Discipline, Structure, Momentum & Fear

I'm a procrastinator, to the point where it's almost obscene. I write many of my first drafts all at once, most in 2-3 sittings, usually within 12-72 hours of my due date. Don't tell anyone. I always make it in time, but there's something about the adrenaline that comes with pushing right up against a deadline that helps drop me right into the zone. I'm a junkie.

I have no discipline.

Or at least, I have no discipline without structure. I'm terribly ashamed to admit it. I graduated in December, but I attended a community college night workshop during this past Spring semester. I needed the structure. I learned a lot, and I had a great time. But my biggest reason for signing up was that I knew if I didn't, I wouldn't write...or at least, I wouldn't write anything resembling a complete piece.

If there's one thing---and actually there isn't just one thing, only a million things---that I want to learn during my MFA, it's how to structure "writing time" into my unstructured life. How to make myself responsible for it. How to make it an organic, unquestioned part of my life. When I'm in school, or when I have some kind of an outwardly imposed deadline, the writing happens. When I don't, I always find an excuse to avoid the writing.

The woman who instructed that workshop I mentioned earlier said something, towards the end of the class, that really stuck with me. She was recounting something that one of her MFA professors said to her. I guess she felt, at the time, kind of like I do now---like the problem was that she lacked the proper amount of "discipline." But her professor pointed out that she didn't lack discipline, at all. She was putting all kinds of hard work and dedication into other aspects of her life. (I won't tell you what, but let's say it was tap dance, for example.) It was the writing itself that was the thing, the problem, not the discipline. Realizing that changed the way she looked at writing's place in her life.

I think I'm the same way. Writing scares the crap out of me. It does.

It doesn't make sense, because I love writing. It's the thing that makes me tick, I feel most like myself when I'm in that writing "zone." But I'll do almost anything to avoid it, unless somebody else tells me that I can't. For instance, I'll write this blog post, which doesn't count as actual "writing." I'll organize my internet bookmarks. I'll read craft books, and tell myself it's part of the writing process. I'll scan photos, I'll read over old journal entries, I'll spend hours doing family history research. I'll clean out the fridge. Anything, anything.

Sometimes I meet people who don't have this problem, and to be honest, they kind of scare the crap out of me, too. I admire them fiercely, I wonder what it is they got that I ain't got. Courage? Maybe the Cowardly Lion is my patron saint.

I love love LOVED this LA Times article, below, by J. Robert Lennon (MFA fiction faculty at Cornell.) I see myself in it, so much. It makes me feel better about how ridiculous and hopeless I am. At the same time, it also reminds me that even if most of the time spent during "writing time" isn't actually spent writing, it's still important---crucial---to schedule that writing time in, somehow.

I need to learn to make that commitment, to put writing first. I want to, more than anything. I really believe that being in this MFA program will help me learn how to do that. My life will be centered around writing. And that's the thing---the more I write, the more I write. I've noticed it at several moments in my life. It's like momentum slaps my fearmonsters in the face, like I'm too busy to notice how terrified I am.

And when that happens, I write. And I like myself. I'm going to learn how to get there without the crutch of outside pressure.

Now's the part where you say: So what the hell are you doing?

Put down the blog, put down the blog!

What do they really do with all that time?
By J. Robert Lennon, June 21, 2009
Ask a writer what she values most in her creative life, and she is likely to respond, "Time to write." Not many of us have the luxury of writing full- time; we have spouses, families, day jobs. To the people closest to the writer, "writing time" may seem like so much self-indulgence: Why should we get to sit around thinking all day? Normal people don't require hour after continuous hour of solitude and silence. Normal people can be flexible.

And yet, we writers tell our friends and children, there is nothing more sacrosanct, more vital to our intellectual and emotional well-being, than writing time. But we writers have a secret.

We don't spend much time writing.

There. It's out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.

Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour "writing" session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That's how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.

Let's assume that this was an unusually brisk day. Let's estimate that, in general, I spend between 30 minutes and an hour writing, on days when I'm writing at all. What this means is that, even at my absolute peak of productivity, I am actively writing less than 5% of the time. Considering how many days of the year I don't write at all (most weekends, all holidays, teaching days, sick days, days of self-doubt, hangover days, bill-paying days), I could easily revise that figure down to 2%.

Should such a person, a person for whom writing consumes 2% of his life, even be called a "writer"? Given this logic, here are some of names by which I might more legitimately be referred:



bus rider

naked girl imaginer

child reprimander



But back to those four hours a day, during which, on those days when I do write, I am supposed to be writing. If I spend less than 25% of that time engaged in the act of writing, what do I do with the rest of it?

To answer this question, I surveilled myself during a recent writing session. The results are below.

8:04. Subject says goodbye to older son leaving for school.

8:05. Subject turns on laptop and sits on sofa in pajamas.

8:05-8:23. Internet.

8:23. Subject lets cat out.

8:23-9:07. Internet.

9:07. Subject lets cat in.

9:08-9:15. Really fast typing.

9:15-9:17. Subject makes toast.

9:17-9:30. Subject eats toast while rereading article in local paper about rural UFO cult.

9:30. Subject puts extra pair of socks on over extant pair of socks.

9:31-9:35. Deleting.

9:35-9:40. Re-creating deleted text almost verbatim from memory.

9:40-10:26. Internet, including 20 minutes spent writing, revising, and ultimately abandoning angry Internet message board post.

10:26-11:14. Intense self-doubt.

11:14-11:31. Subject showers, dresses (including two new pairs of socks).

11:31-11:49. Really fast typing.

11:49-12:01. Bathroom break.

12:01-12:05. Frenetic typing accompanied by quiet sinister chuckling.

12:05. Subject saves file, turns off computer, makes sandwich.

As you can see, writing makes only brief appearances in that chronology. Indeed, it would be easy to make a case for "non-writing time" as an alternative, perhaps superior, designation for what is presently called "writing time."

The truth, of course, is that writers are always working. When you ask a writer a direct question, and he smiles and nods and then says "Well!" and turns and walks away without saying goodbye, he is actually working.


To allow our loved ones to know that we are working when we are supposed to be engaged in the responsibilities of ordinary life would mark us as the narcissists and social misfits we are. And so we have invented "writing time" as a normalizing concept, to shield ourselves from the critical scrutiny we deserve. Indeed, even writers who don't write fiction are engaged in the larger fiction of imitating normal humans whose professional activities are organized into discrete blocks of time.

If you have any questions, please write them on a postcard, slide the postcard between the pages of a library book, and return the book the library. I will get to them when I'm finished writing.

Lennon's most recent novel is "Castle." He teaches writing at Cornell University.


Denis said...

I read that article recently, and also loved it. I have moments of frenetic writing, but the rest of my time is wasted. If only I spent as much time writing as I did watching TV shows and sleeping.

Lindsay said...

I feel the same way. You are not alone and I'm really hoping for the same thing when/if I get to my MFA program.

Roberta said...

I think you'll find your method in the MFA program. One sure thing is that the program will force structure and give you opportunities for more deadlines. =)

debs said...

confession: i haven't really written since class ended... Not hardcore-like...
But it's true, we but so much else in front of us before the writing... Maybe it's because that stigma of "starving artist" is so frowned upon still... I know my family has a hard time taking me seriously sometimes when I say "I gotta go do some writing..." (It's true I don't really always, but sitting in front of the computer or with the notebook for an hour just contemplating is part of the process)
We are scared, and that's okay... We just need to learn to remember to not let that fear stop us...


p.s. love that article too...

unsaid said...

Hey...great post! I'm so terrified of wasting the time the MFA is gifting me that I actually have recently begun writing...a lot! So in that way the MFA is already working for me. I'm like you though, I do great work under the pressure of missing a deadline and I hate/love that sick feeling of being afraid I'll miss it. But I always make it. It's like a drug!

Sorry for the long reply, but I also was doing the whole reading a lot of craft books thing. I was reading 3 simultaneously (Writing Down the Bones, The Lie that Tells the Truth, and Bird by Bird) and they all said the same thing...write shitty/crappy first drafts (that's a quote lol). Once I got that in my head, I've been letting my pen fly and just writing and sometimes I write something that sparks something else.

Anyway...I'm certain you'll be just as disciplined as you need to be when it's time!

found said...

Hey everyone! Great comments all of you and thanks so much for reading/commenting! It's great to hear I'm not alone and to have this little writer's huddle : ) I think you all make great points.

Denis---ha, exactly!

Lindsay---you'll make it in! and we'll make it somehow : )

Roberta---thanks. hopefully someday i won't need those deadlines! ha, is that even possible? hope your writing is going well!

debs---i'm in the same place, no real writing since class. i hope your family will come around someday and take your writing more seriously, but whatever happens just don't give up on it!

unsaid---i love long replies! it really is like a drug (deadline pressure) and i really want to break myself of that addiction. i've read the shitty first drafts thing, too, and i know it's good advice---but i still have a heard time letting myself do it. something i have to work on, for sure.

thanks for writing, everyone! : )

M.Powers said...

It's been a long time (decades) since I've written anything of note. I came to the conclusion long ago that wit was no substitute for intellect and passion. Obviously not a problem you have. I look forward to following your writings. I have no doubt that you'll do great things. You may have even inspired an old man to pick up a pencil again...

found said...

wow, i'm so honored that you'd say that : ) i know you have it in you----never say die!

Emily said...

Yet another soon-to-be-MFA-student who struggles with this. I am hopeful that being in a grad program will help me get past the fears of failure (and fears of success) that keep me from writing as much as I want to. And I hope your program does the same!

found said...

hey Emily, thanks for joining in here, and thanks for the well wishes! i'm sending good writing vibes right back at you : ) can you believe this MFA thing is real?!

margosita said...

Hey Wahida- I found your blog from the MFA Chronicles blog. I'm originally from Minnesota and I think the U's MFA program is great. I didn't choose to go there since I wanted some time away from home, but I'm still fond of it. I'm looking forward to hearing about your experience and how you deal with the winter.

Anyway, I think the struggle to find time to write is pretty common. I'm currently half way through my MFA program and I don't honestly know if I've found the solution to that, yet. But I think it does happen sort of organically. I have yet to wake up with the ability and desire to carve out a dedicated writing block, but I am getting better.

Good luck! I'll be reading, here and on the MFA Chronicles. :)

wahida said...

Thanks for finding me here, Margosita! I'm already in love with Minneapolis and with the program. They've been so supportive, from the moment they informed us. I can't wait to start : )

How was your first MFA year? I love SF, must be great going to school there.

I've heard scary things about the winter---like eyeballs freezing to eyeballs?! I used to live in Boston, and I know MN is a lot colder, but I think I'll be okay. Arizona's summers are brutal, but I survived them. And I like cold a lot better than heat. As long as my toes stay on I'll be happy.

Will we ever wake up with that feeling? I'm starting to wonder if anybody ever does. But I guess it happens. I'll take getting better though, any day. I'm sure you'll find yourself there someday soon.

CashewElliott/John said...

great, great post. While I'm wallowing in anger over the idiocy of the US and the so-called debate on health care, while I'm literally disconnecting my internet so I don't lash out from seeing another (white) person screaming absurdities at a town hall meeting, all this awesomeness is being blogged!

If your great blog is "just a silly self-indulgence," perhaps I ought to aim for more silliness. My blog is like, unstructured, grammatically incorrect, angry self-indulgence.

That LA times article is great. I completely agree that it's best not to get too concerned about how much I write. During the summer, when I know I'm just not going to write as much, I set a bunch of reading goals. I read tons and tons of short fiction (which I know so little about), and subscribed to a bunch of lit mags. That was fun. I've written very little, but I feel I've done something as productive.

I simply don't believe that every successful writer does something a certain way. I'm sure there are people who write 4 hours a day and still write terribly. Then there are the 50 year old stay-at-home moms who have never really written much but have been developing a story their entire lives, and their first big effort is fantastic.

But, my number one strategy for getting myself to write, as mentioned above, in Ann Lamont's Shitty First Drafts. I actually order myself to "make it really shitty." I write that at the top of blank pages when I can't start.

CashewElliott/John said...

perhaps I should spell the author's name right: Anne Lamott, not Ann Lamont.

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