There’s a natural enemy out there that I dare say all writers have to confront at one point or another. That enemy is – real life.
Whatever your genre, be it deep space fantasy adventure or small intimate character drama taking place in one room, a writer has to immerse themselves into their imagination as fully as one jumps into the deep end of a swimming pool.
I often cite the analogy of writing to swimming. You’re still on the planet Earth, you’re still amongst matter, you’re still able to move around and see even if you can’t utilize all your senses. Being in the space of the imagination is just like that – you’re still on the planet Earth, you’re still able to move around and see if you can’t actually talk to, touch or interact with your created world or characters.
The act of writing can take the writer into “a zone” if you will. Others have compared this to the zone an athlete gets into during a big game. Complete and total focus on the task at hand. I can tell you from experience that I’ve felt time disappear when writing. I’ve emerged from writing sessions actually confused about the time and date. When one commits as much of their mind as they can to their story, it’s often hard to switch gears back to the real world.
And as hard as it is to come out of the zone, it’s sometimes even more difficult to get into it. Especially when stupid, pesky life gets in the way. Writing during the week with a day job is, I’d suggest, one of the biggest challenges of writing. You don’t want to get fired so you can’t goof off doing your screenwriting at work. But work and even commutes alone (hi, 405) can take a ton of energy, physical and creative, out of you.
If you just write on the weekends, those aren’t so easy either. Let’s say you’re not hungover from an evening of Washington Apples and lite beers, you use your Saturdays and Sundays to go to the bank, do your grocery shopping, get your oil changed, see family members who are asking why you’re so busy writing and not seeing them. Precious hours to jump into the pool and swim with your stories fill up quickly.
It’s not always easy to imagine how to fend off an invasion of giant aliens on the surface of Mars while picking up your dry-cleaning or remembering if you already have corn on the cob at home. So after being at the Doctor’s office, day-care, on a dog walk or whatever, it’s hard to then jump into your extraordinary nature of your story in the middle of a perfectly ordinary afternoon. The stresses of real life can be the arch-enemy of your imagination.
Fortunately, there are ways to find the time and/or get into the zone so to speak without letting the fridge go bare or the tires fall of your car.
This list is by no means definitive, of course, but these are the things that have helped me manage my wicked fun workload with the annoying responsibilities of the real world. To add some credibility to that, this year I’ve completed several treatments, two pilots and two feature scripts. And I’m on track to finish two more feature scripts. Maybe more. Time and workflow management are not a pipe dream.
WRITE EVERY DAY: Writing every day isn’t just about completion. The more you write, the more it becomes habit. The more it becomes habit the more it becomes weird when you don’t write. My schedule got flipped around two weeks ago and I couldn’t write during a particular day. I can’t begin to tell you how that threw me off. Like one of those days when you’re constantly late or everyone seems to be in your way. The universe is just off.
About 4-5 years ago, getting into the writer’s zone was hard for me. It would sometimes take me an hour to warm up. That was not so good when some days I only had an hour to write. But force myself to write every day I did. (Yes, you are going to miss some, don’t panic) But before I knew it, I’d crack my software open and bam there I was, right in the zone.
Writing every single day and writing A LOT solves a ton of a writer’s problems. Including but not limited to getting in the zone.
WRITING RITUAL: Something else that helped was a ritual. I write to music (“yeah, no shit, everyone does”) but I choose specific soundtracks and music to each story. For example, earlier this year I wrote a story with heavy religious themes so I queued up some Gregorian Chants and things like that. I like to write to soundtracks and techno so I’ll choose accordingly material that matches the story I’m writing.
But the specifics aren’t as important as the ritual. Something that can hold your hand as you step into the pool. Queueing up the music helped a ton for me. I know other writers who can’t write without their favorite cup of coffee or tea at their side. All for it.
Maybe one likes to exercise before they write or do 15 minute meditation. Whatever works is whatever that works.
Just don’t do the whole “I can only write when I drink” thing. That’s more or less a myth and can lead to severe alcoholism and other destructive behavior.
CALENDAR: The best $14.95 I spent this year was on a calendar that’s on the wall right next to my desk. It’s so basic, so simple and yet you’d be surprised how many writers I talk to who don’t use one. When managing multiple projects and a day job and a family, looking at the week or month to see where you can work on what is a no-brainer. My stress level has plummeted just by being able to mark down “OK, Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll write this then Thursday and Friday I’ll write that.”
I know we like to think of ourselves as artists who are prisoners to their muse and the vagaries of inspiration but we’re also professionals who can be organized and pragmatic.
And it’s all in pencil so as the schedule gets messed up or you have those days where your writing time is just eaten up you can roll with the punches.
Seriously, next time you find yourself asking “where am I going to find the time to write this week?” Look at the calendar, you’ll find it.
PAD AND PEN: Even cheaper than a calendar are a notebook or notepad and some pens and/or pencil. We’re writers, not typists. I’ve filled more notebooks than I care to admit with story notes, character thoughts, ideas and concepts. I keep one with me just about everywhere I go so if a thought strikes from out o nowhere, I can write it down instead of shoving it away while talking to my mechanic. There’s also apps that do this on most if not all phones. Something strikes you as interesting? Write it down. No excuse not to.
UNPLUG: I don’t do this as much as I used to but I know other writers swear by it. The internet is a source of endless distractions. From twitter to facebook to instagrams of lunch to news to politics to games starring candy to adult entertainment and even looking up obscure movies on imdb. (Seriously, how can anyone with an internet connection ever be bored?) If all of those things are whispering in your ear like the devil on the shoulder – unplug. All of those things will wait. Any emergency will call you personally. Turn off the internet and fight to forget about it for a while. It’ll be hard at first, missing the endorphins those little notifications set off, but that rush will be replaced by writing – and finishing – more.
EMBRACING THE ORDINARY AFTERNOON: After a while of writing a lot and honing your craft, the real world becomes not distraction but an asset. And I mean for your writing, not just living. Many a writer has written about the importance of unlocking yourself from the keyboard.
Revisiting the first point, if you write every day, your story becomes a part of your subconscious. You’ll dream about it. And soon everything in life becomes connected to your story. Let’s say you’re stuck on a fight scene but then at the grocery story you’ll see two people trying to get the shortest line which may set off a line of thinking that actually cracks your problem with the scene. Nicholas Meyer has famously told the story that he didn’t know how to direct Star Trek II until playing with some rubber ducks in the tub.
“A writer is always working” is an old cliché but it’s not without some truth. Our stories are never far from our thoughts. There’s no clock where we punch out at the end of the day. Once our minds are trained to it, we have no choice but to design our tales while in line at the DMV, on hold with the cable company or while pretending to listen to our significant others.
Real life then becomes not a distraction that gets in the way but a necessity to keep our minds fresh. We’ll see the trees if we walk out of the forest so to speak. Still, it always sucks on those days when you can’t get back to your keyboard but this is an imperfect science looking at an imperfect craft.
As writers we have the privilege (insanity?) of straddling two worlds. We get to be there for our real friends while ruling over the lives of our imaginary ones. We shudder in terror at the atrocities on the news while staying up late creating disasters for our characters to overcome. Those two worlds seem at odds but in actuality, they should work in synch with other or crossing over as needed to get your story to where it needs to be for you to tell it.
So next time you’re picking up dry-cleaning, don’t forget to figure out how to fend off an invasion of giant aliens on the surface of Mars.
The Handsome Timmy D Express is proud to be a part of:
The Dan & Travis Show Podcast: An Awesome Thing
The Chronic Rift: A series of podcasts that attempt to “find the culture in pop culture.”