Monday, May 03, 2010

The New Thing (Part Three): Making writing fit

Two years. That's how long it took to mentally get to a point where just sitting down to write would freak me out.

Thirty minutes. That's how long it took (with the right tools) to completely flip my brain from that to seeing writing as an opportunity.

But while I was stoked that that had worked, I was becoming aware of another source of stress underneath that: stress from trying to fit writing into my work and personal life.

Some numbers: after a normal day of work, I have maybe two hours (max) where my brain is clear and active, before it starts shutting down and going to sleep. And before work, I probably have 20 to 30 minutes of free-ish time, which I often spend surfing the net. With about two-and-a-half hours of good brain time available to me, I realised I needed to create a routine for writing that I could fit into my life - a routine that would place as little pressure on me as possible.

A couple of years ago, I read a book called 'Margin', which talked about the idea of creating free time and breathing room in your life (much like the white margins that surround the words on a page). The way I had been writing - focusing on a big project, spending all my free time on it - had been filling up the page with words and leaving very little white space.

Two Things

After reflecting on it, what I realised is that when my life is going well, when I'm productive, feeling good, and not stressed at work ... then I can handle working on two extra projects. That's any big project that's going to take a lot of energy to move to the next stage (or finish!). And it's not just writing. It's anything from my '12 things to do in 2 years' list. It's blogging. It's two extra things in my life.

So here's my starting point: If I want to have margin in my life, I have to limit myself to two things. For instance:
  • Finishing a draft of Bad Family to send to Simon and Malcolm for peer review is a thing.
  • Spending six weeks going to ceroc, to learn to dance is a thing.
  • Writing this series of blog posts about The New Thing? It's a thing.

What I didn't consider, for the longest time, was that the blog is a Thing. Writing this blog has been so important to me that I've felt like I've had to do it, even if I had lots of other stuff going on in my life. But what I realised was that blogging can't be an 'extra' thing that competes for my available writing time. It's better for me to think about blogging as just one way I can express myself through writing, and these book analyses and multi-part essays are just one of the possible 'things' I have the space in my life to write about. (That means there will probably be further changes to what I blog about, but I'll let Future Steve sort that out ...)

(Future Steve?)

This isn't perfect

Through figuring all this out and applying this '2 Things' principle I seem to have stumbled into a good new space for writing - a routine for writing that fits into my life. As long as I write for 10 minutes a day, usually before going on the net in the morning and - if I can - when I first get home from work, then I'm happy. And seem to be making a lot of progress.

I'm definitely not saying that this is something people should try, and I'm not saying this routine is some perfect, finished thing. In fact, one of the great things I took from the Pixar talk is that there's no such thing as a 'perfect' way to live your life; it's just good to keep adapting to your circumstances and energy. I actually expect to keep refining and changing how I run my life every three to six months, and that's totally cool.

All I'm saying is that I have a new routine. Next: what am I going to do with it?


Simon said...

I guess my relationship to writing has changed recently too. I'm finding much more that I'm using writing as a pleasurable leisure activity rather than as a painful duty or a chore. I find myself anxious to get back to my computer to work on things, and ideas keep bubbling out of me and begging to be put on the page.

My process for getting to this point has been a lot less conscious than yours (in keeping with my normal approach of stumbling blindly through life, and ending up in the right place through luck more than design, with banged up shins).

I think a few things contributed to it though. For one, I'm worrying less about being a chronic non-finisher. I'm trying to view the process of creation as valuable in and of itself rather than just as a means to an end. So if I spend three weeks writing "Shadow of the Ninja" which I don't really intend to do anything with, that's still worthwhile, for the practice and for the joy of it and for the possibility that it might be valuable to someone some time. Letting myself work on whatever strikes my fancy, whether it's my "big project" or some other distraction seems to result in much more work on distractions, but much more work on the big project as well.

I think also I'm more confident as a writer now - more able to create work that I think is worthwhile. That's true of game design at least. As soon as I sit down to write a story I freeze up again. I become incredibly self-critical and freeze up. I think I actually experience a lot of the "freaked out about writing" stuff that you describe, but only about fiction, not about games.

Steve Hickey said...

This is good to hear, Simon. I'm especially pleased to hear that working on the 'distractions' results in doing more work on the big project. I've been very impressed with the way you're pushing through the Dip on On Mighty Thews - looking forward to seeing the published result!

What's your background in writing fiction? Is that something you want to do more of?

Amanda said...

I can relate to this. Something that I have had to come to terms with is aging- when I was in my 20s I could work in intense binges and stay up all night to meet deadlines. Now I just can't do it. I don't have the energy or the resilience of my youth. Now if I want to achieve things I have to focus on a few goals and break them up into small tasks and incrementally work through them. Also if I am not careful to schedule down time I'll burn out.

Steve Hickey said...

@Amanda: I am right with you. In particular, in the back of my mind while I've been working through this stuff, I've been thinking about what happens when (or if) I have kids. How do I make sure I'm focusing on the right stuff, the stuff that adds to me? ... And yeah, how do I not burn out? I'm happy to say that I've been really testing my new philosophy out over the last few weeks and it seems to be working.

Amanda said...

It's good to hear your philosophy is working. FWIW I think you are on the right track to coping with becoming a parent if you stay with the idea of adopting an attitude of flexibility and open-ess to re-evaluation your routines and your priorities. My experience of parenthood is that it results in a profound identity shift as well as a major lifestyle change and even less time and energy.

Steve Hickey said...

@Amanda: I've seen the identity shift you're talking about in quite a few of my friends (not all of them, though!) It's impressed me how having a child can defeat irony or reservation. I'm in favour of emotional openness!