Setting the Bar Low

I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:

MY HOUR OF WRITING THIS MORNING

8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.

8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.

8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.

8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.

8:36: Stare again at the list of files, which looks like gibberish to me, like it’s written in another language. Consider working on a very convoluted and long philosophical essay and realize I don’t have the brain cells. Consider picking at another project that I’m waiting to hear back from an editor about and realize I can’t love that project anymore because it is breaking my heart.

8:39: I find a few hopeful interesting fragments in my folder of in-progress and realize it’s such a mess that I don’t know they’re there, and I need to clean it out, like I need to clean a lot of things, and I realize that—just for today—my brain cells can’t handle it.

8:40-8:43: Realize there’s a memory I need to log in one of my “in-progress” pre-essays in Evernote that is really just a collection of scraps waiting to be turned into something.

8:44: Move a few more pieces to the Published folder.

8:46: Make a folder to categorize the mess of the “in-progress.” Get bored with this. Realize I could make one new entry in a big project and that probably wouldn’t kill me.

8:47: As the file is opening make some disparaging remarks in my head about the hopelessness of this large project.

8:49: Open a page within this file (in Scrivener, so it’s in sections with titles) and realize it connects to a quote I just used in another essay from Susan Sontag. Look up the quote in Evernote, find that it’s incomplete with a page number, and go to the book to find the quote. Put it into the page in the file where it needs to go.

8:56: Thank the lord I’ve spent the last seven minutes writing. I polished up a paragraph in that section and finished it. It’s a tiny two-pager that was almost done, but then I got to change the icon to green, which in this project means “done.”

8:57: This project is working for me today and I haven’t worked on it in awhile, so I’m going to scroll through to find another file to work on.

8:59: Open another file, read three great quotes listed there from other authors, and realize that as I start to write I’m going use a cliché. My language is not great today. Then decide: just write and don’t worry about how much it sucks.

9:02: Realize that this file is hard to write because I have to feel hard things to figure something out. Complain in my head about that. Write a few more bad and totally obvious and unliterary sentences.

9:05: Basic writing. Trying to keep it simple. Doing sentences. Get up for a drink of water. Walk toward the stairs and bang my thigh hard against a corner of couch, which has been moved because I keep having to mop the floor over and over to try to clean up some scary sticky substance either being peed or puked by my diabetic cat. Mercy Retrograde will you please stop fucking with my shit?!?! My socks stick on the substance that I have not mopped up effectively but instead apparently spread EVERYWHERE.

9:09: Back with water and finished with rant about my poor cat.

9:14: Yay I wrote for five more minutes. My thigh hurts. The dog is roaming around upstairs, expecting a walk, and I have a ton of stuff to do before I go into work. But I’m writing until 9:30 because that’s the promise I always make.

9:17: Finish a second section. It’s not pretty; I’m not making lovely sentences today, I’m making drafts. But I turn another icon green. It will do for now. I open a third section.

9:17-9:32: Wrote something! It’s a win for the day. It’s messy, but it’s a win.

* * * *

It’s always slow to get into a routine. But the routine is worth it because it is how our brains function most effectively. It also doesn’t matter at all if it feels rusty. It’s the routine that matters to me.

I’m readying a fascinating book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey. A section about the effectiveness of quizzing one’s self at regular intervals in order to retain material made me think more and more about writing and routine.

Carey writes that the value of quizzes in language acquisition and many other subjects is that knowledge is put in play in an active rather than passive form. Active engagement–just like writing. And of course, at this point he includes a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and offer a summary, a commentary.” Carey then connects this to the general theory of learning he’s explaining: “Pretend you are already an expert and give a summary, a commentary–pretend and perform.”

This, to me, is the soul of writing practice. I write on a regular schedule not because I’m super-disciplined and because that’s the most challenging thing. I write this way because it’s the easiest. As my brain gets into the habit of making connections on documents in progress, it gets in a groove and does its own thing. When I’m rusty, writing is more of a struggle. And the bar is super low. All that matters is the container, not what’s in it. And if I build the container, it really doesn’t matter how little I get done. Some day in the future, it will all start working again, until something else throws it awry–but I can always go back and build it again.

98 thoughts on “Setting the Bar Low

  1. ceciliagraca says:

    Fun writing concept! It must get confusing when you’re trying keep time while simulaneously writing about the events.

    Thank you for sharing. I’m trying to get started on writing and it’s refreshing to read strategies. I’m new at all this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. nanashinoprofile says:

    Getting time to do anything other than work seems to be an impossible task right now. Last year I wrote diligently every day and put together 130,000 words and 31 chapters of the story I’m working on. Since November I’ve had time for barely another two chapters and I’ve had to settle for 10mins of notes on the train in the morning ever since. Kind of depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. yolandapricemitchell says:

    This so helps me! I just started blogging and I havent made a post in over a week!! I feel l like I always start things but I never finish or stay consistent…thank you for sharing your real life with everyone..we are not alone

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jae says:

    Wow this sounds like a lot of angst. I was like this until I realized that not all writing is productivity (e.g., word count, “published”). I have to have something to say before I can write. I, too set aside a fixed amount of time to write – and I’m doing it right now – reading blogs outside my area (humor) – posting random thoughts that might magically grow into ideas that sometimes end up in my writing.
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. liquidpink says:

    Hey, Im new to WordPress, I started my site about a year ago and I’m still struggling to keep up the habit of writing posts. I just go blank when I start a new post or I have no idea what to write about. It’s really getting to me as I really want a successful site but it’s like my brain switches off when I go to write. Do you have any advice for a newbie?

    Jaccie x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sonyahuber says:

      Hi Jaccie,

      One thing I do to collect my ideas is to carry around a little notebook. You can buy then at the dollar store and they’re about the size of a deck of cards, about 3 for a $1. I write lists of ideas when I think of them, and then when it’s my writing time, I always go back to the list to give myself an assignment for the day, especially if I don’t have a fresh idea. I hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. AverageHumanBeings says:

    I know what you mean! I myself am trying to get a good “blog” that has lots of information. It can be so hard to find what to write about! I do always enjoy finishing a page though! Even though there’s no one to share it with, its fun. Kind of a small hobby if you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. flojitz says:

    Very interesting read. Never thought of breaking down and logging events of a day like that. I find social media a essential tool I have to learn to master. But being a solo entity and not part of a team gives me complete control but at the cost of consuming a lot of time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. shadowoperator says:

    I wish I could get into the habit of writing every day again. I’ve been stalled for months on a story (a novel in progress) that will not cooperate. I started working on it in thick chunks, but I’m simply not flexible enough to keep going when I hit a rough patch. I wish I could do what you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. royyman32 says:

    It’s hard to be creative continuously and for most of us our best work does come in spurts. I have had similar experiences in writing.

    I feel like these blocks are a good time to vary the types of writing you practice. Descriptive writing is very easy for me and I use that to jumpstart my thoughts.

    Most importantly I agree that consistency in practice is of the utmost importance. Writing frequently builds better habits an setting the bar low when struggling teaches you you limits.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. shadowoperator says:

    One of the profs at the University of Toronto, Professor Ian Lancashire, once said something to the effect that writer’s block was simply egotistical perfectionism, or something like that. While I agree wholeheartedly, I can’t seem to force myself to mine through all the potential bad sentences and paragraphs just to get to the good ones. I think this has something to do with my method of composition: I’ve always held the idea for a long time in my mind until I get it just how I want it, and then put it down on the page. This sometimes applies even to things at the sentence level. I have a sense of what structure I want it to have before I write it the first time. This is not to say that I don’t revise; on the contrary, I revise constantly. But this is a function of reading and re-reading through what I’ve got to improve it, not to do basic drafting. My problem now is that the basic draft has come to a firm halt and I can’t decide what to do next, plot-wise, so I’m stuck. Maybe I’ll borrow a page from your book in the next couple of days and try a new tactic; it might teach me something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sonyahuber says:

      On the difficult subject of writers’ block, I’ve also just been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Several Short Sentences about Writing,” which I highly recommend. He writes (in a very interesting almost poetic format) about the need to craft sentences, but then the necessity of taking space from them and looking back at them later with fresh eyes. You might really like that book!

      Like

      1. shadowoperator says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. I know I’ve heard of Klinkenborg before, but have never read anything by him. I’ll see if I can locate a copy of the book at the local library.

        Like

  11. CL Quigley says:

    gosh, i could totally relate to this. especially the dog waiting to go for a walk and getting up to drink water. haha! thank you for sharing, and congratulations on your Fresh Press!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Debby Carroll says:

    What I love about this post is the peek at two very unique writing styles you employ. First, we see your hilarious side. (Okay I know the poor diabetic cat isn’t really funny and yet…) Next we read your informative, explanatory style. Well done. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. ohdearbez says:

    You seem pretty efficient though. I sometimes spend more than ten minutes on the wording of an email. Also making tea takes up a lot of my writing progress: I put the kettle on, forget about it (this repeats over and over) and when I finally brew the tea I leave it far too long so that it is incredibly strong 😉 Writing is a process that needs time, I keep telling myself….

    B x

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ray Smith says:

    Well Written, you thoughts are good in evaluating the things in to the way, in which readers do like them ….. I do write a lot while in Emails or other written communications, so i know the importance of time which we spend to enhance our skills to be more predictive.. so it took some time as well…..

    Air Flow Measurement

    Liked by 1 person

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