“No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be. Because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. […] Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”—Steve Jobs via Merlin Mann
Getting in the Writing Place Every Day
By now, participants of NaNoWriMo are more than halfway through writing 50,000 words. That’s about 1,667 words a day. Not necessarily that many good words. But the point of it is to get you to start, so that by the end of November, there’s a novel. A whole novel!
I’ve never been able to do NaNoWriMo. The thought of all those words the first day — 1,667 probably pretty stinky words — is enough to make me run to the sofa and turn on the TV instead. I know I’m good at that.The Starting Challenge
The blank page of any project — writing, exercising, making, learning, doing — is paralyzing. It’s the weight of great expectations and unmet aspiration. It’s the fear of finding out that you’re no good, of failing, of looking stupid. It’s laziness. It’s the specter of busyness that looms over your shoulder saying you don’t have the time and energy for this, to do it “right” — and you listen.
Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:
It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.
In the same vein, Cheryl Strayed would bestow two words upon you, sweet pea: humility and surrender:
How to Get to the Ground Level
You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get the work done on the ground level.
Lindsay Zoladz struggled with starting to write in her early 20s. She sat around, “not-writing” a lot. She figured out how to get to the ground level by taking up the practice of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Beautiful and the Damned, Gloria, who keeps a “line-a-day” diary.
This is how Lindsay recommends keeping your own line-a-day diary:
Write one sentence a day. It can be anything — a quote or an observation from your workday or a one-sentence-short story or a very plain summary of what you did that day. Play with the drooly elasticity of sentences; experiment with colons and semicolons and run-ons and grammatical inaccuracies. If you are going through something that makes it difficult to write even one sentence, just write the date, or a period with no words before it, or maybe just the word, “Nothing.”
Gloria isn’t a writer, but Lindsay, line by line, page by page, becomes one — from not-writing, to sometimes-writing, to full-fledged “I’m a writer.” She has written at publications, including Pitchfork, Washington City Paper, Salon, Slate, and The Believer. That’s pretty awesome.
Write something every day. Anything. One line. One line is easier. And then another.How to Keep Going
Alexander Chee also became a writer. He learned, through a nonfiction writing class at Wesleyan with Annie Dillard, that talent was nothing without work:
Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work.
Once you’ve overcome the hurdles of starting, you have to keep going, with good work habits. One habit that Chee practices is a daily writing journal for his novel. It gets him in the right place to start every day:
I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like “page 77 is still a problem!” or “return to page 13!” I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. If I’m working on an edit like I am now with a master copy, I include the page number from the master.
When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.
Maintaining a writer’s work diary like Chee is a great way to leverage the progress principle to keep motivated and moving. Record your progress, plan your next steps, think things through, and focus on the work of writing.
We’d love to know how you got started writing, making, and doing, and what methods you use to keep going!
Janet Choi is a writer and editor who helps keep the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.
“Trying to talk somebody out of the stuff that they enjoy in life is like trying to talk them out of their faith or their sexuality. It's a pointless exercise that can never be anything but acrimonious and will only highlight unnecessary amounts of difference about things that ultimately don't really matter. Buy the steak you like, worship the god you love, neck with the people that you treasure and don't worry about the numbers.”—
I am consistently floored at Merlin’s ability to take some aspect of our collective existence that often completely escapes the majority of us and then turn it into something absolutely profound that all at once inspires me and nearly moves me to tears.