4 Steps to Building a Writing Practice

I used to have fantasies that, once I decided to become a writer, I would just become this writing powerhouse. It would just happen. I would be writing all the time. Nothing would stop me.

But changing careers isn’t like that. A lot of things need to happen mentally before you can start to have something to show for it. You’re not just going to buy a pile of bricks and think that you can start building a house. You need more than just the supplies and tools. You need a plan. And with this plan, you can start to build your practice.

Step #1: Decide Your Plan

What do you want to be, an artist, writer, or actor? Whatever it is, choose it. Own it. Call yourself an artist, writer, or actor. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t done art, or written a book, or been in a play. If you say that you’re aspiring to be, then what your subconscious hears is that you are holding yourself back from your commitment. Even if you work in accounting, but you want to become a writer, then say you’re an accountant and writer. Say it yourself. Say it often.

The more you tell your brain what you are, the more comfortable you will be telling others. I’m an accountant and a writer. Put it in the present, positive tense. But do it. Whenever you start a new endeavor, things feel uncomfortable for a while until you start to get the hang of it.

That’s OK. It’s OK to make art for yourself, write for yourself, or practice acting and still call yourself artist/writer/actor. The point is to get yourself mentally in it. Painters paint. Writers write. Actors act. Start doing any one of those things, name it for yourself, and get your mind in the game. Your body and soul will follow.

Revisit this step as needed.

Step #2: Start and Stay Small

Ask yourself: What can I do right now to take the next step? What can you do with your hands or your mind or your time that will start you on the path. Maybe it’s getting paper, watercolors, and brushes. Maybe it’s buying a book and a new pen that you like using. Maybe it’s watching a movie with your favorite actor so you can study their moves.

Whatever it is, ensure it is a small step that you know you can do. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on your new path, don’t sweat it! Just do whatever you can do in any amount of time you can find. If you only have five minutes, then take that time to write for that five minutes, or put a few colors down on the paper, or sign up for an acting class online.

Your small steps can grow and change over time, too. First, I decided to write at least 1 page of writing warm ups. Then I decided to substantially add to my memoir during Camp NaNoWriMo in April. Then, I decided to continue writing in May, three days a week at least 500 words a day. Anything over that would be great. That’s where I am now. Because I started small and allowed myself time to get used to it, I was able to add to my workload without feeling overwhelmed.

I have learned that, when you start small and stay small, you will find that virtually everything you can do is within your grasp. Just do the next best small step that will move you forward.

Step #3: “Don’t Break the Chain”

Those words, “Don’t break the chain”, are attributed to Jerry Seinfeld who was giving advice to an aspiring comic. Seinfeld allegedly told this comic that he should write every day, mark it off on a calendar, and not break that chain of writing.

Get yourself on a schedule that you can hold yourself to.  Every day, to some degree, is best. The schedule reinforces your commitment to your goal. I find that putting up an accountability calendar wherein I check off each day that I work keeps me motivated.

I got my calendar from Carrie Brummer’s Artist Think pages (but you have to join to get it). You can search for others online or make your own. Her Carrie’s calendar is basic with diamond placeholders for the days that are big enough for you to check them off. At the top, there is space for you to write what your goal is. I wrote that mine was to write.

Across the top of my accountability calendar, I wrote “Don’t break the chain.” Every day when I sit at my desk, I see my calendar, my goal, my unbroken chain of writing days, and those words written across the time. They are my daily visual reminder to write every day. When I need inner motivation, I remind myself not to break my chain.

I’m over 70 days of writing every day, and seeing that proof, right in front of my face, helps build confidence.

Step #4: Seek the Company of Others

Seek out others in the same field. Attend conferences. Join  groups. Take classes. Read. A lot. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, start your own group. Try volunteering or working in companies who are in the field you want to be in. Even writers and artists who spend a lot of time working on their own benefit from finding people in their field with whom they can work. Not only will you grow in your field, you will begin to feel connected to like-minded others who are focused on the same goal as you are.

3 Lessons on A Writing Life

Today I celebrate two accomplishments: the seven year anniversary of my blog and 30 continual days of writing! Woo-hoo! I am beyond thrilled, especially at the 30 days. Along the way I have learned three lessons on how to make the writing life work for me.

Prioritizing My Writing

If you want to be a writer, then you have to make time to write. The time of day doesn’t really matter. I’m not even sure it matters how much writing that you do. However, if you put off the writing until evening, then you run the risk of getting squeezed into crunch time. Unexpected crises could mean that you don’t write until very late, your writing is not up to par, or you lose on sleep. I can write under stress if needed, but I can’t do that on a regular basis. The earlier you write, the better you’ll be. Why? Becausee you might end up writing more than you had anticipated and that’s better that not having the time to write at all.

Creating Accountability

I printed out an accountability calendar. What is an accountability calendar? It’s a calendar for the sole purpose of marking off the completion of a task that I wish to complete every day. For my writing to improve, I need to write every day, even if it’s just a little bit. This is what creates the habit of writing. Take advantage of all the different kinds of writing you can do on any topic that interests you.

Another important piece to the accountability calendar is that it is adjacent to my desk. I can’t sit down without noticing it. I like seeing the uninterrupted days of writing where I can’t miss it. If it weren’t there, I would forget how many days I would be at it. The calendar is like my drill seargent. I’m not going to get away with excuses or lack of performance with the searg staring at me, insisting I meet my commitments.

Setting Attainable Goals

The last time I tried to write daily, I had a list of writing goals that I wanted to meet every day. First, I would do my minimum three pages of morning writing. Then, I would do practice writing. If it was Monday or Thursday, I would write in my blog. Finally, I would work on my stories. Before long, I was feeling overwhelmed and gave it up.

This time, I gave myself a smaller goal set: Write every day, even if it’s only one page of morning writing. Mondays and Thursdays I write in my blog. The rest of the days I try to work on my memoir or whatever story I am writing. I have discovered that the minimum of 1 page of morning writing is easily attainable. As a result, I feel like I have achieved an accomplishment and that alone gives me the encouragement and enthusiasm to keep on writing.

The next time I want to begin any new habit, I’m going to ensure that I prioritize, make myself accountable, and set achievable goals to bolster my confidence and enthusiasm. I highly recommend it!

The middle stretch

If you ask me what my favorite part of any project is, I will tell you the beginning. From idea generation to initial planning and list making to getting things off the ground and running, I love it all. I even do OK with being involved in getting the details settled into working order.

Then it comes: the middle stretch. This is where most of the project lies. Resources are allocated, assigned to personnel, and tracked in minute detail. Progress is regularly checked against benchmarks, adjustments are made, and copious meetings in seemingly endless personnel arrangements to discuss problems and get things back on track. Budgeting, reining things in, and moving towards project completion.

All the itty bitty numbers, thousands of data tentacles, the decisions and arguments that need to be made, and the grunt work all bring me down. I get woozy, confused, and depressed. Get me too far into the project, and I literally have to force myself to move towards the end. I give up. I dread the process. And I just can’t wait for it all to be over.

I really wish I could get into this whole “enjoy the process” thing. I have long been focused on doing Things, getting Results, and achieving a pile of Done. I do get a thrill from performing at a high level of productivity. Yet, I still couldn’t get past the feeling that it all didn’t add up to anything meaningful.

On the flip side, I do enjoy the writing process. But pulling it all together where I am going to write some body of work and get it published. I am supposed to be some kind of marketer. And I understand the need for publishers to get authors who can keep their own momentum going. I really do. It makes perfect, reasonable, logical sense to me.

Unfortunately, the internal struggles with myself, with the work that is in front of me are not conducive to amounting to Great Works, to consistency, or to enjoyment of processes.

When you are having trouble at a particular stage of your work, what are some strategies you use to get you through it?

Establishing Good Writing Habits

Chuck Wendig’s Zero Fuckery 350 Words a Day Writing Plan continues to have a huge impact on my life. Today is day 4 of my following this new plan. The goal is to write 350 words, five days a week. Each day this week, I have exceeded my goal. I wrote 1,402 words today, bringing my total thus far this week up to 3,410 words of a 6,6512 short story. Word count goal for this story is between 6K and 10K words. At this rate, the word count will reach 7K, which seems about right.

After I finish my short story this week, I can send out to friends for commentary. I am sharing this story with my NYC Nano Writer’s Critique group on June 14th. I cannot wait to hear what people think and, especially, what they think I can do to improve the story.

In the meantime, I will be able to return to the novel I wanted to write this year and start doing just that. With the successes I have achieved this week, I feel like my biggest one is to have a simple plan that I can follow each day. If all I need is 350 and 350 is all I can do, then that’s what it will be. But I have a feeling that, more often than not, I will experience what I have this experienced this week: frequently finding that not only can I reach 350, but that I have a hell of a lot more inside of me to add.

Yes, life is good. Life is finally, finally good!

When Setting Goals Backfires

All my life, I have worked in a goal-oriented manner: get A’s in school, get to college, find a job. If the task did not start off good and go in a straight path towards getting better, then I abandoned it. I needed to make money! I needed to support myself! I needed to protect myself (via money)!

I did not have the patience for things that did not result in perfection. Each thing I did had to show results, goals, achievements. I had to do so. I was driven to prove myself to everyone about everything I did. I was jumpy, angry, and constantly worried about what others thought of me and what I did.

What I wanted to be, deep in my heart since I was a child, was an artist. I wanted to draw like my sister Madeline and like my second grade classmate Kevin W. I wanted to make arts and crafts like my mother’s best friend Rose F. I wanted to paint and make a living painting like my fellow BU student Heather Morgan and like my first painting teacher, Peter.

I had wanted to act. I wanted to sing. I wanted to dance. I wanted, wanted, wanted, but did nothing that lasted. Each time I tried, fear sizzled in my veins. After several times, the sizzle would steam and choke my lungs with panic. I would retreat into boredom, wasting time with time wasters. This start-try-stop cycle went on for years, often with month- and yearlong gaps in between attempts. Meanwhile, I needed to work and found jobs that I rationalized I could do.

Two-and-a-half years into my college studies of Business Administration, I took painting and drawing classes for non-art majors. I loved painting. The first few sessions, my still life objects were floating all over the canvas. I noticed other students were sketching first with some brown paint and linseed oil before they started. I decided to try it.

My teacher Peter F. saw me sketching and said: “Who taught you how to do that?”

I stopped and said: “No one. I just looked around and saw other people doing it. It looked like a good idea so I thought I would try it.”

My teacher just nodded and said nothing more. Later in the semester, I asked him for his opinion as to whether I should switch majors from business to painting. Did he think my paintings were good enough to apply? Ultimately, he said, it was up to me. What did I want to do?

What did I want to do? That question has plagued me my entire life. Whatever I did want, I told myself it had make sense, to be practical, and I had to be good at it as quickly as possible. The fear was hard enough to take when I went to work for something that I did not really care about.

What if I gave my heart to something that mattered to me, and there was something wrong with it? What if I was criticized? What if I was not good? What would I do then? The only thing I could think of was that I would be forced to give up what I loved to do. What was the point of life then? Given my low self-esteem, I could not adjust.

Instead, I put myself in positions where my work was not a reflection of the true me and so, even if the criticism hurt, I had the core pain of me protected against future pain. The trouble was that I also kept the internal pain from being released.

So how does this all relate to goal-setting? Because I was hyper-focused on goals, I wanted to rush through what I was doing. I could not stand the messy process of writing for pay, for work, for anything other than perfection. My 2008 NaNoWriMo novel Butterfly Wings is so, so far from perfect. If I wait for perfect, then I will never do anything.

This came up today in this Huffington Post article about success and motivation by James Clear.  The only thing that will help you achieve goals, if that’s what you need, is to do something – anything! But achieving a goal is and must be a by-product of doing what you love. And you must do what you love often. Get it wrong, get messy, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.

For me, it is writing about things that matter to me and sharing my thoughts with others. I also love fantasy novels and would love to write a fantasy story. That will have to wait. After Butterfly Wings (or whatever it is that it will end up being called), I think I have a sequel to that story in me. I am finally excited to say that I am looking forward to that process.