This is it, friends. I’m now officially self-employed.
I got up today at 5:30. I had some oatmeal. And then I sat down to get to work. I turned on the mental tap…
…and all I got was a drip. The ideas were not flowing. At least, not like they had before, so reliably on weekend mornings (and, unbidden, plenty of weekdays) at ten o’clock.
The fact is, I’m off my routine twice over. First, of course, I’ve made a huge professional change that necessitates a wholly new routine. But even if this were just another Saturday at ten o’clock, I suspect I’d still have a mental water pressure problem. Those of you who are regular readers here may have noticed a dearth of posts over the past month or so. This was for reasons largely outside my control, and it frustrated me because at first, ideas did keep flowing, leaving little soggy ideation puddles all over. I tried to sop them up and wring them out into notebooks and fragmentary WordPress drafts to develop later, but I didn’t get much of a chance to do so. A backlog ensued.
And getting the hint that I was too busy to keep up with her, the Muse got out of the habit of dropping by, even on weekends.
And so, here I am, with lots of formerly soggy notebooks, now dried up with wrinkled paper. Or perhaps we could say that while I used to always have my next post or project simmering on the back burner, I now find myself with several pots on multiple burners, all of which have gotten cold and congealed after the gas went out on the mental stove over the past month.
This just serves as a great lesson—and a timely one—to show how important routine is for writers and other creative workers, no matter whether you’re working full time at something else or have made writing the center of your professional life. Either way, you need a way to sustain a cycle of productive energy—or to restart it when it’s stalled.
For me, reading is part of it. Jotting notes down is part of it. Pondering and contemplation are part of it. Breaks are part of it. And hunkering down at the keyboard for long stretches is, of course, the keystone holding it all up: somehow, this effort doesn’t just result in a single product, but keeps the gas turned on and the water pressure up.
Having cut the cord with a the 9-5 external job, I now have a greater ability—and a greater responsibility to myself—to optimize that energy cycle. So my task for this first week of self-employment is to develop a routine that works for me. I’ll know I’ve got it if it enables a stream of production that is, first, consistent and reliable, and secondarily, as powerful as possible.
It just struck me that at the moment, some of you may be participating in that collective exercise of masochism known as NaNoWriMo. I’ve never even attempted it, though I did participate in 2007 in a spinoff called Novel in 90, which I would recommend precisely because it helps writers develop sustainable habits. (The idea is to write 750 words a day for 90 days.) That’s how I completed writing my own first novel. Now, I know lots of people have success through NaNo, or even failing that, lots of fun, and I don’t mean to rain on your parade. If that works for you, keep at it and best of luck! The point is to figure out what works for you. (And if there are others here who have always instinctively balked at NaNo, you’re not alone!)
So yes, if you ask me, having a powerful creative energy stream is valuable, but having a reliable stream is even more valuable.
You can find loads of successful writers who have said as much. On that note and somewhat coincidentally, I happen to be reading a neat book called Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (library/Amazon) that I bought a few months back and, not yet having had a chance to read it, picked up the other day because, frankly, I was exhausted and it said “Rest” in big letters on it. What I didn’t realize when I started it was how perfect this book actually would be for me right now; I suspect the Muse left it on one of her recent visits, when I was too busy to have time for her. I’m not yet half way through it but so far it’s argued that, left to their devices, successful creative types tend to work about four hours a day (yeah, that’s about what I’ve always thought was doable!) and they do it in the morning when their brains are fresh (yes yes yes!) and then they tend to take walks to help them contemplate. Tchaikovsky was one of the many examples, providing a second reference for that same routine that I mentioned way back when I was wishing I could live such a life.
So with this guidance from the Muse and several other writers in mind, here are my tasks for the next couple weeks:
Fine tune the routine. For instance, I know that exercise helps, but should I swim at five thirty in the morning, or take a walk midday? (This is something I have always insisted on, at every job I’ve had.) What’s the best breakfast to make sure I can power through for four hours once I start? (It didn’t matter at my previous jobs because I never experienced flow, but with writing, I don’t want to be interrupted by a drop in blood sugar!) Should I have tea? Coffee? (Coffee makes me twitch and sometimes ruins my productivity unless I manage to have my system in perfect balance, in which case it can help me crank out words. I also don’t like it unless it’s flavored and more milk than coffee. I do like tea, which might fit with the sustainability element.) And when should I answer email? (Hah! That one’s easy: DON’T OPEN MOZILLA THUNDERBIRD UNTIL AFTER THE DAY’S WRITING SESSION.)
For a brief period, I’ll do this by just writing whatever comes into my mind, often (but not always) for this blog, until I get that habit ingrained. The next step, however, will be more strategic:
Contemplate content. I have so many ideas, but I’m so out of touch with them that it will take some effort to refresh myself and get back into them. I’ll choose just a few to put on the front burner and pursue actively; I’ll also strategically choose a couple to get simmering on the back. Also critical is to remember that there are only four burners! I can’t do all of them at once, even if I have the whole week. Once I have determined where to focus, however, I will be able to research and contemplate effectively, which means that once the routine is set, I’ll be primed to get started each morning when I sit down.
By the way, I’ll note that this blog isn’t the center of my long-term plan, but it is a useful tool for me in the short term. I actually have some other projects that will be taking up much of my time—things that need more attention than someone working full time can give, and that could pay eventually but won’t pay immediately. I think if you’re doing anything but writing, they call that “entrepreneurship.”
If I’m to have a chance of succeeding at any of that, I need to get that routine established.
So today’s victory is that I started writing at 7:30, after reading a chapter of Rest to kickstart my brain. When the first draft was finished, I went for a walk, then came back to polish it. By 1 p.m. I was just about ready to post it, except Pixabay was down, so I opened email and slowly made progress through my mess of an inbox while waiting to find some illustrations. Pixabay finally came back online around mid-afternoon, so I found some lovely pictures (I love that part of the process!), and now I’m hitting publish, on a topic that I think might actually interest some of you.
It may not be an amazing blog post, but my goal was to finish it, and I did. That’s the first step in building my routine, which is the first step in building my career. And the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Images by kellepics, Taken, mkvietkova, MiraGregorCosic, and pixel2013 on Pixabay