When Shouldn’t I Write?

There are so many writers out there telling us what we should/must do in order to be successful. I am grateful to everyone who is willing to share in order to help others find their way. But I am somewhat less grateful to those who couch their advice in terms of “should” and “must.”

I believe that all of us find our own best path when it comes to how we get things done. For some people, their best path is one that takes more time – seemingly wasting time to others who appear more efficient. For instance, some writers write multiple versions of scenes before they decide which direction they want to go. Other writers decide first and write one draft. Who has the best path? Sometimes the easiest way to understand this concept of finding your own path is to use something you don’t do well as an example.

I don’t cook very well. I have a few dishes that I can make pretty tasty every time – I just made John and Doug bacon-wrapped meatloaf for dinner – but mostly I despise cooking only a little more than I hate cleaning up. I would LOVE to be wealthy enough to have someone cook and clean for me every day for the rest of my life!

So when I do cook, if someone or something convinces me to try something new, I have found that I should double the prep time. One time, it took me 2 1/2 hours to prepare lasagna wraps out of the “easy” Betty Crocker cookbook. The prep time in the cookbook was 45 minutes.  John was pretty starving hungry by the time we ate that night.

Looking at something I don’t do well and rarely enjoy, it’s easier to see how to adjust other people’s “should’s” to work for me, easier than trying to apply it to something I do pretty well and enjoy, like writing. Following me so far?

Stephanie and I were on a writing retreat once where she did all the cooking and I did all the grocery shopping. I ate like a Queen that week! Steph laughed at me so many times when I gushed about how good her food was, and she kept insisting it was so easy. She eventually learned that cooking is not easy for me.

Now compare all the writing advice you’ve heard. I’d guess that over 90% of the advice you hear works for the person who said it. (I suspect that some people tell you what they believe to be the best way to do something even though they haven’t been able to be completely successful doing it that way.) But just because it works for someone, or lots of someones, doesn’t mean it will work for me or for you.

Take writing every day for example. I do believe that working consistently is the best way to build structure and habits and routines that will get you through the hard times when you don’t know what to write, or when life keeps you from writing as much as you used to. But I don’t believe every writer needs to write 5 or 6 or 7 days a week, rain or shine or Christmas or funeral, in order to be successful.

I’ve found that a menu system works better for me. I work every day, 4-7 days a week, but I don’t write every day. Some days I’ll write for 8 or 10 hours, other days I’ll do other “business of writing” work for the whole day. My brain works smoother and more fully when I do only one or two major tasks a day. I’ll spend an entire day doing a week’s worth or a month’s worth of accounting rather than take a few minutes every day. That’s the menu item I chose on that day. On another day, I’ll choose to write all my blogs for the next week or two. On a different day, I’ll spend most of the day researching, reading, and journaling to get my thoughts stirred up or organized.

So how do I know when I “should” write if I don’t have a specific schedule? Well, first let me say I’m curing myself of the “should’s.” But how do I know if I’m choosing what Stephanie calls creative procrastination or if I’m really procrastinating or being lazy? That’s a tough question. I don’t have the answer for me, let alone you. But I will say that asking yourself the question in the first place will often give you a gut feeling as to which one you’re in now.

Most of you know I’ve had a pretty tough year. Several funerals, several periods of unemployment, financial hardship, two moves, it’s been all I can do to keep from wallowing in self-pity let alone try to keep to a writing schedule. On the one hand, I have the feeling that I haven’t gotten much done this year. On the other hand, I wrote stories for two anthologies that will be out later this year, brainstormed a new series of books, worked on getting Little Miss Lovesick into print, and attended two writing retreats and a national conference. I’ve also been learning how to run a publishing company since I’m self-publishing my books.

Under the circumstances, I feel pretty good about what has been accomplished! I’m working on getting more of a schedule going, creating a printed menu of work for each month, and in general getting more done starting this week. But I’m still not going to force myself to write every day because that’s not how I work best.

What should you do this week? Begin by tossing the word “should” out the window. (I’m not saying you definitely “should” but I think you’ll find it helpful.) Then look back over your writing life and your regular life and look for patterns when you felt like you achieved the most and were happiest. That’s where you’re going to find the answers for you.

I need to find some time each week for silly fun, some time for TV and movies, some time for reading fiction and nonfiction, some time alone, and some time with other people. Some varying amount of each of these help me to get the most work done during the week.

Looking over your life, what do you think will work best for you?

Time Wasters and How to Avoid Them

I might be one of the only writers I know who does not waste time playing computer games like solitaire. However, I have a boatload of other time wasters! Here are some of them:

  • Shopping in the morning to avoid the crowds and traffic
  • Checking email during my writing time
  • Working on writing that isn’t part of my focus
  • Running errands every day instead of grouping them together once or twice a week
  • Too much TV and movie watching
  • Staring at my to do list, moving stacks of papers and books on my desk, and in a variety of other ways trying to get more organized without actually accomplishing that or anything else!
  • Planning for the future too far in advance
  • Driving to a store to buy something I might not even need because I have a coupon that’s going to expire today

The question for me soon became – how do I know when I should feel guilty for doing one of these things instead of writing? None of them are bad, per se. But when I can find a way to narrow down what needs to be done and when, that will help me know when to push myself and when to back off without wallowing in unnecessary guilt.

Three changes have helped immensely – 1) creating routines, 2) figuring out what my time wasters are (and where possible, finding ways to avoid them), and 3) figuring out what I really want to write and making sure I stay within those bounds.

So 1) my new routine is to write from 9am to noon, five days a week. 2) I can’t do anything else during that time, especially any of my time wasters. As you can see, I actually made a list of them so I can be forewarned and forearmed before I lose too much time. 3) I made a list of about a half dozen topics I want to stay focused on, whether for fiction or nonfiction.

When a writing opportunity came up last week, I compared the topic to my interest list. It wasn’t on there, and couldn’t easily be angled in one of those ways. I immediately declined the opportunity. Boom! Done! No wasted time trying to figure out how I could make it work. And no guilt! When I got a coupon for my favorite store, I figured out how much the savings would be. I’d created a strategy to avoid wasting time by not making a special trip if the savings was less than $10. Boom! Done! I didn’t leave my writing early that day.

Which brings me back to the connection between guilt and wasting time. The above lists and strategies have helped me to recognize when I am wasting time out of laziness, when I need to stop and take a breath and ask myself what’s wrong, and when I just need to relax and realize life interrupts our schedules sometimes. For me, I only need to allow guilt to exist in the first scenario because that’s what guilt is for – to get us to change what we’re doing. In the last two scenarios, there is nothing to feel guilty about. And with set routines, you can hit “restart” immediately!

What about you? What are your time wasters, and how do you – or can you – avoid them?

Wasting Time

This week we are discussing time wasters. Unfortunately, I know a lot about those. A time waster for me is anything I do when I’m supposed to be doing something else, like writing. Trouble is sometimes I don’t recognize something as a time waster until it’s too late. Like after I’ve spent an hour playing Bookworm or frittered away prime writing time on a bunch of household chores.

That’s the beauty of establishing routines and regular times to write. Those time wasters are easier to spot. In my case, I’ve scheduled 10 am to 2 pm as my writing time. If I’m doing anything other than writing or lunch, I’m off my routine. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wasting time, but I’m certainly not using my time wisely. I’ve learned that it is not nearly as productive to try to fit writing into other times of the day. That may or may not remain the case. Just a few short years ago my prime time was after everyone else was in bed. My days were so full of other responsibilities that I had to defer my writing time. Night owl that I am, it wasn’t a hardship. For now, though, 10-2 is the best time for me to write.

What about you? Can you set a time that is only writing time? Even if you can only manage 30 minutes a day, you will have spent at least two hours writing each week. Those time wasters, whether it is legitimate chores or mindless games, are much easier to recognize when they infringe on established routines. Try it. Set aside a certain time each day that is only for writing, even if it is only 15-30 minutes. Spend that time writing. Only writing. And watch those time wasters fade away.