advice · research · saving my sanity · writing

20 Minute Workout: Keep writing, and the ideas will come

I’m giving the opening keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on June 2. I’ve been working on it for a year. It’s not done yet. And by “not done,” I mean, I have in the document titled DHSI_Keynote about 5000 words of fuzzy non-sequiturs and wild claims. I also have a bunch (like 10 or 11) 200-300 word document stubs with evocative titles and one snappy paragraph. And that’s it. Don’t believe me? Allow me to excerpt the draft in progress. Sample wild claim: “Is DH like bronies? Trampling the 8 year old girls in the name of spurious revolution?” Sample non sequitur: “I’m more the engineering model. More the know your history model. Rules help us all enjoy the game more, if you know what I mean. But now, I’ve changed my mind. Because fan studies.”

It’s a mess, and I’ve got three weeks to get it done.

Now, this morning, it occurs to me, in a blaze of clarity, that I’ve been barking (and writing) up the wrong tree for about a month. And I need to chuck 90% of what I’ve got (bronies? WTH?) and reframe the entire thing.

It’s okay. I can write my way out, and I know how. It’s going to be okay because I write every single day, even when I don’t want to. In fact, in this case, it was because I sat down not wanting to, but did it anyways, that both the Major Problem and the Clever Solution presented themselves to me. Or rather, that I diagnosed my problem and created my solution.

Here’s what happened. I set my 20 minute time, and plunked my cursor into the keynote document, which I was starting to dread, and on which I was getting kind of stuck, and so I wrote about my stuckness and my resistance, because I had to write about something, and all of a sudden (POOF!) I knew what was wrong and why and how, and I had a little idea of how I could fix it. So I shifted over into a new document and wrote to myself some little threads exploring the new frame and the new idea and I can see that it’s going to work and that I’ve already got a bunch of pieces that will tie into this nicely.

I didn’t used to write like this. This way is better. You should do it, too, if you don’t.

To flag what’s important here:

  1. If you set a timer for 20 minutes, and make yourself sit there writing the whole time, you will wind up having an idea. It has never been the case that I’ve just circled the drain that whole time. The fact is that we’re all pretty smart and pretty well read and it necessarily follows that at some moment in that 20 minutes, despite ourselves, we’ll have an idea, just because we’re typing out words. The idea might be big (“Omigod, someone needs to do qualitative research on the child fans of MLP: FiM“) or it might just be footnote-worthy (“Hey, that’s a visual pun on Dr. Who and Rose there, in those background ponies, and I wonder if that’s to amuse the writers, the animators, or the bronies … maybe see where else that happens in cartoons?”)
  2. If you just write every day, even just 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll always have so much half-assed writing lying around that you’ll never be in a panic to just hit the right word count for the deadline. Because writing while panicking is waaaaay less efficient than writing while not suffering from whooshing ear noises and tunnel vision and shakily glugging triple lattes and engaging in subvocalized self-loathing. By the time you really need to get serious about producing 25 superb pages, you’ll already have 50 shitty but intriguing ones–you’ll already be in the admirable position of needing to prune and fine-tune rather than produce out of sheer nothingness.
  3. This giant stack of half-baked pages is comforting even in just its giant stackness. My “book” “typescript” is about 330 pages long now. The other day, I threw out 30 pages in disgust, because they were wrong wrong wrong. But that was easy for me to do because the thing is already 330 (now 300) pages long and I’m not done writing yet. Easy to make the right decision, because sooooo much writing already.
  4. If you write every day your brain is conditioned to Always Be Thinking and Always Be Writing. This means I can just plunk my rear end in the chair and start. At Canadian Tire waiting for the snow tires to get taken off. In my office in the 20 minutes before a meeting. On my front porch after I drop my kid off at the bus. I don’t need a major warmup ritual. I’m already limber, and my brain just knows what to do without much conscious effort to start. So twenty minutes of writing is now preceded by 15 seconds of setting my timer, or 30 seconds of shooing the cat off my lap, rather than by two hours of procrastination and the ritual sacrifice of my sense of self and happiness.
  5. You train your gut. Every day that I write, I’m also sifting out my ideas–good, bad, better, best, in this category, in that category, original, example, digression, important, funny, trivial. They’re whizzing past my critical thinking apparatus all the time. So I’m getting pretty good and pretty efficient at cutting something loose when it’s time to let it go, pretty good at knowing something is underdeveloped but really important, pretty good at figuring out when it needs another pair of eyes, or when it’s ready to submit for peer review. I’m not so tortured about these decisions anymore because I make them all the time.

This is what I’m learning from my daily writing habit. I’m more productive and less stressed. I’m producing higher quality work, and more of it, with less anguish.