My #1 Tool for Productive Writers, Part 1

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“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.”

– Walter Wellesley Smith

For a long time, I believed the hype about being a more productive writer. I thought the usual advice about setting goals, getting on a schedule and visualizing was right on. But I think for some of us it’s not enough. There are deeper issues that keep us from achieving our high-minded goals.

It may only seem worth the effort if you’ve tried many of the tools and tips and been unable to keep it up. Initially I found those tools and tips helpful but because they couldn’t deal with the root of my problem, I felt inadequate, embarrassed. Maybe I was just lazy. I wanted to write. So why didn’t I do it?

Turns out my struggles were soul deep, and no matter how simple the steps appeared, nothing else worked for me before this.

The tools and tips about apps or methods can become useful after you sort out the deeper challenges. But for me, there was a psychological tool I needed that freed me to pursue the practical advice about how to be productive.

It was permission.

walk

Basically, I needed permission to stop focusing on productivity. If you want to be productive, often you have to stop focusing on it, and start seeing where you’re sabotaging yourself.

Despite my best efforts to write, I’d always end up rebelling. I’d eventually resent the work and go on a word-spending spree, numbing out on surrogate thrills in all kinds of ways.

And here’s where a different writing coach might recommend getting a separate computer for writing or using Pomodoros or setting goals and rewards. They just never worked for me. I’d try and fail, then, wracked with guilt, lament my hopeless situation yet again and wish by Thor’s hammer there was some lasting method for finding infinite flow and recapturing optimum productivity in life.

Whatever.

But now, after well over 10 years of on-and-off-again writing this novel, I may finally have my answer. It’s a deceptively simple method that effectively removes what I produce as the end goal of the work.

And that’s it. If you’re a strong-willed over-achiever like me, it may solve your problem of low productivity forever and remove the guilt to stop focusing on productivity.

deer

That’s right. Instead, focus on the process, i.e. just getting the cup of whatever, sitting down, opening the document and reading some of it. 

If this isn’t you, I know this might sound crazy, but the only way to get a stubborn donkey to move is to stop pushing it. Showing up and opening the document and staring at it for a while, sure it takes some effort, but it doesn’t require trying a bunch of things that only complicate your process.

And, best of all, you have complete permission not to write a word.

If you struggle with productivity, make it your new intention to shift your thinking to not writing new words but simply reading the old ones. It’s nothing fancy; it’s just reassigning your effort to restrict what you’re paying attention to.

Outsmart your inner rebel.

lightBelieve me, before I did this, I’d always find a way to get out of writing. And what changed for me was that I realized I was continually hampered in my writing because I was my own worst enemy. While I wanted to produce good work and be diligent, something else inside, something deeper, wanted easy comfort and relief from long-held pain. And I knew I could find it (at least quick fixes) in myriad other places.

And until I stopped and realized that pain was legitimate and deserved to be heard and comforted, I only kept trying to muscle my way to a specific word count, using will-power to try and stay “on task” even as I knew it would be short-lived and probably not produce any meaningful writing. And becoming distracted all the time.

Next time I want to talk about a practical trick I’ve used to reward myself for sitting down to read (not to write) every day. Because it’s been quite a rewarding journey these past few weeks already…

I’m not completely out of the woods yet—I could still stumble and fall down. But I’m confident that my focus on this simple process frees me to face ever more dragons guarding my cave, whether or not I eventually win out over all of them. Just showing up, I have less chance of forgetting that this is how writing life-changing books is done, whatever it may look like to anyone else, day in, day out.

One healed piece at a time.

“I have experienced healing through other writers’ poetry, but there’s no way I can sit down to write in the hope a poem will have healing potential. If I do, I’ll write a bad poem.”

– Marilyn Hacker

Mick

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22 thoughts on “My #1 Tool for Productive Writers, Part 1”

    1. Exactly. Some of us have to start with 0 word days. Thanks Katharine. So grateful for your solidarity. :)

  1. Now I understand my struggle – by trying to conform to all the methods and parameters I end up feeling like a failure or that I’m not smart enough to do it right. So I stew in fear of getting back to the manuscript because I don’t want that feeling again. I do read my ms, and although I don’t see greatness in my writing, I like it. I am not very good at fitting into a mold, no matter how attractive it is. So I’m going to give myself permission to be friends with my own process. Thanks so much for letting us in on your journey of discovery! I can’t wait to hear more.

    1. Jan, I love ya. We’re like two peas in a pod (not that I’d blame you if you wanted to deny it). I wonder if writing greatness isn’t so much about natural talent or even acquired skill, but a willingness to be inadequate and let the story and the characters teach you what you need–and then to humbly seek that out. Kind of like the parents who are such humble examples to their kids rather than perfect discipliners or whatever. This is a theory I’m devising that’s inspired by The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown…look forward to sharing more next week!

  2. “Instead, focus on the process.” Sounds like the teacher is listening to his own words. :)
    Can’t wait to see the brilliance that comes out of your permission to not perform.

  3. As you know, I’m writing full time now after finishing up 20 years of homeschooling. I soon realized all these same things about myself, especially that I can’t sit still that long to do anything. I work in snippits and scenes. I finally set the bar really low, 200 words a day on either WIP or blog, and it relieved the burden. I also was feeling guilty for reading and editing old scenes, but it helps me fall in love with my story and my characters again. And it’s encouraging, because when I finish a day’s writing I always think it’s crap, then I go back and read it I discover I won’t have to change it all the second time around. Thanks, Mick!

  4. Mindy, I read and edit old scenes all the time! Didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. Hmm. As for setting the bar low, it makes sense, at least partly because I have a much harder time stopping than starting.
    Mick, about reading, yup. Works for me to read really good poetry. The rhyme and meter and flow stir the pot, the stretch of ideas lifts my thoughts into a creative realm that energizes and propels….thnx

  5. That is, thanks for reminding, encouraging, validating, and for driving the stake that encourages me to “tent” here, open my computer and write. I’ve even been known to review what you have written later on, if the writing has to wait.

  6. oh brother mick, if YOU can do this, i certainly might be able to and i love the idea. but isn’t it really really hard to not change even one word!? what discipline to just read the thing, period. i’m going to try it! and will you please keep us posted about your success with this tack? :-)

    1. Also, please notice I’m not saying DON’T change or add if you want. Just don’t feel obligated to. It’s the obligation that keeps us from wanting to sometimes, and once that’s removed, the writing and editing may not feel so daunting.

    1. Thanks, Cathee. Talking about these things isn’t easy. But it feels like if I tell writers we have to admit and talk about our struggles in writing, maybe I ought to be doing it more too. It’s not the end of the world to feel what true and talk about it. I’m not sure why it sometimes feels that way. But feelings aren’t the big evils we think they are. And once we feel them and deal with them, we can heal and become real people like those we admire so much who do this in the real world for others. All those amazing authors I’ve long admired…this is all they do too. Give themselves permission to just show up when it all gets to be too much. Can’t wait to share about the rewards next week… Much love to you and Texas in the journey.

  7. In the two years I’ve been writing I have not run into this problem. I suppose I spent so much of my life spinning my wheels working towards the wrong goal, that having the right goal in the right spot leaves me with nothing I’d rather do. I adore the entire process. Think this is hard? Try running after a dragon that’s trying to kill you for 28 years. Chasing down the right word or phrase is nothing. LOL!!! In the name of Jesus Christ I speak healing to the disease of following some foolproof formula. I relinquish your mind to follow the Holy Spirit. The rest is up to Him. Now, by the power of God Himself, WRITE. XOXO

    1. Texas, thanks for rubbing that in and contributing to my inadequacy. :) I know you have been through the ringer so I hear you saying, “I’m with you and it gets better. So keep on because God’s got this!” Thanks for the excellent thoughts and powerful prayer!

  8. That’s the good news. We were completely inadequate. But in our weakness He is made strong. I’m swimming in inadequacy. Come on in the water is great. There’s even a waterproof thesaurus on hand. LOL!!!

    1. Love it. This really is the secret. And waterproof thesaurus. You’re hilarious.

  9. Great post!! Brings to mind an interview I once read by Stephen King–he said he can’t wait to sit down every day at his typewriter to find out what happens next. It is such an innocent, almost Zen-like approach that I’ve tried to steal it. In the writing phase, all I do is sit down and “vomit words”, usually after reading the last three pages and then just letting the flow happen. Editing happens later, finding the right phrase, filling in plot holes, rounding out back stories–that’s the job of a different ‘me.’ Writer [and reader] ‘me’ loves plot lines, so that’s where the writing starts; I imagine QTarantino starts with dialogue (or maybe violence) and then manufactures plot around that. Maybe everybody is different. Is part of your “permission” just allowing yourself to approach it from whatever tool you like best (dialogue/plot/scene/character) and running with it?

    1. This is a great thought, Just Me. Start with the part that gets your engine revving. James Scott Bell has recommended starting in the middle at the point the hero faces his/her big choice. I like that idea too. And of course, other teachers have said to start at the end. Whatever works! Thanks for the comment!

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