Writing Small When There Is No Time to Write Big: The Goldilocks Approach to Getting Writing Done
I was back from the James River Writers Conference in Richmond when I realized I was dealing with an uncomfortable truth. I had been sitting at the conference, listening to agents and editors and the questions people were asking them. The conference is a good one—not too big and not too small. The keynote speaker was Padma Venkatraman, whose beautiful books I’ve seen before and who exhorted us to both dream and do. She should know—she is an oceanographer as well as the author of three novels and a mom and wife and speaker.
She spoke of dreaming our way through our books, not letting the nagging editorial/critical voice stop us. And she spoke of taking charge of our writing—getting it done and out there.
I sat there smugly, rocking back on metaphorical chair legs, thinking, yes, yes, this is what I tell my clients all the time. Then my metaphorical chair hit the ground.
But what about my writing? I have a shameful confession to make here: I’ve had three agents ask me for material in the past year. How many have I sent? Zero. Goose egg. Nada. To be fair, I’ve been busy—I have a wonderful, thriving business helping people develop their novels and memoirs. I teach at local universities part-time. I launched a son. I have 4 geriatric animals. I’ve never in my life been an entrepreneur and I have had quite a steep learning curve which, if what they say about learning new things keeping your brain from atrophying is true, will keep my neurons and me going for the next century or so. But have I applied the advice I’ve given so freely to others? Not so much. So herewith are my best tips to myself:
First, rest. Make sure you have the physical well-being to do creative work. It isn’t a metaphor that the books live in our bodies.
Next, exercise. For the same reason. To up your creative game, you need to up your physical game. Eat right, sleep, work out. That is all.
Creativity loves open space—the time and place to be free. It also loves routine. In fact, it has to have it. Have a specific time and page goal. Do it every day. CAUTION: If you are in genuine overload, make this goal so small that it is genuinely do-able: a sticky note is a good enough goal for some periods in life. (And if you have overloaded yourself, think about what can go. Seriously.)
Say what you’re going to do. Do it. Keep your word on writing. It is sacred, both the writing and the word. Things come up. Flexibility is required. But make sure not meeting a goal is the exception, not the rule.
Use the Kaizen method for getting things done, known as turtle steps in the Martha Beck life coaching system. When you have a big, aspirational goal, go backwards from the goal to the tiniest steps you need to take to get there. One way I do this is by writing in my journal every day. It’s a sort of wrap up and warm up all in one and some days that is all the writing that is going to happen. But that happens every day. (Turns out that is exactly how David Sedaris writes all his material—it is drawn from his daily journals.)
I’ve written when I was in graduate school and had acres of time, if I wasn’t occupied with boyfriend problems, drinking a lot, and gossiping about other writers. I’ve written when I was single-parenting two children, caring for a dying dad, and working full time.
Right now I have just the right amount of challenge—not too little and not too much. I’m going to get that material to those agents. It’s time to set some goals and hit them. It’s time for some creative leadership, Goldilocks!
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