How to Write a Lot of Words: Ten Practical Habits for Writing Sustainably

I think it’s pretty obvious that the worst part about writing is writing. Otherwise, why would everyone always be asking me: Mrs. Meehan, how do you keep yourself motivated?

Well, I’ll tell you: I spend the bulk of  my “writing” time staring into space, thinking about failure, death, and disappointment, and shopping for things I can’t afford on the internet. When I’m working on a first draft it sometimes feels like I am trying to extract my own teeth with sewing needles, except my teeth and stuck somewhere in my brain and the needles are really dull.

Thus, the establishment of good writing habits is crucial, particularly for those moments when everything is awful. Good habits are something you can cling to when your inbox is full of rejections and you are sunk deep in bitterness and self-loathing. And there is no better time than the end of January to establish those good habits because by now we should all be over the holidays and disappointed with ourselves for not having accomplished more this month.

The internet does not want for lists of writer’s habits: drinking habits, sleeping habits, odd habits, eccentric habits, super sad habits,  etc. However, these are at best entertainment and at worst a means to procrastinate while dreaming of a more productive life than the one you currently have. I have therefore assembled for you a list of useful – albeit somewhat paradoxical – habits for those times when you need to read a list of such things.

  1. Make the internet unavailable during working hours. Zadie Smith evidently uses Freedom. I like Freedom, but I almost never remember to turn it on.
  2. The best way to marry frugality to productivity is to get rid of the internet in your home altogether. I would do this if I still lived in the States and did not need to call abroad very often.
  3. However, the internet is not your enemy. If you are really stuck, read some things on the internet. I get a lot of ideas from The Bradenton Herald and random pop science shit. If you read enough things on the internet, you may enter a crazy fugue state that will enable all manner of creative breakthroughs, which you will consequently forget. Actually Habit #3 is just MAKE TIME FOR READING and try to keep a dim awareness of new titles. If you don’t, you will never know that someone else has already written your current project.
  4. Establish a system of quotas. I’ve found the pomodoro method worse than useless because it makes the passage of time salient, and time is depressing. Plus when you get into “the groove,” inevitably the timer will sound, interrupting your awesome flow. Personally, when drafting I set a daily word limit, and when revising, I set a page limit. If I hit my targets, I reward myself by not having to feel ashamed.
  5. Use newfangled technology to track your progress and enforce quotas. There are like a million productivity apps and I’m not going to bother linking to any of them. Beeminder, SelfControl, 30/30. You know how to find these things. When you get burned out on one, you can always switch to another.
  6. But don’t waste your money on productivity apps. You can make your own damn Beeminder with a piece of paper and an empty jar of mayonnaise into which you will deposit $1 every time you go off track. When the jar is full, make some charitable contributions; you can write those off. You don’t need Freedom either! Unplug your router and throw your phone into the toilet. This is really hard to do, but I believe in you.
  7. Comfort at your workstation is very important. Make yourself comfortable! Do whatever it takes. Sitting at a desk is awful, looking at a screen is awful. Take a break. Write on paper. Stand up. Go to the library or the coffee shop if you can afford it. Ambient noise can be helpful. I like a change of scenery when I get stuck on something.
  8. Mornings seem to be the best time to write a lot? I hate that, but you know, ego depletion is a thing. If it is after 3 pm, go eat something sweet and fatty.
  9. Flâneur. Go for a walk.  Sitting down all the time is bad for you, and walking helps you think. If the weather is not too bad, try to go for a walk.
  10. And most importantly, do not work on your writing every single day, unless you really must. Take one or two days off because you are a human being. You might fail to meet the expectations you have set for yourself, and in that case you will want to have cultivated some other aspects of your life. Do not neglect your relationships. Do not neglect your health. Do not neglect your other interests.
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My semi-functional workspace

As for my own weird habits, I never wear makeup when I’m writing. I try to be as unkempt as possible. I think this is one part superstition, two parts laziness, three parts stereotype threat. How can a woman be a serious writer if she doesn’t look like a mess? I look properly nasty. And for those really bleak moments,  there is an acronym that I invoke: WBAEF. Writing Before Anything Else, Fool.

How to be a Writer Even When You Suck

When I was in undergrad everyone liked to talk about how lame it was to put on the mantle of “writer” and how all those young people who affected writerly tics were posers, flimflammers, and nincompoops. They corralled their mediocrity behind unwashed hair and moth-eaten sweaters. They shaded it from scrutiny by putting on contempt and elitism, and by the hosting of pseudo-literary salons. They read water-stained paperbacks, pencilled quaint graffiti on the walls of lavatories and elevators, and they wrote stories problematic and profane. But we had their number. We were not of their ilk. We were alone up in our rooms writing and dreaming and hurting and wanting! That was how we knew that we were real.

But, rather unfortunately, now that I am older and have been to the school of too many rejections, weird part-time jobs, quitting your day job, taking too long to finish anything, and bringing down the censure and concern of your spouse, I can see with unmitigated clarity that those careless, dirty, pretentious young people were right: writing is a lifestyle choice after all. You cannot go so many days — failing to brush your teeth before noon, wishing you had a profession while deriding those who do, smelling your armpits while slouched over a computer on which nothing is written, devising increasingly pathetic methods by which to get one over on global capitalism while window-shopping at John Lewis until after some windfall you give in and spend too much money on a memory foam mattress topper because of backaches from bad posture and a desire for unearned luxury — before acknowledging, finally, that it is so. To be a writer is multivalent. But to purposely eschew actual full-time paid employment because you are unhinged and believe for some reason that you are an artist and you can’t pin that shit down — this is precise. This is my area of expertise.

So to generate more internet content and thereby make myself party to the end of all goodness in the world, I will be shifting the focus of this ridiculous blog to: how to be a writer even when you are failing at being a writer. Tips and tricks for monetarily deficient, creatively stunted, burned-out creative types and writers like me. Welcome to 2015. January has been kind of shitty, hasn’t it?

The people demand the novel.

I have received one incredibly cryptic request for the novel. Here is a little bit of what I was working on in November, unedited and contextless:

Augusta

The property was searched and searched again. The police never found the monster who chewed on Shelby. I don’t believe they knew what they were looking for. In time, the case was dropped. I don’t believe they would have dropped it if she had died of her injuries rather than the cold. Why was she naked? Where was her dress? Her hair was wet when we found her. They thought it was the dew rising up from the field, and the mist in the air, but there was silt from the river on her legs. She’d been swimming naked in the middle of the night. I knew. I watched her from the river bank. And she wasn’t alone. There were other women with her, all swimming or swinging from the branches of the trees, or lying on the bare mud of the steep riverbank, sprawled over trees’ roots. Dancing as if they were all mad. Pale women, as blue and faint as starlight, with long hair and black empty sockets instead of eyes. They led Shelby by the hand to that locust tree and they mounted it together, until they were all stood up in the branches howling at the sky. She tied the rope around her ankles so if she lost her balance, she wouldn’t die. But there was waiting for her at the bottom of the tree, the serpent woman who haunted the old cemetery in the pines. She unhinged her jaw as serpents do. She was in the bible, you know.

This is what I told the police when Monty said I wasn’t in bed that night and had gone out for a cigarette. He fell asleep. He wouldn’t have known if I’d come back five minutes later in any case. They said I followed Shelby. Mud was on my shoes. Well, that’s all true. So I did. I saw the black man leave her at the drive. I watched outside the window, saw her walk away and cross the wedge of light cast by the floodlights and disappear down the road. It’s easy to guess where she would have gone — always down to see the Mexicans. They were having a potluck party at the trailer park. I used to like to go to a potluck party, but I didn’t anymore. When she spoke to them, I couldn’t understand what they were saying ever. But they laughed too much.

I saw her take the rope from the barn, and I followed her to the river. I took her dress back to the house and laundered it myself later on. But first, who were these women rising up from the fields? I’d never seen them before, but it seemed like she had because she was kissing them on both cheeks like they were Italians. Foreign muck. Anyone could tell they weren’t from the town or the county. They seduced her. I watched them. And when she lost her balance, I was waiting at the bottom of the tree for her. To save her. But the serpent woman got there first. She was dirty and she smelled like fish. She actually asked Shelby if it was okay what she did. The poor girl was just crying. Well, she shouldn’t have taken my pills.

(I can see the blood and the stillness of her. They said, do you have any idea what happened to your girl? I said, that’s no girl.)

This was of course not what the police wished to hear, and I was made party to my poor girl’s death. If I hadn’t done anything to stop it, I must have done something wrong. The law doesn’t say anything about that. They couldn’t handle me anymore, so they packed me off to Broughton, but you know what? I couldn’t handle them anymore, or their darkness. You have no idea what these people are capable of, but you can sense it while they’re skulking around the house, the fierce and perverted daydreams they must be having and that’s why they don’t talk to you.  They have no self-control whatsoever.

Broughton was wonderful because that was the place I found my art. They gave me paint and bits of scrap, and for once in my life I was able to create something beautiful. I began by painting little dresses. They liked those and hung them in the hall. It wasn’t a nice place, but because I was money and blue blood, I got my way always. I painted the scenes of my life and I painted all of the people who came before me and all of those who would come after. Future people are real people; we must never forget this fact.

NaNoWriMo, the end.

I finished the month of novel-writing on Friday and here is the “web banner” to prove it. They also provided me with some kind of certificate to download, and then they asked for money again.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

During the last month, I learned some things.

  • The ability to type a large volume of words in a short period of time is inversely correlated to the production of decent fiction. I think there must be a better way to communicate that, but I am really hungry and there is not any food in the house and I feel burned out and also like my entire identity has been subsumed by all of that mediocre fiction.
  • Weekends are nice. I wrote every single day for close to four weeks, and it was not good. I felt productive, but the wage of productivity was the inferior quality of the work produced. This is usually true, isn’t it?
  • When you feel burned out, working on a draft is the worst! It’s as lame as that lame, storied middle school dare: You’re sent into a dark closet with an ugly person who has probably said mean things about you at some point. You know what you’re meant to do, but the entire experience is awful and humiliating. When you come out, you are certain that everyone is laughing at you, but in fact they don’t even care. They’ve forgotten about you. They’re all eating pretzels and sheet cake.
  • By around the 26th day, I kind of knew what it was that I really wanted to write, and then I started to write it. The rest is full of base sentiment and vulgar clichés like “base sentiment.”
  • I actually feel sad that the month is over. There I was, with generally good habits (except that I stopped working out), toiling at the computer for hours every morning, ruining my teeth on coffee and tea. And now I’m like — fuck it. I’m just going to take the day off and wipe the mold off the bathroom wall. And then I’m going to sit down and think about what I’ve written, because I did not do that once last month.
  • But in seriousness, the best thing that came out of my novel-writing month was that it created some space between me and the other novel I wrote. It is really, really bad to come out of a long project with nothing on the back burner.

Week Three: NaNoWriMo

  • On schedule to finish.
  • It is very time consuming.
  • And I still have not put last week’s laundry away.

Pushcart Prize nomination!

Many thanks to Brenda Mann Hammock and everyone at Glint for nominating Lamia for a Pushcart. I couldn’t be more tickled!

NaNoWriMo: Week Two

  • Halfway point.
  • Getting really, really tired of the appeals for donations. Sorry NaNoWriMo, I blew my discretionary budget on sweaters and half-priced cocktails.
  • But I am unapologetically a fan of this month of novel writing. I’m inclined to think most people would benefit from having to spend some vast amount of time doing something that rewards focus and introspection. But maybe not. I don’t know.
  • My intention was to participate more fully in the discourse this week, but I don’t care and I don’t have time and I am too boring. Sitting in a chair again, typing!
  • I hate sitting in chairs. Sitting in chairs, looking at computers is the worst thing about writing. I’ve sat on couches and on exercise balls and I’ve jury-rigged a standing desk, but inevitably, inexorably my ass is drawn back to the chair, back to the computer. It’s awful.