Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How Not to Procrastinate on Writing

How Not to Procrastinate on Writing
By Sheila Bender
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This week I received a note from a student who said she was looking forward to taking my advice about writing more this year if she could only figure out how to stop working 60 hours a week. It's certainly an uphill battle to write when we are busy, but it is also often an uphill battle to write even when we have time. Another student of mine took a month off work to write important application essays for graduate school and was only finally starting on one of the schools the day before the application had to be submitted!

It can take a lot of psychological energy to overcome the inertia of not writing and to enter the state of putting words on the blank page or screen. In honor of the New Year and to encourage all of you on your writing, here are my best tips for keeping your writing going under any circumstances.

Outfox Procrastination in Six Steps:

Six things to do when you'd rather procrastinate on writing your essays:

Set a timer for ten minutes and assign yourself the task of writing without stopping for those ten minutes on a topic you've been meaning to write about. If you don't have one in mind, use one of these: describe an annoying co-worker or describe a time when someone you loved was leaving or compare the life you are leading to the one you or your parents imagined you'd be leading.

Write without stopping. If you can't think of what to write next from one sentence to another, write the same sentence over and over again until something new arrives. You won't repeat it for very long before the next image or idea arrives. Our minds don't really like to bore us, and with permission to just write, interesting things will surface.

Now give yourself the freedom not to worry about how what you just wrote will fit with what you are going to write next. Imagine yourself in a situation that for you illustrates what you have just written. Describe that situation. Use a snippet of dialog from the situation. Tell what objects or people are in the room with you. Talk about what you are thinking.

Notice how putting yourself in a scene that exemplifies what you were describing in the freewrite causes you to use specifics—dialog, names of objects, actions and people. These hook readers who feel like they are living your experience, and it helps you as writer to use illustrative specifics rather than generalize with summaries and abstractions. (Too many summaries and abstractions and readers disengage because they no longer attach the words to a person's life.)

Now you may use editorial words, words that judge rather than show, by writing a sentence that articulates what the scene you had described proves about you.

You have begun an essay! You've created a short scene that engages the reader with tangibles and then asserts what the scene illustrates about you to provide a platform for you as the writer to widen the story you are telling, whether it be about how someone influenced you or what strengths and/or weaknesses you've demonstrated.

It's not as hard to get started as you might have thought. Keep those fingers to the keyboard!

Take on Your Inner Critic:

Ruth Folit, creator of LifeJournal for Writers, describes the havoc inner critics can create. In "Working with the Internal Critic," an article on her website she writes:
I write with no intended audience. I don't feel judged by some unwelcome, sneering being, breathing over my shoulder. I have the freedom and space to think, to express, to be as I please. It's not easy to find that in the everyday world.

However, even within the confines of "no audience" journal writing, I can sometimes find myself being both writer and audience. This inner and sometimes negative inner voice has been dubbed by many as the "Internal Critic." Sometimes the Internal Critic can be as cruel and damaging as an external audience. The Internal Critic seems to be universal. Everyone has heard that nagging internal voice saying something akin to "What are you thinking? This is horrible! You think you can write?"

Dr. Susan Perry tells us in Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity:
When you feel (and fear) your efforts are going to be judged, you quickly lose the ability to marshal all your mental and emotional resources in the quest for a new way to express yourself. No one wants to fail or look foolish for writing something that others (or you yourself) will judge to be bad, stupid, or silly.

So, when you start writing, tell your inner critic you have decided:

1. I will not worry about accuracy or poor memory. I can fact check later and the act of writing will in itself help me remember more and more.

2. I will be interesting enough because instead of focusing on the intensity of my feelings, I will focus on tangibles in my subject, the images I can see, feel, taste, touch and smell. They will convey my feelings.

3. I don't have to appear perfect and neither do those I am writing about because it is in exposing and examining human foibles that we realize our likenesses and most human qualities.

4. I know that writing is most effectively done in three stages (invention, shaping and editing). The writing in my invention stage may look weird but it is very, very important. I will let it go where it wants to go.

Remember that when you allow yourself to invent first and for as long as you wish, you are overpowering the critic. The inventor or mad scientist that you can be when you are floating your material on the page is a force stronger than reason. Allow yourself to be so enthralled with the experiment that nothing else matters at the moment. Then the critic can do nothing but leave the room.

Read Writers Who Inspire You:

I find myself returning to particular books frequently for the way the authors and/or contributors speak about writing and the inner world we must access when we write.

I first read How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch just as I was about to teach a university course in poetry for non-English majors. I decided to use the book as one of the texts. My students learned what poetry is by reading a superb poet's appreciation for the way poetry opens us to experience, to spirituality, to the deepest emotions we will ever have. In Hirsch's chapters, I "met" poets I had not yet read and I "re-met" many I'd studied long before. We all got to sit with poems and the way, as Hirsh says lyric poetry "instills us with a feeling of what cannot be possessed, and it lets the soul have its way with us. The poem is a soul in action through words."

I reviewed In Pieces: An anthology of fragmentary writing, edited by Olivia Dresher, and I have been returning to the pages of this 382-page anthology ever since to inspire my own writing. Forms the collected fragments take: diaries, notebooks, aphorisms, vignettes, selections from letters, an essay written fragmentarily on postcards. Tone the collected fragments take: psychological, philosophical, poetic, spiritual, political, mixtures of the above. What inspires the fragments: abstract thought, nature, travel, tangible aspects of a moment or simply playing with words. What fragments do: break off "a point of their own choosing,” "happen by themselves." Each fragment, many sentences inside the many fragments, calls forth moods, thoughts, and associations about much I have wanted to say. And I know for any mood or thought or association I have, I'll have a variation or entirely new one the next time I read the fragment. I am affirmed reading In Pieces about the way I often read--holding up a fragment of the story or textbook like a jewel in the light, carrying it to other light, looking again. I cannot take my mind off the fragmentary writing In Pieces offers--velvet bag of gems spilled onto the jeweler's bench.

Incognito Street, How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm is a narrative that evokes a 1970s-style Bohemian travel life and arouses memories about how knowing I wanted to write colored the way the world looked and felt. Reading Sjoholm's honest account of her meandering way of finding her art is a reminder that we often understand who we want to become even if for a while we have no idea of how we are going to get to be that person.

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction offers a fabulous discussion of the forms of creative nonfiction available to essayists. Each chapter is introduced with a short personal essay by one of the authors, which grounds the book’s instruction and makes reading the book an experience similar to reading personal essays. Whether the authors are talking about the value of metaphor for helping a writer go deeper, or the reason they dubbed a particular kind of essay “the hermit crab,” the tone is accessible and rich. The book’s anthology of essays is a real treasure and the authors never go on too long--each discussion leaves me ready to write.

My book, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, takes you through eight essay styles with examples, pre-writing exercises and many tips for getting started painlessly. Writing is a tool for personal exploration and there are ways to make that exploration less threatening, more fun and extremely meaningful without coming at things head on.

Exercise Your Writing Muscle Just as You Do Other Muscles:

Even when you can't find the time to sit with your fingers on the keyboard or with pen in hand, you can be developing writing. Here are two exercises you can use.

1. Make up similes just for the fun of it so your brain is always "refreshing experience" and being lively. See, hear, taste, touch or smell something and challenge yourself to say what it is like, with specificity and originality. For example, when I look at my sandals I think, "The two straps over the top of my foot look like…." I realize the answer is, "highway overpasses." On a slightly windy day I say, "Leaves rustling in the breeze sound like…." I fill in the rest of the simile: "my grandson's breathing when he is building with blocks." When I taste soybeans I've boiled, I think, "A boiled soybean tastes like…." I find a comparison, "A boiled soybean tastes like the stick from an ice cream bar after you've licked it clean." I touch a piece of fine grade sandpaper and challenge myself: "Fine grade sandpaper feels like…." It isn't long before I realize it feels like the skin of a strawberry or starfish. And when I smell old bean salad still in my refrigerator, I realize it smells like my fingers after a day of beach combing.

One thing is always like another thing and when I can put together things from different landscapes to explain my experience I am exercising my writing muscle.

2. Take a snippet of conversation you hear and think about what you'd write if you started off with that snippet. Today, a friend of mine responded to my comment about how easily we shop together with these words, "Yes, our dangerous friendship." I liked the phrase "our dangerous friendship." What would I write if I started there? About two women who decide to go on adventure vacations, each one with escalating risk? Two women who each help the other stick to what they say they want?

Today, a visitor to my house said, "You have lots of color on your counter. That's what I like." A sales woman said she had the same socks that I was buying. "I've washed them and they feel good." A clerk at a deli said of their shelf of locally made cheese, jams and crackers, "Everything there is good."

What would happen if I began a piece of writing with any one of these statements? I could write a poem that is a litany of what is on my counter and why it is there. I could write about things that come out of the dryer and what they feel like. I could write poem about everything is good--and include all kinds of images from my life as I see them in this moment, through this lens. Without having to put anything aside, I am already writing. And it won't be long before I find the minutes, even the hours, for making what I am thinking a story, an essay, or a poem.

Sheila Bender publishes Writing It Real, an online instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience. She has authored many books on writing, including 40 Writers and Their Journals, A Day in the Life, Keeping a Journal You Love and Writing and Publishing Personal Essays. She has also written instructional content for LifeJournal for Writers software.

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