This past Monday, I sat down, got out my computer, and wrote twenty pages (~6500 words) in one shot.
Yay me! Huzzah! Celebration until the end of tiiiiiiiiiiiimmmme…! *crickets*
All modesty aside, I was pretty proud of myself. Looking back, it wasn’t by any means the best writing I’ve done. I’m well aware that volume has nothing to do with quality, and that the two can even be inversely proportional. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with myself for three reasons:
1) I didn’t take breaks. Breaks can be helpful a lot of the time, but if I could write well without them, of course hat would be my preference purely for time management reasons. This writing session was about nine hours without breaks, so I’m pretty happy about that.
2) The writing flowed. My usual writing day consists of plenty of starts and stops, redo’s, getting stuck, etc. On Monday, I had no serious obstacles and was free to just write like the wind!
3) It felt GOOD. Writing can be frustrating. The productivity and the lack of roadblocks made writing much more enjoyable and fulfilling than it usually is.
The big question on my mind at the end of that day, which is still nagging at me now, is:
How do I make sure this wasn’t just a one time fluke?
Or more accurately:
It was a fluke. I don’t usually have this kind of output. But…!
Now that I’ve experienced this fluke, what can I learn from it? HOW can I learn from it? Is it possible to train myself to write like this on command?
Looking back on that experience, I noticed a total of seven things:
1) I Was SUPER Relaxed
My brother and I have a tradition of renting a cabin in the mountains for a few days every winter. After the peaceful drive through rural northern Washington, we arrived at the cabin, built a nice fire in the hearth, and I fell asleep reading Game of Thrones. After sleeping for about an hour, I woke up, spaced out in front of the fire for a while, then decided to write. Personally, the freer I feel mentally the more creative I am, and nothing makes for mental relaxation like falling asleep while reading in front of a roaring fire in a cabin in the mountains.
2) It Was a New Idea
The story I was writing was inspired by something I’d read two days before and a conversation I’d witnessed the previous night. I’m often working on projects I’ve put years of planning and brainstorming into, but this idea was the complete opposite of that. Working on something new was EXCITING, and I didn’t have any of the mental baggage that comes with the cycle of encountering obstacles, reworking, failing, fixing, etc.
3) I Didn’t Have Any Expectations
I often get excited about new ideas and when I subsequently try to write them, I realize I don’t have enough worked out and the project never really takes off. When I began writing this particular story, I had the mindset that if this all doesn’t go anywhere, that’s perfectly fine. I’ll just work on something else. That sentiment allowed me to be even freer, which for me means more easily creative.
4) Balance of Known and Unknown
Since the idea was new, I didn’t have everything worked out, but I did have a general idea of what I wanted. It turned out to be the perfect harmony of using what I knew to guide me in the process of filling in what I didn’t know. It was very much like that conversation between Cobb and Ariadne in Inception:
“Well imagine you’re designing a building, right? And you consciously create each aspect. But sometimes it almost feels like it’s creating itself, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah, like I’m… discovering it.”
“Genuine inspiration, right? Now, in a dream, our mind continuously does this. We create and perceive our world simultaneously, and our mind does this so well we don’t even know it’s happening.”
Creating as you go but never really struggling is the best kind of writing experience. One of the reasons for this is because of a little thing called…
5) Flow State
Challenges that are too big are intimidating and disheartening, but when there’s no challenge at all, we get bored. The perfect balance is when you’re facing obstacles that challenge you just beyond your skill level. The continual cycle of challenge and triumph puts you into what many people call “the zone” and what psychologist often call “flow state”, where your energy is flowing productively and you’re producing emotionally positive results. More importantly, it feels AWESOME. (More on flow state here.)
On Monday, I was definitely in flow state due to the perfect level of challenge I experienced in the interplay between what I had planned vs what I had to invent as I wrote.
6) No Breaks
As I mentioned before, sometimes breaks are necessary and beneficial, but it’s too easy to take breaks when you don’t need to. Very often, I find myself checking Facebook instead of dealing with the SMALLEST of problems. During this uber writing session, I was disconnected from the internet and I had nothing to distract me. Surprise surprise, I didn’t let my writing get away from me until I had written all I had wanted to that day.
7) I Took My Time
I’m such a HUGE fan of flow state that it can be detrimental. Again, I’ll often allow myself to get distracted due to the smallest problem. This is because of how frustrating it is to have a hiccup, even a small one, while I’m in flow state. I’d rather depart from the zone via a break than by hitting the kind of wall a problem presents. But during that Magnificent Monday, when I hit a problem, even if I was going strong, I allowed myself to slow down and think calmly until I found a solution. The lack of both breaks and frustrated impatience definitely kept me going.
8) I Never Asked “What does this NEED to be?”
Nothing kills creativity for me like going into problem solving mode. I’m happy to brainstorm, I’m happy to let new ideas bounce around my head until something clicks, but once I start approaching a story like it’s a task to be managed, I just turn off creatively. Constraints like “Character X NEEDS to be more BLANK” or “Scene Y NEEDS to fit with scene X” are just the worst for me. However, during the Miraculous Monday, I wasn’t asking “What does this NEED to be?” but “What IS this?” In other words, I was doing what I felt like and making things into whatever seemed right in the moment, or, at most, after just a little exploration into which option interested me the most.
Although going into the story, I was missing a lot of details and even a few important factors like the personality of the main character’s best friend, I always knew where I was going. I had a central event the story would open with that would culminate in an inciting incident. Creatively, I’ve known for a while that I write best when I know more or less where I’m headed, and it definitely proved true here.
10) I Kept Myself Fed and Hydrated
Hunger is a HUGE distraction and energy vacuum. This wasn’t intentional, but I allowed myself to snack and drink water whenever I came to a pause to think. I think not having the expected dinner break prevented my momentum from being interrupted.
In addition to these ten qualities about Marvelous Monday, I noticed four things that made the following day, Tuesday, much less successful:
1) I Was Worried About Keeping It Up – As little pressure as I put myself under throughout the Monday Madness, it was hard on Tuesday not to feel pressure to keep up what I had going the day before. I wasn’t exactly demanding anything of myself, but I was pretty focused on the question of: “Will this continue?” I was focusing on productivity, not on the story. That split focus definitely detracted from my energy towards the writing itself.
2) “What Does It Need To Be?” – After I laid down the groundwork for characters, themes, and plot on Milestone Monday, there was a lot that I had to conform to just for the sake of continuity. I was somewhat past the stage of discovering the characters and onto showing how they experience the story now that we know who they are. I didn’t find myself completely paralyzed, but I certainly lapsed into problem solving mode more often than was good for me.
3) No Through-Line – My writing on Monumental Monday took me through the inciting incident, but beyond that I didn’t have the same kind of concrete checkpoint I could use to guide my writing. Without that, the process didn’t feel free as much as aimless and I felt less motivated as a result.
4) I Was Tired – Physically I was tired, but mentally I was tired too. In the week leading up to these two days, I had been doing a lot of editing and revising, so I hadn’t had a day of writing new stuff in a while. On Mighty Monday, the prospect of writing a new story was exciting to me and that definitely contributed to my momentum. However, by Troublesome Tuesday, I didn’t have the same level of excitement to motivate me.
I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can learn from this, but I’m glad I found a few strategies and perspectives that I can try out immediately. Most notably, cutting down on breaks, taking my time, focusing on the writing instead of productivity, and putting myself in a relaxed state before I write.
All in all, my goal isn’t to be able to write twenty pages every day. My goal is to train myself to be able to do whatever I need to do in order to write best. If my situation or creativity demands that I write a lot very quickly, I want to be able to do that. If I need to spend a week on a thousand words, I want to be able to do that too. The more I train my endurance and the more I understand my creativity, the more effectively I’ll be able to accomplish what I want to as a writer.
Until then, I’ll just have to keep writing, keep learning from both good and bad writing days, and keep trying new strategies!