The Writer’s Life (Part 2)

by J.T. Ellison

Last week, I discussed my realization that my writing system was irretrievably broken. This week I'll show you how I plan to fix it.

We writers are a superstitious lot. We set ourselves up with certain pads of paper, certain pens and pencils, certain books ready at hand. We have specific music playing, or sit at the same table in the coffee shop each day. We need, no, we crave the ritual. Without it, we can't produce.

So the first part of reinventing my process is to reinvent my ritual.

Twyla Tharp, in her spectacular book, THE CREATIVE HABIT, (which you'll see me discuss more in the coming weeks) talks about ritual in a way that makes it seem like magic. Without it, we can't hit the marks, get our daily word count, or otherwise finish the tasks we set out to complete. Her ritual is to drag herself out of bed every morning at 5:30, go downstairs, hail a cab and tell the driver to take her to her gym. What's interesting to me is she doesn't consider the gym, working out, etc., the ritual so much as telling the cabbie to take her. That's the magic, the step that leads you to the next level.

Okay. This is an actionable step toward redefining my process. What is my ritual? Yes, I like to write in my chair in the living room instead of my office. I like to work 12-4. I like to have all my notes in the same place so I can access them easily. But none of that is a ritual. So I dug deeper, and here's what I saw. My ritual is as follows: get out of bed, slink still half-asleep into my office, open my browser, check my email, check Murderati, check Facebook, check the news, then roll back to my bedroom, get dressed, go downstairs, brush the cat, get a drink and do it all over again. Then, and only then, do I start to write. 

This, my friends is an example of a very bad ritual. It's backwards. The very first thing I do is clutter my mind with thoughts unrelated to my current work. No wonder it takes me a couple of hours to settle down enough to get into the manuscript.

At 43 Folders, Merlin Mann talks about the writer being assailed
with a constant flow of information that must be dealt with. He
described it thusly – a doorbell hard-wired into your brain. Now that
makes sense to me. Think about the distraction you feel when you're deep in the groove and the phone
rings, when someone knocks on your door, when your email button chimes
forty times an hour, or even once an hour. It yanks you right out of
your work and you're in the now again, the immediate, the what am I
going to make for dinner? and does my husband have clean underwear?
world, which is the last place you need to be when you're creating.

There is more to the writing life than just writing, unfortunately. But we do need to do business, as well as create. There are conversations with agents, editors, marketing, PR. There are the commitments we make to others, committee work, blogging. The trick is not to over commit, and know that the writing comes first, before the business. If it's an emergency, your team is going to call you. Usually, there's nothing a two hour delay is going to change. The rest of what's going on is procrastination. And yes, we need a little of that. It helps keep us sane. But it's very, very easy for that five -minute internet excursion to turn into a real problem. We've all lost time on the internet. It happens. Your job is to control how much it happens.

I know I'm not the only one who struggles with the business side of
writing versus the creative side of writing. There are things that need
to be done, and since I'm not a multimillionaire, I need to do them
myself. One day, I hope to be able to have an assistant to deal with
many of the day-to-day issues that need addressing – newsletters, list
maintenance, travel arrangements, etc. In other words, I'd like to be
handled. That's why I use an independent publicist in addition to my
house's fantastic publicity team – I want to be free to spend as much
time writing my book instead of worrying if the local paper is running
a review. And I'll tell you, it's been the wisest investment I've made
outside of my laptop.

Balance. It's what we all strive for. Balance allows us to make room for everything we need to get a book done: ritual, meditation, creation and business.

started another great book this weekend, one that I actually bought and read in college,
called THE WRITER ON HER WORK. In the introduction, Janet Sternberg
writes a sentence that especially resonates for me:

true writer either retreats and pays the price of isolation from the
human stream or opens the door and pays the price of exposure to too
many diverse currents."

This was written in 1980, long
before email and Facebook became as common as sneezing. It seems the
struggle between being creative and still living a life is one that's
been around longer than I could possible imagine. And now the diverse
currents are multiplied exponentially.

Managing the currents, managing your time, your ritual, your creative juices, that's what's so important.

As strange as it sounds, I do enjoy these moments when I realize change has become necessary. It's fun to think through what works, what doesn't, see how other people manage their time, find new resources and new products that help with this maintenance. I'm hoping that hubby will develop a nice content management system for me that pulls everything I do into a single spot that can be looked at once a day, maintained with little to no energy, and leaves me free to skip out on the things that don't matter. But until that day, I have to work as efficiently as I can with the tools I have.

Let's be honest. When you're starting your writing career, there's a feeling of MUST, MUST, MUST. You MUST say yes to everything and accept every invitation. You MUST be accessible to your fans, and you MUST be open for business at any time of day or night to accommodate the urgent needs of outsiders.

I'll let you in on a little secret, something that I've learned over the past year.

You MUST worry about yourself and no one else. You MUST keep your writing time sacred. You MUST ignore the distractions that look shiny and promising, and you MUST get over your self-importance. Yes, you're on Google. Yes, you have an Amazon ranking. Now get back to work.

Learning to say no was possibly the most valuable lesson I took away from my debut year. No is a very powerful word. Look, you're not WonderAuthor. You can't leap tall buildings in a single bound. So stop trying to pretend you can. Trust me, everyone close to me knows I racked myself a couple of times trying, and it wasn't pleasant.

So you don't think I'm a total hypocrite, I'm taking my own advice. I'm reinventing my process. I'm changing my ritual. I'm restructuring my
world. Redefining my writing life. Admitting that writing IS my life
was the first step. But it's even more than that. It's my passion, my
job, the only thing I've ever felt like I was good at. And because of
this, it needs to come first, and I mean that in a very literal sense.
My writing life is going well. So well that I need to change my great "process" to
adapt to the new and different world I live in.

On the advice of 43 Folders, and a wonderful series of ideas I read about here, here's my new plan.

of 12-4 daily, which often gets pushed back by other issues and things
on the To Do List, I'm going to get up, brush the cat, get some
breakfast, sit at my table with my Moleskin, and set a goal for the day. You yogis out there call it an intention, something that you do before each yoga session. It doesn't have to be super special, or far-reaching, or specific. It can be something as simple as, "I will be happy with the work I create today."

As soon as that's done, I'm going to start writing immediately, before my head gets cluttered by the
outside world. I'm going to work for at least one hour before I give
myself permission to stop. I can get a LOT done in an uninterrupted
hour. Then I'll let myself check out my email and do a bit of cruising.
I've reworked my Google Reader to only include blogs I really care
about, so I'll check in on the rest of the world. After fifteen
minutes (tracked by setting the timer on my iPhone,) I'm back at it for another hour. Then another 15 minute break.
Then one more hour. If I haven't hit my 1,000 words by then, I'm in
trouble, and no amount of scheduling will save me.

That will
leave me the afternoon, whenever I get to it, guilt free. I'll
turn the phones back on. I can read, research, run errands, do some
yoga, talk on the phone, work on my blog… Whatever. But with my work
done first, hopefully I'll start feeling a little more rounded, and a
little more present in the writer's life.

Doing this daily,
five days a week, allowing myself one full day off with no Internet at
all (that's Sundays from here on out) it will become a new habit. I did
the 12-4 routine for three years, produced one book that first year, then two books a year since. Not bad, but
I think I can do better. I'm curious to see if I feel more productive
this way.

I know I'm perfectly capable of handling a change. I just have to train the people around me to my new schedule.

will admit, Murderati takes up a chunk of time. We're nearing the three
year mark, and coming up with new, never-done-before blog topics weekly
is difficult. Two things need to happen for me here. One, please don't
hold it against me if I bring in a few guests bloggers over the next
couple of months while I'm restructuring. And two, I'd like to ask you,
the reader, for some help. I've hit the point where I don't feel like
my angst is getting the job done for you. I'd like to share the creative life with you through this series, talk about what's working and what isn't. But I'd also like to hear what you're interested in reading. I still don't feel like I have a lot of publishing experience, but I
can get creative. I think that's the whole plan, actually…

A little battery recharging, a few New Year's resolutions, and a reworking of the processes. Merry Christmas to me. And may all the blessings of the season be showered upon you. Happy Holidays!!!!!

Wine of the Week: In the spirit of the holidays (and thanks to Grimey's) let's have a little holiday cheer, AKA "Ellison Family Grog Nog." You need a short glass, some ice, one part Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum, and two parts lowfat eggnog, (because we all need to watch our waists, right?) Pour, dash with cinammon, stir, drink. Repeat. But for goodness sake, stay away from the sleighs. This stuff is lethal.

25 thoughts on “The Writer’s Life (Part 2)

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love Tharp’s concept of a ritual – I think that’s something that really works for aspiring writers to get them through the creative door. At first writing isn’t the hard part- STARTING is the hard part.

    I had a very specific and always effective ritual in those early days that took me from aspiring screenwriter to professional screenwriter – it was simply to turn on the computer. This computer had a black screen and green lettering and it created a hypnotic glow that I have never been able to find in a computer since. That screen coming up INSTANTLY took me into an Alpha state and I didn’t have to do any of the hemming and hawing and procrastinating that we all know so well. It was like stepping through a physical door into writing world.

    I don’t have to force myself to write any more because I’ve been doing it for so long I wouldn’t know what else to do.

    I have a new problem, though. Because of egregious construction noise outside my house, I’m suddenly in a situation of having to leave my house all day long for an outside office space. I am NOT and never have been a good office writer and the thought is extremely anxiety-provoking.

    I wonder if I will get more writing done with no distractions, no Internet. I’m not so sure – that I can GET more writing done than I do already without complete burnout. I’ll have to report back.

  2. Marie

    I’m envious of your ability to structure your day around your writing. I’m still working full time while balancing the writing and two kids. When I’m lucky, I get in an hour or two at night when there’s a lot of other stuff crowding the brain. But like you, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been any good at so I keep going!

  3. billie

    JT, the Twyla Tharp book was recommended to me YEARS ago and has been sitting in my Amazon cart ever since. I need to get it, finally.

    I set intentions every morning, but interesting to me now that I’m thinking about it, the intentions of late have had to do with NOT being on a schedule. I wonder if I’m trying to clear out my routine completely so I can start something new in the new year.

    Thanks for sharing your process – and how it’s changing as you move forward as an author.

  4. Louise Ure

    I love the new ritual, JT. My current one isn’t working. Rise, coffee, morning news, two crossword puzzles, emails, Murderati, three political blogs, then every other volunteer thing I’ve raised my hand for. Then writing. Ugh. That’s a mind full of distractions.

    OK. I’m changing mine in the New Year, too.

  5. Fiona

    JT, your new plan sounds great.

    One thing I do to define my very-limited writing time in the morning is to get a cup of tea and light a candle. When I take a break from writing, or stop for the day, I blow out the candle.

    When the candle is lit–it’s writing time. The internet is off and the email is off. I only answer the phone if it’s from the school (all of our school district numbers have the same first 3 numbers.

    I have very little time to write each day, so that’s how I set my mind in writing mode.

  6. Scott Parker

    While I am not in your enviable position (full-time writer), I, too, am facing the realization that my writing system is broken. I commiserated with your comment from last week (First book = vacuum) since I have spent more time NOT writing my second book than it took to write my first. 2009 changes things. Ironically, I find myself greatly imaginative on the way to work, with ideas flowing freely. Then, of course, work intrudes. Boy, would I love the true writer’s life. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading about your restructuring as I restructure my own writing life as well.

  7. Tasha Alexander

    Great post as always, JT.

    Ritual is great, but I find that it works against me because I get too caught up in them. You’re so right about writing time being sacred—for me, though, that means just doing it with no bells and whistles. Because bells break and whistles get lost, giving me too easy excuses not to work.

    I remember before I started writing, I had this idea that I needed space—the proverbial room of one’s own—and time. Uninterrupted time. And I needed to feel inspired. And if the sun could have come through the window at just the right angle, that would have been great.

    Now all I need is my laptop. I can work anywhere (necessity; invention), pretty much any time. Magical though writing is, it’s also a job–a damn good one–and it needs to get done!

  8. pari

    Great post, JT.

    It’s fascinating to read about your work toward a new ritual and how much that resonates with everyone who has commented so far.

    Me too!

    Mine has been very similar to yours, but I’m rethinking it. The one big difference is that when you have kids life is even more unpredictable, so I need to learn to build in psychological flexibility into the process.

    Fiona, I like that idea of a candle or some kind of symbol to reinforce writing time. Thank you.

  9. J.T. Ellison

    Alex, I used to have that. When I first got my laptop and we didn’t have wireless, the moment I opened the laptop signaled writing time. It was lovely.

    Marie, I have the utmost respect for you. Snatching time to work is so hard. Keep it up – you never know when you’ll have that breakthrough and be able to go full time.

    Billie, you’re going to love the Tharp book. I am not a big fan of self-help and the like, and I didn’t have a single moment of eyerolling throughout. It’s wonderful.

    Louise, if you’re anything like me, it takes my mind an hour or so to engage, just because of sleep lag. I’ve never been a bound out of bed and greet the day type. Writing first is going to be hard for me because I don’t start feeling really awake until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I’m a complete nightowl.

  10. J.T. Ellison

    Fiona, I used to have a lamp in my office that was my writing lamp. If the lamp was on, I was creating. It was the signal for my husband to stay away. Now I light candles when I edit. So funny that we both ascribe light to creativity. Hmmm….

    Scott, bring a tape recorder in the car with you and tell yourself the stories. Then you can transcribe when you get home from work, and that will kick start you into some more work in the evening. I also use my answering machine at home if I’m out, have no paper and need to remember something. I just call myself and leave it on the machine. Works great.

    Tasha, you’re one of the people who totally gets it, and are disciplined enough to ignore everything else when you’re at it. Care to bottle that and sell it at conferences?

    Pari, I can’t imagine doing all of this with kids at home. That’s one of the reasons I can work all day – no interruptions. Alas, the cat has different ideas…

  11. Jake Nantz

    JT, I wish you the very best for your new ritual!

    What struck me is that you felt your mind was cluttered by everything you did before writing, and therefore feel better if you just sit down and go before all else.

    In my situation, my mind is cluttered no matter what (school day) before I ever COULD sit down to write. But when I finally do plop myself down at the end of the day, I HAVE to go through all of those things to clear them OUT of my head. Then I put my iPod on and listen to the exact same playlist I lift weights to, because I’m so used to it that I can drown it out, and it’s loud enough that it drowns everything else out.

  12. Jake Nantz

    Oh, and Alex,I used to have to have ABSOLUTE QUIET to write because I grew up a loner and liked being by myself. But there is no such thing as a silent spot in my house. So I tried using the method I described above with my iPod. It may never work for you, but I figured I’d mention it, in that it might be able to help you stay at home and still tune out the construction workers.

    That is, unless the problem is all of those muscular guys so close by. After all, you did mention how much you love men a while back….


  13. Cornelia Read

    I love the idea of the candle or lamp for writing, and J.T., I do the same thing in the morning–email and blogs first, writing second. I’ve found that the only thing that gets my butt in gear to write is to go to my friend Sharon’s house, since I can’t get wireless access there. Now I just need to get down there earlier and stop chatting sooner.

  14. billie

    Very interesting about the candles and light. I often light a candle if I’m working late, but during the day my tendency is to open all the blinds and curtains and let the light shine in!

  15. J.T. Ellison

    Jake, you’ve got a stronger mind than me. I still need relative quiet – I don’t like working in coffee shops because I spend all my time creating lives for the patrons and don’t work on MY stuff. I like classical in the background, but I don’t do as well if I’ve had a whole day’s worth of “white noise.”

    Cornelia, I keep threatening Randy that I’m going to through away the router…

    Barbra, good look with it! Change is hard, but worth it in the end. I hope…

    Jeff, most of this is your fault. Thanks for the good wishes : )

    Billie, it’s my inner Catholic slipping to the fore. ; )

  16. R.J. Mangahas

    Very deep and thought provoking, JT. My other distraction is my job working receiving at a bookstore. Being around all those books and wanting to set some aside to buy.

    However, I’m trying to build into a routine of coming home from work, having some food, taking a nap, then write. Lateley though, between nap and write, I’ve been throwing in watch movie, surf net, e-mail, blogs…AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

  17. Carla Buckley

    JT–this was a timely post for me. Ever since I signed my first book contract back in February, I’ve been worrying about how to write the next book according to deadlines imposed by someone other than me. It’s a battle. I’ve got three kids who leave for school at various times and arrive back home at various times. Once that first backpack hits the floor, my work day is over. Often, it’s over even before then, when kid number two calls to see if I can drop by his viola, or kid number one calls to see if she can stay after school. I’ve recently adopted a second dog whom my first dog doesn’t like so there’s a constant refrain of puppy squabbling in the background. Something usually gets shredded or knocked over so I can’t pretend it’s not happening. But these are all excuses, really. I mean, everyone has their own challenges, those who work full time, those who have young children still at home.

    I am writing, but I could be more efficient. I despair over those two hours I lose every morning waiting for the kids to leave, and quiet to finally descend.

    So. I am going to try your system. I’m going to get up, walk the dogs, pour the coffee, and get to work. I’m going to tell the kids that when the door to the den is closed, no one interrupts unless something’s on fire or bleeding. And it had better be a lot of blood. I’m going to tell myself it doesn’t have to be great writing, just words hitting the screen. I can get a good hour in this way before I have to help my youngest get ready and walk the dogs the second time. I think the big change for me will be telling myself that the outside world doesn’t have to be silent, just muted.

    I am thinking of getting those noise silencing headphones…

  18. JT Ellison

    Carla, bravo!!! I hope that extra hour makes all the difference. And you’ll find that when it comes down to it, you’ll pull it off. I promise.

    RJ, sometimes you just have to cut yourself a break. Let yourself have a week of movies, then get back to it.

  19. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Buckley,With regard to the “it doesn’t have to be great writing” sentiment, I’ve got a quote posted in my classroom for my creative writing students that you may like. It’s kind of meant to tell them it’s okay to turn off the editing voice in the background…

    James Thurber once said, “Don’t get it RIGHT the first time, just get it WRITTEN.”

  20. Allison Brennan

    I’ve been prone to procrastination . . . part of the problem is that my muse is lazy and just can’t get motivated until around noon. My BEST writing time is 12-5, but I have to cut it off at 3 every day to get the kids.

    Stephen King in his book ON WRITING says he writes 2,000 words a day, every day. That’s his first priority when he sits down at his desk. When that’s done, whether it took 2 hours or 10 hours, he can do anything else.

    I’m trying that method with the next book, though I’m setting it at 3,000 words a day because my deadline is tight.

    Too many writers focus on the promotion, the social loops (me, me, me) etc. The writing has to come first. My problem isn’t as much everything else, it’s that I tend to fall into the research trap . . . I get sucked into an article or a book or google a plot point and then go down a hundred unrelated paths just because they’re interesting. I’ll play video games, too, when I’m stuck, which is also a huge time suck for me.

    But I’m focusing on trying to write more productively when my kids are at school so I don’t have to write so much at night.

  21. Fiona

    Carla, LOL, that’s what I tell my kids, except if they’re bleeding I want them to go into the kitchen; I don’t want them to bleed on the carpet. 😉

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post – very thought-provoking. My biggest problem is that I don’t have a routine. Work is fluid and life has to follow.

    Yesterday I was in London. The day before I was in Warrington shooting a tricked-out Mitsubishi Evo belonging to a former cage-fighting champion. Variety is the spice of what?

    But it means I can’t develop rituals because I never know where I’m going to be from one day to the next. To a certain extent, I just have to go with the flow and write in the cracks.

    But it does make writing time more precious.

  23. Michael McGovern

    Best of luck with the new routine. I wonder if you’ll notice any difference in writing style or tone at any point. I know when I write at a (radically) different time of day my mood can change and affect the work a little differently.

    I’ve got a four year old and a two year old constantly tearing through the house, so my writing time is officially “whenever I get the chance”.


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