Tag Archives: productivity

The Conundrum: Preparing for the Writer’s Residency

(week 1)

This piece is the first in a series of what will be weekly (I hope!) posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I am starting this post at Week 1, and counting up. Find Week 2 and Week 3 also on the blog.

cover of a book: How to Solve Conundrums

CC image How to solve conundrums courtesy of Villanova University Digital Library on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever been confronted with too many ways to achieve your goal, thereby paralyzing yourself as your choice swings from one, to the other, to the next possibility…?

That’s where I am right now.

I was awarded a four-week writer’s residency this summer. Short statement of fact: I am over the moon! Short statement of conundrum: I have a ton of work to do before signing in on the first day. I thought I had the next few months figured out, but now I’m not so sure. Because writing is, well, not always writing.

When I told one of the staffers at my writer’s workshop, a friend of mine, about my residency, he described what he did at his (shorter) residency last year. His approach was almost the complete inverse to what I’ve been planning.

I was planning to do my research first, and at the residency all I would do was write. The first draft.

He brought his completed first draft to the residency along with his research materials, and instead did the research and revision component to the first draft.

Both approaches have advantages. Under my plan, I’d have lots of information to work with — and then plenty of time to write. Using my friend’s strategy, I’d have the time to go over what I’d written, improve it, see where the gaps are, and then choose only that research which suits my needs.

Conundrum.

Why this is a big deal

Residencies are prized in the writing world. We get to spend uninterrupted time working on our projects! Hurrah! No need to go food shopping, or to work, or in fact to leave the house/building for any reason. Work in the middle of the night. Spread your notes out with abandon in your private studio. Hang out in said studio in your PJs. Nobody else comes in. That’s one REALLY big reason.

Residencies are a recognition of your work. Space is limited. I had to send a work sample with my application and jurors read it to decide whether it/me was worthwhile. Most applications are not accepted. Residencies are not publication, but a nod in that direction — yes, this work shows promise. My soul drinks this up, believe me.

A residency is not cheap. Consider that while in one sense you are taking a vacation from your regular life, your regular life (read: bills) doesn’t go away from you. It lies in wait. Plus, the residency program charges a fee, unless you receive a fellowship which covers your expenses. The fee is the second biggest hurdle to residencies after the application process (which is why I’ve set up a fundraising page).

Given that a) I was awarded a spot, b) I have a project to work on, and c) potential fundraising help… I really, really, REALLY want to make sure that my time there is well-spent. Which brings me to my conundrum.

Do I write during my writer’s residency?

It may seem obvious that a writer’s residency would be occupied with, you know, WRITING. However, Writing is more than just writing. Let me explain.

One part of Writing is the first draft. Most people are familiar with this process, which does, in fact, involve writing. The first draft is one of my options.

Another part of Writing is research. Both fiction and non-fiction may require this. Maybe you are writing about a botanist, as Liz Gilbert did in her recent novel, The Signature of All Things (note: on my to-read list). Liz Gilbert is not a botanist. She did a LOT of research in order to write that book. Liz wrote a book of fiction. You could also write a nonfiction book about a botanist. Research isn’t writing, though research is often necessary, and research takes time, organization, and at least a starting point for what information you need. I do need to do research at some point (my work is fiction).

Reviewing is a part of writing. For example, that first draft will need to be re-read. I’ll be taking notes on what is missing, wrong, inconsistent, or needs work. Also, what more research I probably need to do.

Overlapping with the review and extending onward is the long, wide prairie of Editing, often wracked by mysterious and destructive storms that reduce the work to rubble. Editing is quite a distance away from where I currently stand.

Then there is Re-writing, which might ally itself with Editing, or decide to rule on its own. Good-bye, first draft.

Bottom line: if you’re me, you have several months before four weeks of uninterrupted time to work on your project. What part of Writing is happening at the residency? What are you doing in those months beforehand?

Going resolution-less and unscripted in 2015

it's a great way to start the year

lego man sweating while lifting barbell

Ahh, one of the perennial favorites… CC image Resolution 2105: exercise more? courtesy of clement127 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the dreaded “R” word. Tradition and bane of many at the start of every new calendar year.

Well, screw it.

This year, I’m thumbing my nose at detailed advance planning. Because that’s what sucked out my soul, last year.

At the start of 2014, I had sat down with a friend to discuss the loooong list I held in my hand — not bulleted, but indented and almost like a bulleted list in that I had grouped goals and plans by theme. I had plenty of goals relating to my freelance business, creative life, travel and finances. I’m an associative thinker — once I get going I can keep up a long stream of related words. The list, therefore, was not brief.

I had made one concession to being orderly in preparation for our meeting. I had taken my handwritten list (complete with arrows and different colored ink, where I had to add an idea to an earlier section that I had missed on the first pass, thereby messing with the overall organization and layout) and typed it into a word document that I printed out from the computer. At least the printed copy was more legible than my handwriting.

As 2014 wound to a close, I thought about that list with some frustration.

Year of the List

2014 was the Year of the List. I had my annual “big picture” list, just discussed. I’m also a fan of Dan Miller’s work in 48 Days to the Work You Love, and was using his monthly goal sheets as a tool to keep my focus throughout the year. Miller breaks down goals into seven broad categories: finances, personal development, social, physical, family, and career. All year (and before 2014 too), I printed out the sheets and considered my 1-year and 5-year goals, and what I could do today to get myself closer to achieving them. By October this time around, my relationship with these tools was clearly on rocky footing. I think I growled at them once or twice, with my pen hovering over the page like a dagger.

Some categories were easy for me to fill out; for others, every month was like pulling teeth. Most of us have heard about the aspects of a goal we should keep in mind, if we really want to be successful: goals should be SMART:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Results-focused (outcomes, not activities)
Time-sensitive (have a deadline)

Finances? That was easy. That’s all about numbers. Personal development? Again, slam dunk. I have way more cool ideas and plans and projects than I could ever hope to get done in a finite amount of time. But social? Family? As an introvert, it’s kind of horrifying to have to set goals about how often to make a big social splash. As someone without kids, yet great relationships to her relatives, the family category made no sense to me whatsoever.

The listing didn’t stop at the monthly level though. Oh, no. In trying to keep on top of my monthly goals, I was putting together a weekly list, which then informed my daily list.

All in all, I was surrounded by an accumulating assortment of slips of paper, some with words crossed out, sporting different dates. I felt like I was becoming obsessive.*

Listing vs doing

I didn’t feel like I was getting much done; I felt like the time I was an office temp doing straight numeric data entry for eight hours a day. The numbers came in, I typed them all with my right hand, the numbers went out, I went home and never knew what happened to the numbers before or after they swept through my brain. I even dreamed about those number combinations. Fortunately that assignment lasted less than a week. I haven’t started dreaming about lists yet. Though I feel like if I tried, I might remember some of those number combinations…

Now I’m supposed to come up with a list for 2015??? Roll me in a mound of porcupine quills!

I need a new framework. I’m not reviling Dan Miller — the man’s work is an inspiration and I highly recommend reading him if you have not already — I’ve just come to understand this framework isn’t working for me anymore.

I do have tangible goals and events in 2015 that I don’t need to construct a list to know about. I don’t need any “R” words to keep them top of mind. They are specific and measurable, they have a deadline and depend on results.

At this point, that’s good enough for me. Unless a more useful frame of reference springs to mind, I’m going to let the year go unscripted.

*Dear reader, if all was as self-evident to the characters as it is to you, what then would happen to the story? I ask you.

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What do you think about the usefulness of resolutions (new year’s or otherwise)?

“Busy” is a great way to destroy your creativity

Too Busy and Important to write: the age-old excuse

graffiti art tag Busy

CC image Busy courtesy of Steve Rotman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, dear neglected Blog, what strangers we have become. Seeing each other only rarely, yet remembering all the old fondness we had for each other, we have become shy in each others’ company and this keeps us from doing what we love. In this case, our words.

I can make many excuses for my neglect. Chief among them, this year, has been Busyness. Ah, the cardinal sin of Busy. Busy covers so much territory. It carries itself with moral rectitude. You can’t really assail Busy, because Busy involves good things, like:

  • Work. We like Work! Since we earn our own bread, we appreciate anything that helps us eat. Also: sleep indoors, and meet other obligations. For months now, we have been saying, “Gee, I am swamped with all this Work!”
  • Play. With all this Work going on, it’s imperative to also make room for Play. All Work and no Play leads Jill down the path of diminishing Work performance and returns. Funny thing, that. Play is necessary for Work. Also, Play is necessary for Writing. Sorry, Writing. We’re setting the stage for you here. Truly, we are.
  • Sleeping. This is a very underrated activity which also has an perverse correlation (up to a certain point) with both Work and Play productivity. The less we sleep, the less we get done. Ironic, no? I mean, this is why some of us pulled all-nighters in college. To get stuff done. Not me, though. My one attempt was a total disaster on all fronts (I fell asleep and didn’t actually finish the paper). I am a failure at all-nighters.

Depending on my train of thought, I imbue Writing (which encompasses Blog) with self-awareness, a personality, and desires. Writing could be a small child, or an insect, or Tyrannosaurus Rex. At this moment, Writing is kind of like the family dog, an older Golden Retriever mix perhaps, sitting by the closed front door with its leash dangling from its mouth. The dog follows me with its eyes, which I avoid meeting as much as possible. Whenever I walk past close enough, I hear a sad little thumping which is the tail against the floor, an irregular rhythm, still hopeful that soon, it will get to go out on that walk. No matter how many times I’ve passed by here before and then carried on with Other Stuff, the hope persists. Thump thump.  Thump.

But Busy wins. So sad.

These longing glances remind me of one of the big reasons I decided to begin working for myself in the first place. Freelance. The word “free” in that compound word is a dangerous crumb of vocabulary. We have a lot of good associations with the word free. Things like free candy (without cost), free will (yes, it’s all about ME!), free time (no one can tell us what to do).  The problem is, nature abhors a vacuum, and there’s always something ready to rush in to fill the void when we clear it out with “free.”

In the case of freelance, I’ve cleared out the boss… which makes room for me to be the new Boss.

I had no illusions that freelance would be a lot of work (I did have a good dose of ignorance, though). I’m good at organizing my time, too, so I didn’t think setting my own schedule would be a problem (this is true). If I have a project that needs doing, I get it done. What I realize I am struggling with is work exhaustion. I’ll keep doing and doing and doing, because I like being able to pay my bills. As a result, I get more and more tired, and Sleep takes over a lot more time in my schedule which I thought would be devoted to Writing.

My illusion about freelance work is that I’d have the time flexibility to work on more creative projects while handling my own business projects. Turns out, I just replaced one tyrant with another, namely myself. Now I work all the time and am too tired to write, and I have no outside party or situation to blame for my failure to make progress on my creative dreams.

I have only myself.

Now that’s an eye-opener.

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How does Busy show up in your life?

Sweating the small stuff:

how to get creative work done

golden retriever makes a snowman

But I like making stuff! — CC image “Chevy Worked Hard Building His Own Snowman” courtesy of Chevysmom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Going to the library should not have been a big deal.

It’s pretty small stuff. Question: where will I do my writing today? Answer: the library.

Done.

It’s like the dilemma about changing the channel on the TV when you can’t find the remote. Truly, not worth thinking about for more than 2 seconds. Library: quiet, air conditioned, no distractions. [1] A good place to do thoughtful work.

Except I questioned that should take that step, and almost got zero writing done that day as a result.

The easy way out of creativity

Have you ever known you needed to do something, but were looking for the easy way out?

Like most creative people, I’m fairly bruised from falling off and jumping back on the wagon of disciplined work. On a recent foray into more structured creative behavior, I came across this article from the Huffington Post outlining five bad habits that freelancers fall into. Number 5: Working From Your Bedroom caught my eye particularly.

“Working in your bedroom is only one step away from doing the laundry, two steps away from taking a nap, and three steps away from cooking in the kitchen,” #5 says. “Studies also show that working from your bedroom can cause you to have problems sleeping and resting when you’re not working.”

Hmm.

I’ve written before about the benefits of literally taking a new perspective — sitting in a new seat in your room or office when you work, for example. So I responded to the common-sense nature of Voakes’ advice right away. Great, I thought. Today I’ll go to the library!

Then I thought, If only it wasn’t 90 degrees outside…

Artists’ no. 1 excuse: If only…

Beware this phrase. Have you ever caught yourself using it? “If only” is the number one way our Inner Procrastinator brainwashes us. “If only [XYZ condition were met], I’d have this all taken care of…”

Which really translates into, “I’m letting myself off the hook by choosing a precondition that I know won’t be met. Sorry, art!”

Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? The library is air conditioned! Staying at home, faffing on the computer, would have been just as absurd as refusing to change the TV channel because I don’t want to get up out of my chair and the batteries are dead in the remote.

I had a goal to do creative writing work. I had decided to take both my own good advice on changing my physical perspective, and the accepted wisdom of freelancers everywhere that sometimes, we really do need to get out of the house to get things done. Going to the library would accomplish both goals.

Except getting there meant walking for nearly half an hour in the heat, getting even more hot and sweaty than I already was.

Now, I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Work should make you sweat

Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic swimmer by sitting on his hands. Charles Dickens didn’t publish more than 30 books (but who’s counting?) by fretting about the temperature. And neither will you or I ever get where we want to be, creatively, if we’re afraid of a little sweat.

Which is why I think sweating the small stuff is a great strategy for getting creative work done. Working at the library versus working at home? Not a big deal, really…

Getting zero words on paper versus three hours of focused, dedicated writing and nearly two completed drafts?

Definitely worth the sweat.

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What did you sweat creatively this week?

1. Unless you count books, of course. Those distract me all the time, but ironically, the otherwise siren call of literature becomes a soothing hum when I’m doing my own work surrounded by hundreds of tomes.
Back to the text

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!

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Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!