The Stalling Before the Writing (Or, the Tragic Plight of My Poor Nails)

Your deadline is a headlight zooming towards you on a dark road. It’s speeding, angry, coming at you with music blasting, yet you find yourself standing there, in the middle of the road—shocked into a dumbness, unable to move, hypnotized by the light that’s getting brighter by the minute. You can see the crash happening, so why don’t you move? Why don’t you write?

Or maybe you don’t have a deadline. An external one, I mean. Maybe your deadline is simply internal, self-imposed; the usual tug of war between the procrastination troll that lives inside the crevices of your ears and the discipline fairy who’s ironically a pretty lazy fellow considering his purpose—he comes and goes as he pleases; he’s never there when you need him and when you don’t need him he’s hanging out on your shoulder, legs dangling, cracking jokes and eating grapes.

You sit yourself down to write but a million and one things are not right with the state of your work space. A million and one minuscule things that don’t matter at all. You begin to think of all the people you know and wonder why you haven’t reached out to so-and-so, and maybe you should send them an email, so you do. You’re so thoughtful.

You paint your nails (if painting your nails is something you do) to prevent yourself from biting them (if biting them is something you do) because the waiting and the stalling makes you ache with anxiety. You hate that you bite your nails (if that’s something that you do) and wish that you would stop, as you’re doing it. You wonder if this is what crack feels like. You start a story with a crack-addict antihero then stop before the first paragraph is finished because… it’s a crack story.

You check a few more emails. You eat a cookie. You decide you’re still hungry even though you ate a meal not long ago, and just ate a cookie. You start writing a blog post (ha). You check your phone for notifications of any kind. You’re mad when there are none.

This is the stalling before the writing.

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do.

Why is it so hard to begin sometimes? Is it fear? Is it your over-caffeinated brain? (You over-caffeinated because you thought it would help jump start your writing. But it’s been exactly one hour and thirty-four minutes since you sat down and all you’ve accomplished is managing to stay put in your writing chair.)

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do. At least.

You breathe. Try to harness your thoughts. You put tape over your nails to keep from biting them. You can’t type with the tape on your nails so you rip them off and feel disgusted with yourself. When did this nail biting habit even start? You dive into a google search. How to stop biting your nails. Why do people bite their nails. What do sloths eat.

You pull up your page again and suddenly the whiteness becomes a halo. Suddenly, you’re in a trance; you start seeing your words dancing… they’re inviting you to join them. You’re transported. You finally hear the music. You finally found the portal—the portal to the writing. The stalling has ended. The stalling has ended. You rejoice, but not too loudly lest you become distracted again. The writing begins. It’s happening!

But now you have to pee.

Finding Time to Write (and the horrible, inevitable consequence of not writing)

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Finding time to write is one of those struggles that really gets under my skin. It’s like there’s a tiny porcupine who lives in the slimy space between my skull and my brain who rolls around like a tumbleweed on the days that I’m not writing. This tiny porcupine causes me great discomfort as you can imagine, and the only way to make him stop rolling about like a menace is to sit myself down to write, because writing lulls him to sleep… and gives me relief.

When I think about what I’m so busy doing that keeps me from writing, a definitive answer never comes. Instead, my mind mulls over the generic I’m just so busy. And yet, we’re always going to be busy. There’s always going to be something that needs our attention right now. Do we revel in this energy of feeling needed? It’s hard to say. But I don’t want to be busy in the sense that I’m caught up in the rush of the weekday cycle, going through the motions of must-dos, and losing myself along the way.

“How’ve you been?”
“Good. Just busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“Being busy.”

Something will always need our attention, be it work, family, personal hygiene, or the tedious chores of cleaning and laundry that — will never come to an end. When I analyze it in this way I recognize how easy it is to put writing on the back burner. And since not writing doesn’t offer any immediately visible dire consequences in the short-sighted view of our world, we continue to put it off. And our tetras game of priorities thus continues to blur our desire to write further and further into the background.

Not writing does not equal having no clothes to wear the next day. Not writing won’t cause ants to parade around your kitchen counter or flies to invade your garbage can. Not writing will not get you fired from your job (unless of course, writing is your job) — nor will it result in your kids going hungry or your dog peeing all over the floor. (At this very moment my dog puked on the couch, so I had to interrupt my writing just now to deal with that wonderful mess — seriously!)

So yes, it’s very easy to put off writing; there are so many excuses to choose from! Too many times have I been in bed at end of the day agonizing over another day of not having written, whispering to myself meekly and ever so hopefully, I’ll try again tomorrow. This cycle of busy is a death trap. It’s killed many would-be writers.

This is my warning to you.

And to myself.

The reason not writing doesn’t cause any immediate ramifications is because its effects are, well, not immediate. Not writing is the surest way to kill a writer… but it’s a slow, steady, crumbling death, peppered with phrases of procrastination, excuses, overwhelmed sighs, and denial.

Not writing is a poison IV drip — every drip representing a single day of not writing.

A recurring nightmare I have is a moment in which I admit to myself — from the deepest, most tucked away chambers of my heart — that I can’t truthfully call myself a writer anymore. I’m staring at my old, dusty, long-forgotten drafts and don’t recognize the words as my own, and suddenly at dinner parties I’m standing around with a wine glass in hand, and with that awkward dinner-party half-laugh, I recount to the semi-circle around me that I used to be a writer. And when I go home later, pop my heels off my feet, think about how I maybe should’ve stayed home to write instead of go to that party — I realize I don’t feel the tiny porcupine anymore. He dissolved into my brain a long time ago because of how numb I’d become to the treacherous feeling of not writing.

It’s a dark thought, I know. That’s why it’s a nightmare. But it’s a thought every writer struggling with time management should reflect on — if a writer is who you are and who you truly want to be. Are you dedicated enough? The title of Writer must be earned.

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance.” – J.K. Rowling

It’s so frustrating trying to carve out the time I need to write, like I’m trying to steal pennies from a piggy bank before somebody notices and calls my name. But the solution is truly simple. Writers write — we must write. In the same way we nourish our bodies with food and water, we must nourish the writers that we are and can fully become by making writing more of a priority in our lives.

Writing is hard; we mustn’t forget that. Not just the process of writing and what comes after, but the process of getting to the writing desk in the first place. Everything about writing is hard. And only real writers are up for the challenge — are obsessed with it. Love it regardless.

For me my solution comes down to time management. Clearly my lifestyle hasn’t been nurturing my writing routine, so I’ve begun to rise an hour earlier each day to use that extra time slot to write. Anyone who knows me will know just how much of an effort this is… I’m a night owl by nature. But I’ve decided that writing is too important to me, more important than my self-proclaimed love for the night, and that I’m willing to do anything I need to do to put writing in the forefront. Leaving it for the end of the day has kept my unfinished drafts at just that.

Because I think part of the problem is that I shouldn’t be trying to find time to write, I should be trying to make time to write. (Yes, for me at this point it’s still a matter of try, but at least I’ll be trying in the right direction.) I’ve realized I need to actively shape my schedule around writing, not just let my writing fall wherever it may.gloria-steinem

What it boils down to is priority. You make time for what’s important to you.

Being a writer may not be a choice, but the writing life — the writing life is very much a choice. It’s a choice you have to make every day, every time you sit down to it amidst the million other things that are shouting for attention as you’re typing away.

Being a writer is not about writing when it’s convenient, it’s about making sure you’re writing no matter what — because if you don’t, you’ll live out the rest of your life feeling incomplete and resentful of everything and everyone around you. And your unwritten stories will haunt you.

Not writing may not keep your life from falling apart in the immediate sense, but it sure will cause the writer in you to die a slow and untimely death.

And I don’t want to go out like that.


What strategies do you use to maintain an active and consistent writing routine? What sacrifices or adjustments have you made in the name of writing?

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Don’t Let Life Pass You By

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It’s easy to get lost in the folds of everyday. The countdown to the weekend seems to rule our lives. It’s a vicious cycle that blurs together days and weeks and months, until you forget how old you are on your birthday, and you no longer want to celebrate.

To-do lists are endless highways, as though life were a road trip, and you stay up all night just to get to where you want to be, and by day you’re too exhausted to enjoy the views. Attempts to workout or eat right or quit that habit or say the right words or commit to that perfect routine seem to follow you like a recurring daydream (or nightmare). Then you wake up one morning and realize six months have gone by (or worse — years), and you still haven’t taken the steps to accomplish all that your heart wants to do. Your passions are hanging on a hook behind your bedroom door. I’ll get to it tomorrow, you say as you make your usual exit, walk down the path of your usual routine. Because first things first: bills need to be paid, and your boss is expecting you to be somewhere on time — on their behalf.

And all the while your dog is getting older as he waits for you on the couch each day. You are getting older. The days continue to dissolve and you continue to put off calling up that friend or family member whom you haven’t seen in ages. You don’t remember what you did last weekend because every weekend looks the same, and it doesn’t matter anyway. You seem to be constantly saving for something and constantly broke. Not because you don’t have money, but because you’re worried that like time, you’ll never get back what you spend, so you tuck it away hoping something worthwhile will come along, something that will give you a good return on investment. And you’re constantly searching for that one thing that’s certain. Because better safe than sorry, right?

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I remember having what was probably my very first moment of clarity. I was sitting at the dining room table eating alone, looking across the room to the wall that held a round-faced clock. I remember staring at the second hand, focusing every thread of my being on its incessant ticking, its endless quest to move forward, to keep going. And for some reason, I remember feeling an immense sadness at the sudden, stark awareness that seconds were falling away from me. Falling away as I sat there on that table with a spoon in my hand, into a place I could never visit. It was the first time I realized that time is irretrievable.

We all have things that we want to do and things that we must do — sometimes those things align, sometimes they conflict. But no matter where those things fit in your life, I’ve learned that it’s important to prioritize what makes your heart catch fire. To do what makes you feel alive. Too many of us walk around drugged by coffee and obligations — utterly subdued into mindless routines that undo the threads of the heart by night and numb the passions of the soul by day.

Until you wake up and your skin is stale, and the pages of the novel you’d never written are sitting on your bedside table, yellowed by years of neglect. And your boss doesn’t exist in your life anymore, and you don’t remember how old you are, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Suddenly your life’s priorities involve getting to the bathroom before you let yourself go, and making your doctor’s appointments on time (they’re very busy so it’s important to be on time) because those shiny-eyed doctors with their sympathetic nods hold the answers to elongating your life (at least that’s what your mind has you believe) — though you’re unsure what you would do with your time if you did live longer. Because by that point, your best years are gone anyway (at least that’s what your mind has you believe). And dreams are for sissies anyway. Dreams are for street musicians and artist hippies and young inventors and college students who think they can change the world. Who are you to dream? Who are you?

The not-so-magical time between stories

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Writing is a magical process…

Magical because the whole experience of creating a world from nothingness is so mysterious and so beautiful that you can’t possibly explain what it’s like to a non-writer.

But what happens when you’re done with a writing project?

Take reading, for instance… do you ever take some time to process a book when you’re done with it? Let it simmer in your mind for a while before you pick up another? I do… and quite similarly… I take some time between writing stories. When my brain is coming down from its writing high and relishing the small but earned break I give to myself before I tackle the next world I have on queue to create.

I write short stories. I can only work on one story at a time (even though I may have 10 other story ideas poking at my brain all at once). Coming to the end of a story draft is a glorious time filled with light and hope and happy dances and the feeling that you might actually be able to call yourself a writer after all.

I print my draft, feel the paper in my hands, my inked words, my tangible imagination—it feels so good!—I read it over with a pen, circling, underlining, running a line through sentences, words, paragraphs, praying that I won’t hate this draft in the morning; I email my story to a few trusted readers who promise to get back to me with feedback. And then I wait.

And I wait.

And I wait some more.

I might pluck a few guitar strings while I’m in this time zone between stories.

I might write a poem or two. Or bake some cupcakes. (I don’t bake very often, so the latter is a big deal.)

I might peruse through other story drafts, scratch my head and wonder where to pick up and continue the narrative.

I might binge on a TV show I neglected while I was being so good sticking to my writing routine all those weeks, before I arrived at “The End.”

And all the while the glorious feeling of having finished a story begins to slowly fade. The time between stories stretches along and I realize I should probably stop waiting idly for feedback from my readers and start working on another story while I wait.

But I need closure! I need closure for my finished story draft. I need it to be a final draft, which is much different from a finished draft, mind you. And so I’m working through this struggle that is moving on to the next story when the one before isn’t exactly done yet. (But can a story ever really be done? That’s another post all together…)

I’ve been doing really well with my writing routine this year and I’m proud of myself. When I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll, and I feel invincible as far as productivity goes. But when I finish a story draft… that’s another… well, story. I’m finding that I have a hard time gearing back up into writing mode again.

Does this ever happen to you?

I guess the trick is to not spend too much time away from writing. Celebrate the fact that you’ve finished a draft, but don’t hang by the camp fire long enough for it to go out at your feet. Initially, I extend this time between stories because I’m waiting for feedback from my readers… I can’t work on another story until I get feedback about the story I’ve just finished…

Excuses, excuses!

And yet… I know that taking time away from finished drafts is important for perspective. If you’re like me, you’ve read your story draft 1001 times and you can therefore no longer read it objectively. So you do in fact need some distance from your story, so you can come back to it with the fresh perspective needed to revise it fully and completely.

But I need to get better at controlling this time between stories. I can’t linger in this limbo for too long… I need to learn to set my finished story aside and move on to my next project a little faster. I’ve been getting better at consistency as far as writing regularly goes, but the juncture between one story and the next has proven to be a little trickier to navigate.

How about you? Do you linger in the time between stories? If so, how do you spend this time? How long does it take you to bounce back into the writing zone—into your next writing project? Or do you not take a break from writing at all?

I’d love to hear from you!