

Balloon hovering above water

Courage + Humility

Writing about my affirmations must have been helpful because I have found my way back to the words lately, spending more time revising my novel than posting on my blog. Still, I would like to continue to share some affirmations that have aided me in the past and perhaps present.

This one is not a catchphrase as much as a juxtaposition: Combine courage with humility.

Courage makes sense as a value to embrace, especially for a writer. So often, writing involves the effort to capture ideas in print only to be disappointed by how my words fall short of my vision. It can certainly be discouraging, and then the editing process involves hitting my head against flaws in my writing again and again and again and again… I can look a thousand times and still find more to fix. And that doesn’t even touch on the experience of submitting my writing for publication, which involves what feels like endless opportunities for rejection.

Courage is essential. Yet humility is essential, too. I have to keep in mind that whatever vision I bring to my work will always be partial. There will always be something I am missing, either in my understanding or in my efforts to share this understanding. Any amount of success can do more harm than good if I lose the ability to listen and watch for what I don’t know or for where I am falling short. Indeed, the more I come to know, the more I become aware of what I don’t know.

Humility is what brings the greatest insights to me, the greatest opportunities for transformation. Yet humility exists in tension with courage. Courage requires a boldness, a devil-may-care attitude that is the antithesis of humility, which suggests hesitation and observation.

Within that tension, perhaps, is the energy necessary to tackle the many obstacles inherent to writing… and living a meaningful life.