Are You Making This One Huge Mistake That Keeps You from Writing Consistently?

I have a running to-do list. I imagine you probably do too. If your to-do list is anything like mine, it’s both finite and inexhaustible at the same time. To-do lists are like hydras. Cross off one item, and several more appear. The truth is, I’ve never gotten to the end of my to-do list.

And you know what’s on my to-do list? Yep. Writing. You know what often doesn’t get done on my to-do list? Yep. Writing.

Why?

Because I myself am making one huge, costly mistake. Writing is on my to-do list—in fact, it’s at the top. But it, like “Organize kitchen cabinets” or “Clean under the fridge” or “Learn French,” is in the It would be nice to do this if I have time category.

You know what that translates to? The It will never get done category. Just look in my kitchen cabinets. Or under my fridge. Or me demander si je parle française.

(Actually, don’t do any of those things.)

If you’re serious about writing, it needs to be made a priority. It needs to be THE priority, the one that you don’t go to bed without doing, like brushing your teeth. You need to write every day. Even if just for fifteen minutes.

I can already hear your objections, in part because they are my objections. It’s so difficult to know what to write. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Writing so often won’t produce anything good. I have to wait till inspiration strikes or the muse taps me on the shoulder.

I don’t believe in a muse, and I certainly don’t believe in waiting for one, however whimsical the idea sounds. I believe in putting your rear in a chair (to corrupt a more well-known writer proverb) and writing whatever comes. And doing that day after day after day after day.

Make a plan and stick to it. I wrote my first book, a gentle and frivolous parody, in twenty-one days because I had a deadline. Was it crazy? Yes. Do I recommend it? Absolutely not. What I took away from that experience was not a caffeine addiction or permanent eye-twitching (thankfully), but instead that the only thing I really needed to do to write was to decide to write—and then follow through.

One objection remains. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Well, nobody’s sure. Nobody may ever read your writing but your mom and your grandmother. Nobody may ever read my writing but my mom and grandmother. But do you love it? If the answer is yes, nothing else matters.

I also take heart from author Michael Cunningham, who writes:

What I do is this: I get up every morning and go straight to work, and on the good days I write with pleasure. On the bad days, I just sit there, waiting to see if something will come. On the bad days, if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a lame sentence or two, thinking, I’ll delete this later. It’s terrible, but it’s all I’ve got today. I’ve found, though, that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad. I’ve come to believe that the inspiration is always there, like an electrical current, and what varies is our access to it. And I’ve found that the best way to cope with that is with diligence, with a kind of daily determination.

There’s no magic potion. There’s no elusive muse. Only you and the paper and the pen.

So get up in the morning, or stay awake a little longer each night. Put your rear in a chair. And write.

Don’t Follow Your Dreams

Now, now, before everybody gets upset and throws his or her chair/coffee/computer at my face, let me explain what I mean by this seemingly harsh exhortation. I’m really not trying to be a dream crusher, although I do think, as a culture, the fact that we tell people to do and follow whatever they want is both short-sighted and selfish. (Come on. “Follow your dreams” is basically Disney propaganda and deserves to be questioned.)

This post is instead intended to be an encouragement to those of you who have more than one creative dream or passion at which you would like to excel still more, but don’t think you have enough time. You know. Writing. Reading. Playing the piano. Painting. Knitting. Baking.

Here’s my first and most important thought: Just try to do one thing. Choose one (maybe two if you’re feeling ambitious, but I wouldn’t advise it), and go for it. Research. Get better. Make a lot of mistakes. Talk to people about it.

And a second thought: Start by doing this one thing for just fifteen minutes a day. Write a character’s stream-of-consciousness. Scrutinize the first few bars of Moonlight Sonata. Read through a complicated recipe several times and strategize. Fifteen minutes is the very minimum—there’s no maximum within reason. You may be surprised at the progress you make as well as the restored sense of excitement you feel for your One Thing of choice.

Otherwise, if you don’t target your time, you’ll spread yourself “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” and you won’t get anything done. What could have been one or two passions, slowly and steadily cultivated in patience and perseverance, becomes five or six unwieldy passions that quickly wear out. They may even die.

For me, that One Thing—my so-called dream—is writing. Would I love to make time to bake so much that I get really, really good? Absolutely. Prinsesstårta, I’m looking at you. prinsesstrta_17336_16x9

Would I love to practice piano for several hours a day? Of course! I am ashamed at a.) how far my piano skills have fallen off the deep end and b.) how woefully incompetent I was to begin with. But if I’m to be serious about taking the novel I’m working on and attempting to do my best by it, then I need to concentrate on just that.

This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your other passions completely. You better believe that I’ll keep tinkering with the piano and baking chocolate chip cookies. (My famous ones. Look out for the recipe soon.) But focus on one. I’m only repeating it because it’s so important and I myself need it hammered into my head.

And yes, maybe someday I’ll happily melancholy my way through Chopin and Debussy without an anxious thought and/or bake the Prinsesstårta of queenly dreams. But for now… I need to be consistent. I need to make writing my One Thing. My One Dream.

What will you choose? Your fifteen minutes—and mine—can’t wait.