I’m at the gym at 5:30 every morning but it takes me till around 11:30 to actually sit down and start work. I used to be able to put in four hours but these days two and a half is my outer limit. I close the office then. I never work later or at night.
Lemme go into a little more detail here, Ryan. From the moment I open my eyes, I’m preparing myself to work, to confront my own Resistance and to overcome it. My friend Randy has a concept, “Little Successes.” He tries to start his day with a series of successes, so that when he sits down to the blank page, he’s got momentum.
The gym is that for me. It’s physical but it’s mental too. It’s a ritual, as Twyla Tharp says in The Creative Habit. I never want to get out of bed. I HATE the idea of getting up and going to work out. But I do it to do something I don’t want to do. And of course it feels great when it’s over. I feel virtuous. It’s a Little Success.
The rest of the morning is taken up with the everyday stuff of the day, handling correspondence, etc. But a big, important part for me is saying no to “asks” and “opportunities.” Why did I agree to do this interview with you, Ryan? Because I regard you as a serious person, worthy of respect. I have turned down the last one hundred requests and I’ll turn down the next hundred.
Again, I’m conserving my energy and my time for the work. Saying no is a huge part of that.
I work on a Mac desktop that’s, I don’t know, five or six years old.
I copy the file to the folder, to the desktop, to Dropbox, and yeah, I still copy my work to a thumb drive that I keep in my glove compartment.
My aim is to write every day but realistically it’s probably five or six days a week. My most productive days are always the weekend. This has proved problematic in some personal relationships.
I recommend that exercise highly, particularly if you’re a young writer struggling to find your voice. We all learn initially by copying. It’s very helpful (or at least it was for me) to copy a writer who has a very strong and distinctive voice. Tom Petty sung at first like Bob Dylan, right? But his own true voice kicked in and he took it from there.
Yeah, I was absolutely aware at the time. I went out of my way to see classic films, or just genre movies that I was interested in, in theaters and on TV and video. I very definitely felt like a student studying.
Re those six years, I’m a slow learner. Somebody smart could have started right away.
My favorite book on the writing process? The War of Art.
I mean it. But if I had to suggest others, I’d say definitely Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, Stephen King’s On Writing, as well as Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry Phillips and Henry Miller On Writing. For integrating the editor’s mindset into the writing process, the best book is The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
Resistance never sleeps. It never slackens and it never goes away. The dragon must be slain anew every morning. However, as with anything in life, if you’ve succeeded in the past, at least you know that you can succeed. Tom Brady’s five Superbowl wins will definitely help him if he gets back again to the Big Game.
I’ve got a million good luck charms (I’m on my second pair of lucky boots) and I believe in them all. I also pick up pennies. I’ve looked like a real idiot many times on the street.
First, I would never use the word (or even think it) “dabble.” Arrrgggh. Never. In anything!
Re working in different genres, I think our careers migrate naturally as we struggle to survive. You’ve done advertising billboards, publicity for Dov Charney and stunts with Tucker Max. That’s writing. That’s creative. You have your own business in marketing, which I’m sure has taken you into many venues that you never thought you’d be in. They all help, don’t they? Not to mention your actual book-books. I would not suggest to a young writer that she deliberately enter a variety of writing venues. But if survival takes her there, it’s all grist for the mill.
We’re constantly seeking our medium, aren’t we? Blogs didn’t exist a few years ago. Video games are new. Who knows what’s coming next? I’ve heard there’s one guy out there who’s causing quite a stir just with his tweets.
In the Jewish mystical tradition, there’s a concept called the “yetzer hara.” It’s basically the same thing as “Resistance” — a cosmic negative force located between us and our soul (“neshama” in Hebrew). The yetzer hara’s diabolical task is to cut us off from our deepest creative source. It’s a blocking medium. It keeps us from getting our messages through to our soul and it keeps our soul’s telegrams from getting through to us.
The ancient sages’ answer: a disciple called Mussar. Mussar is, as you say in your question, a kind of tough-love, no-nonsense self-discipline. Identify the source of your suffering (which may be procrastination, self-doubt, etc.). Then stop doing it! That’s what Mussar says.
In other words, we approach the mystery by means of the everyday.
Another analogy might be meditation. I’m not a meditator so I’m speaking at second-hand but from what I gather the point of meditating is to reach some kind of transcendent state, akin to “direct knowledge of the divine,” or maybe “flow.” The mind empties. We experience a union with a higher sphere of reality, yes? In other words, the state the artist is hoping to reach when she’s doing her work.
But how do we get there? By means of the physical and the mundane. We sit. This, I’m sure, is not as easy as it seems. Posture has to be perfect, etc.
We breathe. We focus. We employ our will to relax, to let go. This takes years and years of work and practice to get right. At least that’s what I read in the books. But in the end this basic, everyday, mundane work pays off. We enter the state of mind we seek.
The Muse is a goddess. Her standards are high. When she decides whether or not to bestow her favors, she studies us hard. How much do we want it? How hard are we willing to work? What are we willing to sacrifice? Will we truly be her servants? Will we believe? Will we trust? Will we learn our craft? Will we study? When she is ready to give us the goods, will we be ready to receive them … and will we know what to do with them?