Writers are naturally drawn to articles about lists of this or that. It’s probably because most of the instruction in the art and craft of writing is presented that way: “Six Ways to Improve Characterization” or “Ten Keys to a Writer’s Success” and so on. Look at any cover of any writer magazine and you’ll likely spot two such articles.
We writers are suckers, drawn in by such titles in hopes to discover the magic formula that removes the effort, frustration, and depression, generated by our chosen vocation. If you’re completely and wholeheartedly dedicated to that kind of thinking, you might move to Florida and pick up the search for Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, likely in some gator-infested backwater of some flea-bitten, mosquito-plagued swamp. (But wait, that is Florida!)
Any trip from point A to point Z always looks straightforward on a map, i.e., a list, which, like a map, presents an objective representation of places and the roadways that connect them. But maps don’t show the realities of travel—variables of traffic and road conditions, the weather, and the little things that can interject sometimes painful and/or frustrating encounters that alter, sometimes substantially, your originally intended journey. Writing is always such a journey. Writers don’t get off track, they drive off track. A writer rarely seeks the smooth-surfaced highway. The really good views are usually off road or when you confront ruts and potholes and washed-out bridges. Maybe that’s why we like the idea behind lists—to have a modicum of a sense of control. Keep this in mind as you review the following listed items.
Most lists tend to be short and concise and rarely include in their specifications the downside vicissitudes that one who uses them is likely to encounter. Travel articles rarely depict the once clean and neat traveler covered in the dirt and sweat from changing a flat tire along a country roadside with no shoulder. Instead we see a beautiful model sipping a Mai Tai poolside at a luxury resort looking across an expanse of white sand barely populated with tourists and their half-crazed children. Funny isn’t it. We who write fiction are so easily sucked into the fiction that a list is that white sand beach of organizational and creative nirvana?
The articles about lists that grab our attention tend to present neat and formulaic, and, usually chronological and simplified pronouncements. That works well with journalism and its dedication to short bursts of objectively presented facts through the inverted pyramid supported by a few quoted authorities. Articles structured around a list instead tend to be little more than conclusions without much if any support. They are not impacted by the messiness of emotions encountered during efforts to execute them. Inside the boundaries of the highly subjective and emotional world of fiction writers, the neatness of the inverted pyramid gets caught up in the quagmire of creative thoughts of a world filled with conflict and emotion.
I recently ran across an article authored by Travis Bradberry that did include a modicum of insight into each item it listed. Most of Bradberry’s insights come from Zillow CEO and Hotwire.com co-founder Spencer Rascoff and reflect an approach to life more than keys to success. They apply to most of our vocational efforts, but some miss the mark when applied to the life of a writer. The primary focus of the article is about disconnecting and taking advantage of opportunities to relax offered by the weekend—recharging-your-batteries-time.
Rascoff suggests never going into the office on weekends, and claims to check his e-mail only on at night. (Good luck with that!) Weekends, he says, are an important time to unplug from the day-to-day and get a chance to think more deeply about your job, company or industry. Weekends, he says, offer a great chance to reflect and be more introspective about bigger issues. The geographic disconnection for an office helps here, but for most writers, the office is in a bedroom or in the corner of an alcove.
Bradberry also cites a Stanford study that found once a workweek exceeds 50 hours, productivity drops off, and after 55 hours there’s virtually no point in spending the additional hours. Apparently, the study showed that people who work 70 hours a week get about as much accomplished as those who work 55.
Rascoff’s list isn’t about how to wring as much effort out of those 55 hours as you might otherwise achieve from 70 less efficient and less productive hours, but what “successful people” do to find balance on the weekend so they come into work on Monday morning functioning at 110%. As a writer, you might about now pick up the slight scent of snake oil. But we are duty-bound to explore deeper.
First, you’re supposed to disconnect on the weekends and avoid the constant barrage of stressors that prevent you from recharging your batteries. That does not mean shirk work, but rather schedule it in short blocks of time to, say, check and respond to e-mails or write a memo or report. Treat work like the most important exercise for losing weight—setting down your fork and pushing yourself away from the table.
Secondly, Rascoff suggests investing time to reflect and contemplate your job, project, industry, or organization. The weekend, he says, backs you away from the day-to-day and offers a chance to see, review, and reflect on what you do.
Some of that reflection can take place while you exercise, he suggests. Although trying to cram a week’s worth of exercise into a Saturday afternoon run is probably counterproductive, a consistent weekend physical activity can reduce stress and let your brain come up with new and/or improved ideas. Writes Bradberry: “Innovators and other successful people know that being outdoors often sparks creativity.”
This is difficult to apply for writers (and other creative types) simply because their brains function at two distinctly separate levels—the public one that produces the effort, and the subconscious one that produces the ideas. They tend to be involved in near constant phases of reflection and contemplation. They are key parts of a writer’s job description.
Keep in mind the synergistic relationship between the two. Ideas produce writing and writing produces ideas. When the weekend rolls around, the fellow who spends his week generating widgets can turn off the widget producing thinking process, but that’s not so easy for the writer, and, in fact, may well be ill advised. A well-fed subconscious has neither a clock nor calendar hanging on the wall and might just be when it reaches critical mass and spits out a thought of great or potentially great value.
Writers need to keep a notebook and pen, or, alternatively a small recorder handy at all times, and especially on the weekend when you’re not tethered to your favorite writing spot. And remember, for some inexplicable reason, exercise encourages creative thoughts but without any guarantee you will remember them. Take notes or dictate, but be careful not to be too cryptic. You don’t want to lose the energy of the moment. I cannot tell you how often I’ve written down some flash of an idea in cryptic shorthand and then found myself unable to decipher it later.
Rascoff also suggests that you have a weekend passion to pursue. Passion makes one think differently, he says. It’s like sprinkling fertilizer on the flowerbed. Something may bloom a little bigger and brighter. If your passion involves the creative, you’ll discover it’s not so much an effort to fertilize but to capture the bloom when it bursts forth. The warning label that should be attached to this piece of advice is that the relaxing writer needs to stay away from thinking too deeply. You can’t relax by doing something as or more demanding than your passion for writing. That is the road to disaster. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe had his orchids (and beer)—somewhat mindless activities but ones that created relaxing enjoyment. One of my best friends is a painter but is also passionate about photography. The effort he invests in finding a shot riding his bicycle around the lake and park near his home during moments of relaxation enhances his sensitivities for composition, colors, and textures of the subjects on his canvass.
Schedule micro-adventures, says Rascoff. I actually enjoy going to the grocery store. It presents a cacophony of people, products, and produce to observe and inspect. There is an art to finding the perfect Avocado, or to unravel the messaging on product packaging or uncover the unhealthy truth about its contents. A trip to the bookstore or a simple window-shopping walk around the mall may serve the same purpose for a writer. It might be as simple as brewing a cup of your favorite tea and sipping it on the deck as you watch or listen to the world go by, or in my case, enjoying a good cigar and glass of Porto. “Studies show that anticipating something good to come is a significant part of what makes an activity pleasurable,” according Rascoff, so anticipate the fun of your micro-adventure.
Don’t sleep in. Rise on Saturday at the same time you get up on Monday. To do otherwise, according to Bradberry, disrupts your circadian rhythm and actually can make you tired and less productive. Part of that early weekend morning is “me time,” says Bradberry—when you pursue your passion. He points out that your mind reaches its peak performance from two to four hours after you wake up, so start the day with an exercise routine, then sit down and exercise your mental activities to maximize the value of this mental rhythm.
Plan for the upcoming week, says Rascoff. Set aside a half-hour on the weekend to plan the coming week. By giving it a little thought and structure, you can achieve gains in productivity, and the week “feels a lot more manageable.” For us writers, this might involve setting production goals or a plan to set aside a few hours doing research at the library, or taking a short trip through your favorite bookstore. There’s a great deal of insight to be gleaned from watching others shop for books or talk about the one(s) they’re reading.
If you’re counting, that’s only five items. Number five in Bradberry’s list is to spend quality time with family. Depending on your age and circumstances, you may not have family that involves traditional relationships and rug rats, so try to spend a little quality time with a friend. Not every weekend mind you, but frequently, my good friend the painter—who lives five states away—and I will spend an hour or two on the phone talking away like the stereotypical women across the back fence on laundry day. It’s amazing how much better I feel mentally after one of our talks. We don’t gossip much, but discuss projects or topics of common interest and share our opinions and insights on a broad range of subjects. It’s amazing how much breadth and depth comes out of a casual conversation between two creative people.
You will notice that I didn’t number the list either. There’s a reason. By gleaning and distilling your own list you’ll likely come up with one that fits your specific needs and situation. That’s the kind of list that can actually work for you. The survival rate of a new habit improves if it arises from your own assessment, evaluation, contemplation, and effort.
There are a couple of list items not mentioned by Bradberry that a writer should keep in mind. These may increase the amount of time and effort you will want to set aside on the weekend schedule as part of your planning for Monday. Besides brainstorming, you might find the need to do some outside research for the project you’re working on. I’ve discovered that some of the knowledge I thought I had about a topic was not all that complete or accurate—some embarrassingly so. If you are going to add your own “facts” or “reality” to your writing, it’s important to get them right.
There is a difference between fiction and the realities it uses as a foundation for story. What drives me nuts about television police procedurals is not that they tamper with the realities of criminal investigations, but get the procedural stuff so wrong that it detracts from my willingness to buy into the situation. (Don’t get me started on courtroom scenes!) A little research can alleviate or at least lessen this as well as lead to the discovery that your topic, or some aspect of it, is a little more complicated than you originally expected and demands altering your approach to be more effective. The challenge is how much research is enough to insure the necessary dose of reality into your writing. That decision is driven partly by how deep into your topic you need or intend to drill to capture the appearance of reality you desire. Just remember, there are lists that help you set your goals and lists that help you keep track of where you are and where you intend to go. Those are the lists that work for you.
Realize, too, that from your relaxed weekend reflections, you may come up with a new direction for you writing project or discover that what you have written falls short—that gaps (or chasms) exist between what you have already written and what you need to write. And sometimes, your weekend ideas crumble or come completely apart when you try to launch them into the realm of credibility and believability on Monday morning. Don’t despair; it’s the cost of doing business for writers—with or without weekends. Simply put: “Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
For the writer, what happens on the weekend, when you actually make an effort to relax your brain, is it can come up with fresh ideas that may well take your project on a slightly different and better direction. But weekend ideas can be fragmented and not yet coalesced into as yet a workable idea. Fragments from the weekend, if not managed, can spin away and be lost forever.
You might try talking to yourself when you’re working on that Saturday exercise. You’ll be amazed at the quality of the conversation you can have with yourself when you’re batting an idea back and forth. If you’re out walking and afraid someone might think your nuts, talk into your recorder or phone and pretend you’re being normal—after all that is part of what you do as a writer.