Want to Write? First, Find Someone Who Cares

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Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

• Today is the start of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — when writers are asked to produce a 50,000-word work in one month.

• Author Drew Smith writes about tools you can use to help yourself motivated, including an “Accountabilibuddy” — someone to monitor your productivity.

By Drew Smith

The easiest thing about being a writer is not writing. It’s also the hardest thing about being a writer. These past years, I’ve struggled with my own dwindling literary output, and what I’ve learned is that it’s just as painful and stressful producing nothing as it is simply putting in the hours and producing new work. I’ve funneled a tremendous amount of psychological and emotional energy into the constant creation of excuses and rationalizations. Valuable hours have passed without writing, spent instead coping with my disappointment and subsequent self-flagellation after the passage of another day without creating anything. The question I’ve struggled with more than any other is how to transform all this shame and horror and discomfort into an actual word count.

About two years ago, I completed my first novel and quickly landed an agent I really like at one of the big agencies. When she began shopping my book, some of the same criticism popped up again and again. Though I agreed with most of the critiques, I was too burned out on the novel to come up with any real solutions. I took a halfhearted crack at revisions, and then decided to give up and work on my second book, thinking I’d return to the first after some time away from it. That went well enough for a year or so. Then I lost the thread of the new novel, and, trying to relocate it, realized I was losing interest in the new book altogether. I needed a break, I told myself. So, one day, I just stopped writing.

It was easy at first. I just fell into the habit of not producing. It seemed like a reward for my artistic failures. Though I thought of myself as a writer, I wasn’t writing. Months passed, and I still didn’t write. Naturally, I felt guilty and uncomfortable with my lack of output. I used to see a shrink who would sometimes say, “I can tell you’re not writing” when I would start talking about the meaninglessness of life, the meaninglessness of legacy. I was going to die, and everyone who ever read my books was going to die, and the world was going to end, and my books would be burned in nuclear fire. So what difference did it make anyway? “I can tell you’re not writing,” he would say.

About six months ago, it really started getting to me. I was working a dead end job at as a motel desk clerk, a gig that I had supposedly taken because it would give me time to write. (This was after the real estate apocalypse blessedly robbed me of my position as an investment real estate agent.) But there I was, behind my motel desk, alone most nights for hours, not writing, a failure at 32.

Then I heard about Dorothea Brande’s 1934 book, Becoming a Writer. I really like this book, and I’d recommend it to anyone considering the writing life. Like any good self-help reader, I followed almost none of her instructions and did none of the exercises, but I somehow managed to draw a few lessons from it. I liked her notion of writing as a function of sheer discipline. One of her exercises entails choosing a different time to write every day, thereby teaching yourself that you can write wherever and whenever you choose. Enough with the excuses. If you can’t write first thing in the morning, as so many writing instructors advise, write at night. Write whenever. Just write. This was particularly resonant for me, since I had spent the past year repeating to myself all the reasons it was too difficult to write during my downtime on the job. Oh, the ringing phones! The occasional customer! The fact that I’m not at Yaddo! But Ms. Brande was right. I could either be the kind of person who’s really great at making excuses, or the kind who finishes his novels.

Of course, that realization alone wasn’t enough to get me writing. I needed a real strategy for that. I needed to figure out how to make a habit of it. I needed to feel the pressure. As almost any literary fiction writer knows, if you’re looking for someone to pressure you to write, you’re pretty much out of luck. No one cares if you produce. No one. Literally. No one cares. But I remembered from my days of writing book reviews and interviews and college assignments that in those worlds people do care if you produce, and their caring spurs you to action. If it’s due, then you do it. The work somehow gets done when someone’s counting on it.

And so I set out to create a scarecrow, to trick myself into thinking that someone cared. I put an ad on Craigslist for an “accountability partner”, and after a few tries with different writers, I lucked out and found a great fit: a guy in my city who’s working on his own fiction and needed the same kind of motivation. Without ever speaking by phone or meeting in person, we agreed upon goals that we could meet in three months time. He wanted to have two new short stories completed, and I wanted to finish the rewrite of the novel that I left hanging more than two years before. Every day, we agreed, we would email in the morning with our daily goals, and then we’d email again in the evening when we’d reached them. Most days I was shooting for a minimum one thousand words, and he was aiming for 90 minutes of straight writing time. Completely attainable targets by any standard.

Still, knowing how shrewd I am a coming up with ways to do nothing, I realized I needed one more safety net. My last trick came from a piece I read on the Lifehacker website a few years ago and always remembered. It was called “Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret”. According to the article, he uses a giant wall calendar that shows the entire year. Each day that he meets his writing goals, he puts a big red “X” on that date on the calendar. The idea is that he wants to put as many red “X’s” in a row as possible, creating a chain of days. “Don’t break the chain.” That’s the entire strategy. Better still, someone registered the domain dontbreakthechain.com, and made an online version of Seinfeld’s system. It can even be used as a widget on iGoogle, which I happen to use as my homepage. So, every time I open my browser window, the first thing I see is my Don’t Break the Chain calendar with a nice little message at bottom, reading either “You’ve been getting things done for x number of days” or “You’ve been dropping the ball for x number of days.” It’s great watching the days add up, and once you have a few in a row, you really do want to watch the chain grow. Seven in a row is nice, but thirty-seven is terrific. And after you have a chain of thirty-seven days the last thing you want is to miss a day. Even if you’re sick, even if you’re busy, you want that “X” on day thirty-eight, and you find a way to earn it.

The most surprising part of my plan is that it all actually worked. Now, I do most of my writing on the job. I check in with my accountability partner as soon as I put down the pen. Then, I’m off to my Don’t Break the Chain calendar, always pausing a moment to relish every single link in the chain. Writing whenever and wherever I could, trying not to break the chain or disappoint my accountabilibuddy, I finished my rewrite a month earlier than my target date and established the kind of writing habits I thought were only for writers better than I.

I now know I can do it without any of these crutches, but they’re still great crutches to have. The book is in terrific shape, ready for publishers in a way it never was before, and I’m writing every day. It feels good. To get it done, I had to invent a pretend world in which my writing matters. Now that I’m really producing, maybe it has a fighting chance.

Drew Smith lives in Texas and is working on his second novel. His work has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, Paste Magazine, and Bookslut.

DISCUSS: Why I’m Participating in NaNoWriMo…Are You?

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.