I remember when I traveled a lot, people used to tell me: I wish I could do that. I always thought to myself: No, you don’t. Of course they wanted to see the world, make new friends, meet new cultures, but all of that came with a cost. There was a certain level of mental fitness required for me to travel the way I traveled—for extended periods of time, no hotels, creating some semblance of a daily life. First, I interrupted the relationships I had here in my home country every time I left for a three-month, four-month, or nine-month jaunt. Whenever I got back, the landscape of home was different; my friendships were different; and I had to deal with those shifts. Also, while traveling I consistently had to work on myself. Being in a new country came with the reality of facing a vast wall of the unknown. I had to be rigorous with myself. I’d make pacts to leave the house and not come home until I had met three people. I had to stumble through language barriers, cultural barriers, culinary barriers. I did it because I loved it, not because it was easy (because it wasn’t) and not because it required no sacrifice (because it did).
I think about those sacrifices now when I think about the mental fitness required to maintain my writing productivity. My friend recently posted a quote that expresses it perfectly: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life”—Lawrence Kasdan. Especially now, while my job is squeezing out every bit of attention I have to muster, getting home and sticking to my writing plan is very much like homework. I push myself to keep moving, do the baseline. When I don’t feel like writing, I edit; when I don’t feel like editing, I type up my edits. There’s always something to do.
But here’s the mental fitness aspect: there is no one there telling you what to do. At this phase of my career, where I don’t sell books before I write them, it’s just me, pushing myself to complete. For most of the writing life, being a writer is like having an imaginary friend (or a secret lover). No one knows what it’s like in your work relationship except you and the work. No one knows if you’re cheating or if you’re doing great. Your faith in the value of your artistry—whether you believe it has value to yourself or to the public—has to be strong so that you stay motivated to keep working at it, to keep toiling away in private with the hopes that with lots of commitment, magic, and grit, your works will become real to the rest of world.
Most of a writer’s progress isn’t visible. The marks of my progress are the barely decipherable scribbles that mar the print-outs of my drafts. When the edits have been typed in, the physical record of them is tossed, making the work invisible and difficult to measure. The only way that a writer’s output becomes visible is when the work is published. Then the time and heart invested are revealed by the tightness of the line; how profoundly the words evoke thought and emotion. It is part of the discipline that no one will ever witness the number of times you revised a line. There will not be a progressive animation that illustrates how your paragraphs transformed from lumps of unrefined babble to become pure magic. This art is full of secrets!
There is a stubborn fantastical notion that artistic output is easy, especially when you’re talented. Just as people said, “I wish I could to that,” in regards to travel, people stare jealously at accomplished writers (artists) and wish they too had progressed that far. But the tail end of the journey does not tell the whole tale. The mental fitness that artistry requires demands that you choose what you will sacrifice to produce the work and what will be the measures you use to carry yourself through. Those are the only two questions a writer truly has to answer to succeed in creating work.
My expectations of myself as a writer were more in line with fantasy than reality. I had proven myself as talented and I expected the work to just come naturally. From an emotional perspective, I thought my creativity would rise to the surface and the work would just come spilling out. That worked when I was in my 20s and I was just living to experience life, but that doesn’t work anymore. Some things I had to sacrifice to become productive:
- downtime: after work (I write), in the morning before work (I write), on the weekend (I write)–this doesn’t mean I have *no* downtime (of course I do), it just means that *all* my downtime is not downtime. A lot of it is work time.
- my tv shows: this happened naturally, as I committed to my work and meeting my goals, I could not come home and watch my shows—I had to write.
- the idea that i didn’t know what to do: this is a big one. I was so cowed by my past failure to write a novel, i had become convinced that I couldn’t do it—I *couldn’t* wake up early in the morning to write, I *couldn’t* write after work. All of that turned out to be false. I was never missing the ability to do it, I was missing the belief that I could do it and the willingness to do it no matter what.
- the idea that I was incapable: this is different from the bullet above. The bullet above describes my belief that I couldn’t do it from an action-based perspective, but deep down I had a more fundamental belief that maybe I was only designed to write short stories. That—beyond my inability to take the actions to write a novel—I was literally incapable of completing a novel. I had to sacrifice the idea that I knew what I could and couldn’t do and just do.
- my fantasy of how it was supposed to be: I thought if I could write a novel, I would just write one and as I was writing it, I would *know* that it was good. As it turns out, neither of those things are true. I *can* write a novel, but I needed to figure out how I was going to write a novel. And I *don’t* know the exact value of it, I just know I’m making it the best it can be within the parameters of what it is and letting that be enough.
To get the work done, I had to move it out of the emotional and aspirational realm and move it into the logical realm. After I sacrificed the idea that because I didn’t have this intuitive, spontaneous, automatic productivity I was failing as a writer, I decided to get real with my work and create some measures for my success. Some measures I had to implement:
- How many words will you write a day? How many days a week? How many pages are in each chapter? For the novel it was 1,000 words a day, five days a week, and when I missed a day, I made it up on the weekend. I decided that each chapter would have 2,000 words. I knew, when I got to about 1,400 words, it was time to consider how to wrap up the scene and create a nice round closing for the chapter. In this way, structure informed the rhythm of the storytelling and helped me round out the plot events so that my story wasn’t just waving wildly in the wind. For a short story I’m writing, it’s 700 words per day *every day* until it’s completed.
- How many chapters will you edit per week? How many pages will you edit per day? How many times will you edit each chapter? For my novel, I decided I’d edit one chapter a week and divide the number of pages in the chapter by the number of days in the week—that’s how many pages I’d edit per day. I’ll edit every day until the chapter has been edited, I’ll also type up my edits on the weekend. I decided I would edit each chapter twice. Once three chapters have been edited twice, I’ll send them to my readers. While they’re reading I’ll move forward to edit the next three chapters. When I get their feedback, I’ll send them the next three chapters and I’ll address their edits (This is a new measure, I have not tried it yet—but it is an answer to the question: do you edit all the way through your novel or do you edit as you go? I wrote all the way through, but I plan to finalize chapters as I go through the book, rather than try to edit the whole book three times.) For my ebook, I edited a chapter a day.
In the July Power Path report, Lena Stevens wrote: “The challenge will be to keep the mind from trying to identify and define concretely just exactly what is going on. It wants to know. It wants the manual. It wants to be in control. This is a fear response to the unknown. You need to reassure your mind that spirit has your back and that it does not need to know, it just needs to trust.”
This is it: the part you trust is that your creativity will flower and blossom. You don’t need to know what the story is before you get it down on the page. You job is to stake out the space for it to blossom, put up the structures, then let your creativity take root and grow!
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam