Wednesday, 25 July 2012

2 Essential Exercises for Becoming a Writer

Everyone who has done any writing classes or read around on the topic will know that teachers/authors always have exercises for you to do. These are to train up particular technical aspects of writing. Some are quite helpful, some come at the wrong time and are annoying as they don't answer your specific problems.

These exercises are not like that.

Once again I turn to my new old friend, Dorothea Brande 'On Becoming a Writer'. As mentioned before, her intention is not to talk about the actual technical side of writing, but the more practical and developmental aspects of turning yourself into the sort of person who sits down for sustained periods of time and writes, and then continues to write even when they aren't sure it's working or when better offers come along.

Of course the technical aspects at some stage will be important. Though as a side note, Stephen King argues in his memoir 'On Writing', that there are four levels of writing: a bad writer, competent, good and brilliant. If you are a competent writer, you can learn and train to become a good writer. However, if you are a bad writer, that is pretty much that, and unfortunately there is no way to train yourself from good to brilliant. However, before you can even know if you are good, bad or brilliant, you need to be able to sit down and write.

For a long time I thought I couldn't be a writer because I didn't seem to get those brilliant flashes of inspiration that sent you flying to your study, doors locked, and scribbling for days on end. And so I found I didn't write very much at all. This image of the inspiration driven writer is actually a bit of a myth. It is now my belief that this might be true for a very select few, who probably have a lot of experience of just sitting down and writing particularly in the early stages. For the majority of great writers their life was making themselves write. The skill of being able to sit down on command and write is therefore one of the most precious a new writer can cultivate. As someone once said (sorry to the person I'm now stealing from because I can't remember who you are, but I at least acknowledge it's not my line):

Bad pages can be made better, blank pages cannot.

If you can train yourself to sit down and write, then you can work out the technical stuff later. If you have all the technical stuff sorted but can't sit down and write, you will never be a writer.

So, after that introduction, let me present for you Dorothea's 2 Essential Exercises for Becoming a Writer. After doing these for a month or so (I just made that time frame up, but it seems good) you will be able to work out two very important things: 1. Should you be a writer. 2. What you naturally like to write.

With those brilliant promises, the first exercise:

For a month, everyday, the moment you wake up, start writing. This is not 'start writing your great opus'. This really is 'start writing whatever is on your mind'. And keep writing. Let your mind write whatever it wants, don't refrain it. When you start to dry up a bit, stop. Then you work out how much you wrote, say it is 200 words or for 15 minutes. The next day, do exactly the same thing, letting your mind write whatever it wants, not trying to carrying on from last time. However this time, push yourself to write a little bit more, either words or time.

The important steps:
  1. Don't restrain your mind in what it wants to write.
  2. Do not read over what you have written for the period of the exercise (a month or so).
  3. Always try to write a bit more than the day before.

Before I explain this exercise (beyond the obvious), let me outline the second exercise:

This is to be done within the same time frame of the first exercise. Every night, before going to sleep, look at your plans for the next day and schedule in a 15 minute block to write where ever is best. Then the next day at a minute past that time you must be writing. If you are in the middle of a conversation, well that was badly planned of you and you must excuse yourself and walk away. Dorothea describes it as a debt of honour. You must write exactly when you said you would write and for the full fifteen minutes. She paints the delightful image of the in training writer hiding out in a washroom with his writing notebook as it was the only space he could find at short notice. Once again, let your mind write whatever it wants to write, but keep it going for the full fifteen minutes. She even suggests if really stuck starting with 'I'm finding this exercise really difficult because...' and going on from there.

As she notes, there will be plenty of excuses to change the time, make it a bit later, do it the next day because you are too busy/stressed out/tired etc. But no. Don't listen. It is your career as a writer at stake. Do not miss even one session or put it off by as much as five minutes. It's just for a month. And yes, some of your friends/family may believe you are strange as you keep walking off in the middle of conversations. But I wouldn't worry. If you really succeed as a writer, you will only become even stranger, so it is good that they get used to the idea now.

The thing to note with this exercise is to try and pick a different time everyday. You are trying to train your creative youth to produce on command, any time, any where.

So, set a time frame (eg. a few weeks) and commit to doing these two exercises.

At the end you will have trained yourself to do two things:

The first exercise, if you kept increase the amount your wrote, should have trained you to sit down for extended periods of time and write and just keep writing. It is like Dory from Finding Nemo sings 'just keep swimming, just keep swimming...'. The biggest necessary talent for a writer is to just keep writing.
You should also have found that despite all expectations or feelings, you can make your mind write on command anywhere, anytime. It will have grumbled at first and possibly not churned out a great deal of anything very good. But you should have found that it churned out something. And as you went along, it grumbled less and churned out more.

Also, at the end, you should be able to find out the following things about yourself as a writer:

First, if you couldn't do it, if you found excuses came up too frequently, that you skipped your debt of honour, according to Dorothea (and while it is harsh, I agree), give up the idea of becoming a writer. You might be technically very good, but you do not love it enough. Most writers agree that sitting down is hard, but if even when you have settled on a time and only have to do it for fifteen minutes you still can't make yourself, you would be happier doing something else.

As another side point, as an emerging writer, I often hear/read people who say that you should try to be anything else before being a writer, or that you have to love it more than anything else. I don't entirely agree with these. First of all, I think the act of writing and the self discipline involved is good for you even if you don't ever get anything published. I wouldn't give up my day job without proof I'm going to earn money, but if you have ever thought about writing start it just because it can be fun.

Then, to the second comment I say 'pah.' Writing is work like most other things. No one says 'don't exercise unless you really, really feel like.' How many people come home from a long day at work and think 'oh yah, an hour at the gym' initially? Once you realise the high that exercise can give, once you have made it habit, then you can think 'yah', but before that you just have to go because you know you will feel better afterwards. I find writing very much the same. Afterwards I feel fantastic, before... well, I could read, or watch TV, or just sleep. So, do not be discouraged if you don't immediately jump into writing every day. However, if you can't make yourself do it even when you have said it's only for fifteen minutes, I do recommend you find something that brings you more joy.

Second, you now have a month's worth of writing on whatever your mind wanted to focus on, which you shouldn't have touched or re-read. Now is the time to do that. Go through and note what you write when there is no directive other than to write. Dorothea suggests that this indicates what you naturally like to write and will show the style and type of writing you could do. If you enter into longer descriptions, setting up longer plot lines, or diffuse character descriptions, then your natural style of writing is aimed more towards novels (which doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't write short stories, but that you might be happier writing novels). On the other hand, if you enjoyed doing short character studies, describing small scenes etc., possibly short stories is your natural medium, though you can train yourself to write out longer scenes of course.

So, if you are thinking of becoming a writer, or are a writer but you're having trouble with actually writing, I highly recommend these exercise. Obviously my writing challenge is allowing me to do much the same in a different way. By setting a word target that so far out there, it has made me really stretch myself. I used to find doing 1,000 words a day really difficult. Now, the first 4,000 or so are super easy, it's just the last 4,000 or so I struggle with. But just think what an improvement that is over 1,000!

Brief summary of my day yesterday. Wrote pretty well in the morning, got just under 3,000 words done before work. But then came home and forced myself to the gym and felt better after that but honestly just needed an evening of reading. With my writing schedule, which I'll outline next post, I'm struggling to get enough input to balance with my output. I've only been able to snatch 10 mins here and 10 mins there to read. And I got to the stage where I just wanted to soak in a book for a while. So I did. And today, I feel much better.

Good luck with the exercises, and if you need more explanation, I recommend reading Dorothea herself.
And feel free to let me know how you go at the end of it! If people wanted to set up a little group doing the challenge, I would encourage it. You could even make badges that said something like “Excuse me, I'll be disappearing at 4.30pm, please don't be surprised or offended, but I'm writing.” Or “Do Not Disturb, Writing in Progress”. 

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