October 29, 2013

11 Tips for Finding the Writerly Zone

Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) is meant to be a time when you throw caution to the wind and try to write 50,000 words in four weeks. That's maybe in the realm of possibility if you've got a bucketload of time and an endless supply of Reese's pumpkins. But I don't have either one of those things. I believe that, even if I DID, one month just isn't enough to produce a quality first draft. Nanowrimo stands as a great motivator, though. For me, it's become about finding new ways to write effectively in the time I can manage to carve out.

I've found that the key to writing effectively with limited time is the ability to get into the Writerly Zone quickly, and stay there for as long as you can. It's hard to get into that zone, though, when you're working long, demanding hours; it's hard to get into that zone when you're tired or unsure about where your story is heading. But here's a thing I've discovered: the longer you let a project linger, the more likely it becomes that you'll lose your flow, your motivation, and your sense of why you started writing the thing in the first place.

Here are some of the tricks for finding, and maintaining, the Writerly Zone:

1. Set up goals for each writing session ahead of time. When you sit down at your computer, you don't want to waste precious time staring at that ugly, blinking cursor, scratching your head over what you want to write. Create a road map--or at least a few road signs--for what you want to accomplish in the hour you have at your disposal. Set a concrete goal, whether it be reaching a particular word count or reaching the end of a scene. Just remember that writing to a certain word count doesn't work well for everyone, so set a goal that keeps you motivated.

2. Carve out at least an hour of writing time (90 minutes would be better). You need enough time to allow your mind to unwind and put itself back in the world you're creating. Energy experts suggest that working in 90-minute bursts seem to be a productive time block: long enough to get things done, not so long that your eyes start to burn.

2. Don't write for TOO long. This sounds silly, probably, but sometimes you need to call it. I've found that when I start to hit a wall (and I mean REALLY hit it, hard enough to crunch metal), it's better to stop than to keep going. Try to end your writing time before you run out of things to say; spend those last few minutes planning for the next session.

3. Don't be afraid to think small. The key to achieving any goal is to make it achievable. It's like training for a race: the only way you're going to get to the end is if you focus on what's right in front of you instead of what kind of pizza you're going to order after it's done. It's easy to be intimidated by the thought of writing a novel - but there are other options for flexing your creative muscle this month. Try writing scenes or short stories; write a new story every day. That way, you're not investing in any one story for longer than you'd like, but you're giving yourself room to learn and grow.

4. Carve out the time, then make it a ritual. We are creatures of habit, aren't we? We like to sleep in our own beds, with particular pillows, and a particular book in our hands. When that routine's interrupted, it's often harder to get to sleep. It's the same with writing. Try to write at the same time every day; condition yourself to write under certain conditions; make it into a ritual that contains the same things every time you sit down. That ritual will let your brain, and your creative muse, know when it's time to get serious.

5. Did someone say "ritual"? Here's one of my best secrets for getting in the Zone in 60 seconds or less, no matter where I am: I put on my headphones and queue up a playlist I've compiled particularly for writing. That playlist is usually filled with songs that evoke the mood I'm trying to create. Once I start writing, that music fades into a pleasant background that shuts out any outside distractions.

6. Stop making excuses! No, you don't need to do laundry right now. You don't need to text your mom. You know why? Because it's writing time, and that time is sacred. Don't let other people's opinions stop you from committing to that sacred time. There will always be that little voice somewhere inside you saying that this thing you're doing is a waste of time. There will always be someone in your life who thinks that same. Ignore those voices, because they don't matter. Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

7. Limit and block distractions. Seriously, guys: don't think you can have five tabs open while you write. You KNOW you're going to click to them. Don't try to write in a crowded room full of friends. Cut out as many distractions and draws on your time as you can. Put your phone in a drawer; shut the door to your room. Let people know you're taking an hour and you'd appreciate that it be uninterrupted. What are you doing checking Facebook?! It'll still be there in an hour. I promise.

8. Keep a writing journal at the ready. Inspiration comes at unexpected times. Or, if you're me, inconvenient times. Like when you're driving. Or when you're mowing the lawn. Or doing something that demands attention, sharp objects, and fine motor skills. Having a journal with you allows you to capture any stray lightning bolts of inspiration before they float away. It also encourages you to write down those small, interesting moments in any day that feed the writerly soul. You'd be amazed how many inspiring things are lurking in that overheard conversation in the grocery store or the sounds emanating from the locker room.

9. Decluttering and Reminding. Clear off your desk. The less cluttered it is, the less cluttered you'll feel when you sit down at it. Post some encouraging sticky notes on your desktop. Whatever you think you'll need in those moments when you start to doubt or your mind starts to wander.

10. Give yourself permission to suck (well, at least to not look back). Remember that you're writing a draft - not a finished masterpiece. That comes later. If you're stuck, allow yourself to move on, knowing that you'll come back to it.

11. Have a mantra. Something you do when you're starting to feel as if you're the worst writer of all time. Recognize the challenges inherent in writing into the unknown. Writing takes work, and sometimes it's incredibly hard. Recognize that some days won't feel as productive as others. But ALSO recognize that every time you sit down to write, you are learning something. No writing time is ever wasted.

Happy Almost November! Now go forth and write.

October 18, 2013

First Poetry Friday: "Sharks' Teeth"

Teaching Creative Writing in an endlessly inspiring task. Pushing my students out of their comfort zones, and asking them to look closely at poetry to figure out how it ticks, gives me the opportunity to discover new poems and poets that I come to love.

In the past few months, I've LOVED having the opportunity to sink back into poetry and share my passion for it with my students. So now, I'm going to share some of those poems with you.

Welcome to Poetry Fridays.

I discovered Kay Ryan's award-winning book while browsing idly in Northshire Bookstore. I picked it up because I loved the cover. I bought it because I kept snapping photos of every page, entranced by the beauty in her spare language and wonderfully crafted rhythms.

"Sharks' Teeth"
by Kay Ryan

Everything contains some 
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour 
of city holds maybe 
a minute of these 
remnants of a time 
when silence reigned, 
compact and dangerous 
as a shark. Sometimes 
a bit of a tail 
or fin can still 
be sensed in parks.

Source: Poetry (April 2004).