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:


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. A really great piece, Sonya. So often find myself in the same position, especially since becoming more involved with social media, supposedly ‘building my audience’- which means reading other people’s blogs, tracking my ‘likes’, watching my ‘followers’ creep up and generally not getting any novel writing done. Your’s will be my last ‘social visit’ of the day- honest.
      Reblogged this on Word Shamble

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m heading right to a draft now to focus for 30 minutes (yeah, I’m moving the bar even lower). If that goes well I might try another 30 minutes later. And then I’ll maybe open up Scrivener and see if I can finally figure out how to make it work for me.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. 🙂 I feel your pain. A trick I have learned is to limit myself to ten minutes on any particular exercise and then move on especially if it’s frustrating me. I feel a sense of accomplishment and relief when it’s over. Good luck and I wish you the best

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I know how that feels like. When I write an article the proofreading takes longer than writing the article and even then I start to sweat while pressing “publish”. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  4. You’ve pretty much described my day, sans evernote and scrivener. I have tons of these handwritten journals and notes scattered near my desk. I should color code them instead of spending time sorting through which ones contain notes for my novel, which are blog ideas, and which ones are random scribbles I may or may not use.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Sometimes we just need to go ahead and write, right? Sometimes we spend so much time ‘preparing to write’, instead of actually writing…. researching what to write, making notes on what to write, organising writing and ideas into folders, anything but actually writing! Sometimes I’m even like…. maybe I will go and wash that pile of pots in the kitchen while I *think* about what to write!
    For me, working from home is a big issue too, as it’s so hard to have routine and structure. Sometimes I actually wish I had a boss breathing down my neck just to keep me disciplined!
    But whatever your style of writing, however long it takes you, and whatever distractions you have to overcome to get you there, when those words are finally on the page, and you are pleased with what you have written, there’s no feeling quite like it! Happy writing everyone!

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Write even if what you write is crap. At least you can work with crap. At least you got some putty in your hands.

    And hey, maybe one day that crap will turn into something more than crap. It’s like walking by a bed of manure every morning screwing up your nose wondering what the hell the gardeners are doing, then one day you walk by the same bed and there’s a mountain of beautiful flowers in its place.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Kimmiah, This is a great question. The great thing about writing groups is that your level of experience doesn’t matter; you choose friends who happen to also be writing and you choose when to get together and share work. The challenge for many people is where to connect with other writers. I would suggest talking with your local librarian, who might be able to connect you with writers groups that are already formed. You can also go to readings in your area and meet writers that way. Another great way is to sign up for the site, which connects you with meetings of various interests in your zip code; many writers find each other that way. Still other areas have local continuing education centers that host writing classes, and writers’ groups sometimes form informally out of those classes. Be persistent and you will find your writing friends! A writing group can also be very small and still be very effective–I prefer small writing groups of 3-4 people. I hope this helps!

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Yes. This looks like what happens anytime I sit down to create. It doesn’t matter if it’s writing or illustrating. This is exactly what happens.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. You probably won’t believe me, but I totally know what you are dealing with. For me, the creative process is connected with pleasure, but when I finally sit at the computer and start writing, all my thoughts seem to evaporate. The very same happens with the programs I’m supposed to be working. I find it easier to imagine things than to actually put them into being. So I basically try to use all my fancy devices to record my immediate thoughts throughout the day. And it does not matter whether I’m in my work or at home preparing something to eat.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Your writing style appears highly organized. I find that when my writing is so tightly organized, I feel less productive and that the quality of my writing (as I judge it) suffers.

    Alas, everyone writes in their own way.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. My personal preference is to keep my creative space disorganized. There is a certain amount of freedom to a mess. However, good luck ever finding anything, lol.


      2. I like messes, too! That is how I operate, so I was chuckling a little bit at the picture you have in your head of my working methods. I do like software, though–which is for me more places to make creative messes.


  10. I am somehow amazed (and stressed) by how much (bad stuff) can happen in such a short timespan. Sounds frustrating, but I am impressed that you found the energy to blog your whole experience. I would probably want to put it in a file for “mornings I want to forget”

    Liked by 2 people

  11. It seems with most things in life, routine is critical. I have to get up at 5:00 in the morning, write, (hopefully) until 6:30, do my chores, get the kids up and ready for school, in the shower by 7:15, in the car and on the way to work by 8:00AM. It’s true though, things love to get in the way of the morning routine, papers to edit, work stuff, and I always feel so resentful because of it. I wonder to myself how stinking early do I really have to get up, to do something I really want to do?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Well I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one! Just add one nagging husband with his “stop telling me about it and write it” line, a baby who likes to wake up the minute you put her down, plus a three year old, and I’m lucky to get a few lines done (of writing) a day. Oh the grand ambitions of posting something every few days- ha!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I have been in a similar rut, a return to writing after a ten year slumber. I have tried writing exercises, but self quizzes are a cool idea. I also like the way you’ve time-stamped your thoughts. Useful information. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I find that retreating to a quiet, private corner in the public library with just a pen and notebook (no computer or internet access!) helps me focus on the writing rather than everything else there is to do. That is, if you can resist the temptation of all those books staring you down from your peripherals.

    Liked by 1 person

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