Right now may be the moment in which you would rather pass a kidney stone than put words on a blank page.
This is understandable. Writing, or creating anything that didn’t previously exist the moment before, can be excruciating work. If we do creative writing like fiction or a memoir, we can dread the possibility of putting something awful down on the page. If we write non-fiction in the pursuit sharing ideas and information, we could falter when we don’t feel we have clarity on our message.
And then, nothing gets written.
When I first left my editing job at Penguin, I ghostwrote book manuscripts, composed articles, and wrote out editorial letters for clients. But I faltered in much the way I just described, for I would write for perhaps an hour and then get so burnt out that I couldn’t write anymore.
I was supposed to spend my day writing, and I wound up just giving up early on and watching movies or TV.
Then, six months into my life as an independent consultant, I tried something that changed everything.
And six months after that, I wrote an entire 6,000-word chapter of a book in a single day.
More recently, I broke that record and wrote over 8,000 words in a single day.
What was it that had such a transformative effect?
The simple truth is that sustaining a lengthy period of writing can be an absolutely heart-wrenching experience. If something isn’t going well, writing for several hours can simply pile up one bad feeling after another. If we’re completely stuck on a certain passage, we might look at the next several hours of either avoiding or being stuck on that passage as our foray into hell.
This is what I would feel when I sat down to write something, and it’s what many of my clients have struggled with as well – sitting and writing for several hours may seem like the absolute worst thing to do of all time, ever.
Which is why I recommend writing for several minutes instead.
For the first six months of my independent consulting work, I struggled to follow through on writing sessions of several hours each. I just wanted to sit around watching movies and TV. But then I considered something…
…was it more important that I end the day having written for several hours, or that I end the day with viable content?
Of course, it is quite obvious that it doesn’t matter how long we write in any given session. What matters is that we put something down on the page that is of value to the world.
So if I wanted nothing more than to sit around watching movies and TV, what if I wrote for long enough to put 250 or 300 words down on the page and then watched 10 minutes of a movie or TV show? What if I wrote for those few minutes, stopped, pressed play on my computer screen, watched for ten minutes, pressed pause, and commenced writing once again?
In doing this, I didn’t ever have to write for several hours. I only had to write for several minutes. If I was feeling a sense of dread over starting a large project, I would only have to get a few hundred words in before I got to reward myself with something awesome.*
This is how I wrote a whole chapter in a single day. When I was ghostwriting a non-fiction book for a client, I was under the gun because the publisher wanted the whole book written in only a few months. So I wrote a bit of chapter, watched, wrote, watched, and on and on until I was finally done late that night. But because I was using the second season of Lost to facilitate this productivity – and because the second season of Lost was awesome – I felt constant rewards for working.
And I eventually got the book done in only two-and-a-half months.
Movies and TV worked for me – but maybe something else would be better for you. Perhaps you want nothing more than to dance to early 90’s hip hop music. So perhaps you write a couple of hundred words and then bust out Young MC. Perhaps you love the Harry Potter books; write for a bit and then set the timer and read for ten minutes. No matter what your pleasure is, by constantly rewarding yourself with that pleasure after very small sessions of writing you provide yourself with a sense of both achievement and pleasure at the same time.
Our ability to sustain the creative act is entirely based on our capacity to get gratification from it. And for those more daunting days of creativity, perhaps a little imposed gratification will do the trick.
* I broke up the writing of this article into several mini-sessions with the help of the season 6 finale of Game of Thrones. And yes, it is awesome.