ABOUT YOUR WRITING: Show Up

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

—Isabel Allende

Something I keep circling back to is how we’re all dealing with circumstances that are different than anything we’ve ever known. And as frightening as our situation is, for many of us it’s even more unsettling than frightening. I mean, you can be frightened of a grizzly bear on your mountainside because you know exactly what it is. But we still don’t know what this is. And that is affecting our ability to work.

Once again, this column will be addressed mainly to those not working the front line of this pandemic, because they have plenty to keep them engaged. But after numerous conversations with fellow writers and writing clients, a couple of painters, then tracking myself, l realized many of us were suffering the same thing: we’re having focusing issues, are more tired than usual, and our days feel about three hours shorter. How did it suddenly get to be bedtime? What did I accomplish today? Forget accomplish, what did I even do?

So let me emphasize: You’re not alone. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. For instance, the most obvious thing I’m experiencing (because I am writing, though right now it’s more “grind” than inspiration), is that I need more sleep, and at the end of every night I’m more exhausted than it seems I have any right to be.

By coincidence, within two days I talked to two different friends who are successful painters with solid lifelong creative practices. One lives fifteen floors up in an apartment in Manhattan, and the other in a ranch house just outside of Santa Fe. The one in Santa Fe has it “relatively” easy. She can go running in the trails and has a studio she can access whenever she wants and says she spends the first half of the day outside with her dog. She’s stuck at home, though, in isolation like so many of us, and she was frustrated she hadn’t drawn or painted a lick since this thing landed on us. My friend in New York told me about his exhaustion. He’d set up a makeshift painting space in his apartment since he didn’t want to risk public transportation to his studio in Brooklyn, and he couldn’t understand why he was so tired. He should be able to paint, he had time to paint, but he couldn’t.

But this column is for writers, and I think our art form fares better under these circumstances than any other. And a writing client of mine who’s working on a novel had a breakthrough. This is a published writer, and a very good one, capable of churning out many pages in a session. Still, for the longest time, she could not get any pages down. Finally one week she was able to implement the most tried-and-true technique I know, which sounds so obvious, yet it’s surprising how often people don’t manage it—the one-page-a-day goal. Note: that’s only a single, double-spaced page, about as achievable a goal, while still moving forward, that you can imagine.

How did this get her going? One problem was she’d been expecting herself to churn out numerous pages in a session as she’d done in the past. She’d cleared out big blocks of time, week after week, only to arrive at the end of the week having produced almost nothing, even though she’d already figured out much of her book. I think the reason she struggled was partially because of the pressure she was putting on herself since she expected herself to produce a lot. In an odd way, clearing out big blocks of time added even more pressure. So instead of that, now all she had to do was produce a single page, then she could stop. But she had to produce a single page—which might be no more involved than moving her protagonist down a street from a library to a police station—and then come back the next day and produce another. What this method does, besides creating verified results and establishing a pattern in one’s practice, is break down the work into bite-sized, manageable, individuated bits.

Again, we are living in a very strange moment. Things we used to be able to do automatically take massive planning. My weekly trip to my local grocery store with my collapsible shopping cart (I don’t have a car, which worked fine before this hit) takes a level of organization rivaling a military assault. I mean, between the masks and the wipes and the not-touching-the-face (then forgetting and touching the face), the strangers, who you are on one hand delighted to see on an animal level (Humans!), but on another you’re threatened by, and that never-ending fact that you could catch something that could kill you from simply going inside this space… Yet it’s the space where you find food, nourishment. Do you see how such inner battles, such mixed messages from our current world can wear you out?

Meanwhile, wherever we are, our instincts are aware a killer is somewhere hiding, therefore a part of us thinks we must be On Full Alert! All of this, from dealing with the postman, to washing our hands, to wondering how and when we’re going to see our parents again, to nagging our parents or our adult children to play it safe…all of this drains our inner resources. All the plates that before could spin in the background we’re having to bring to the conscious level and relearn, reset, and watch them, making sure they continue to spin. And it all saps us. That’s a big reason you might be extra tired, or uninspired, or lacking focus. (And that’s without even going into politics, which I’m not about to do here.)

Alright. So, let’s all take a breath. As has been said by me and others, staying in fight-or-flight mode wears you as well as your immune system down and solves nothing. So do your best not to stay in that state; biologically it’s designed to be temporary. Do yoga, meditate, exercise, love your lover, listen to music, pet an animal, or like me, sleep a little later. Take a breath and allow this release, luxuriate in it, as well as any moments of happiness that are available. And even though a dozen plates are spinning, you can step away from them for at least a little while. They’re not going anywhere, trust me.

As to my painter friends, all the painters I know can spend six, seven, eight, or more hours in the studio on a given day, while I know few writers who can come even close to such numbers. I asked the Santa Fe painter if there was anything she could do to prepare for painting without actually doing any painting, just to get her in the studio. And she admitted, yes, she could sweep her studio out, organize her utensils, stretch canvas on a frame. Sometimes you don’t want to rush towards huge, fully conceived work. Sometimes you need to sneak up on it piecemeal. And a painting is a large work because it is an entirety. And I believe the necessary vision that creates this entire and complete object is what can make it daunting to find a place to begin when your focus is split and your energy and your endorphins are all drained.

So, back to the page-a-day approach. One of the things that’s daunting about writing a longform work is its size, all the moving parts, the sheer mass of its content, even if the writer knows what they’re going to write, even if they’ve been able to produce in volumes before. This full-length novel or memoir, similar to an enormous painting, is an entirety. Although we may be no more than 20 pages into it, in our mind it’s a full coherent project even if we haven’t worked out the details yet. And so the size of it, the scope and specific character of it can daunt a writer. It can throw you off your game, especially if you’re on some level more distracted and unsettled than you’ve ever been in your life.

So what do you do? You do not approach a novel as an entirety. There is no way you can solve it as an entirety. You break it down into units, and then you step imaginatively into the scene, wherever you are, and write one page. Lay down one brick. Take one step, today’s step, then leave it. Tomorrow you take another step. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you have focus or not. Whether you feel like a fraud or not. Just take the step. And the steps will lead you, and start to have their own momentum, breaking through the inertia. And you’ll be working again.

Because at the end of this thing, however long it lasts, you want to have some work to show for the downtime, even if it’s not as much as you’d expected. And on that note, to hell with expectations. They get in the way as often as not. Just meet your work regularly. Place a single brick. Write a page. (Or play with an outline, interview a character, do a pencil sketch of them…) Come back the next day, do it again. Keep your focus on the practice, not whatever results you’re fantasizing about. Let the work surprise you. Trust it, and follow it, and above all else, show up.

Update.

—My New York friend is painting now. He said he’s found he has to push through the initial discomfort to find some momentum, but then it comes.

—The Santa Fe painter told me she’s realized that a reason she wasn’t painting was she needed to slow down first, to make sure her financial and medical house was in order, to figure out contingency plans for her father. She needed to take time to manage her outer life so she could arrive at a still place in her mind. Now that she’s done much of that she can feel her work out there again, within reach, and will begin soon. Hers is an argument for both fallow time, and also taking the time to move the biggest spinning plates out of the way so reaching a creative, or flow state, is possible.

—And the writing client is still producing a page a day, and often more, as the first page frequently carries into the next. That’s the momentum the page-a-day technique can produce.

Do what works best for you. If you’re more comfortable using blocks of time as a unit of measurement instead of pages, then set that up and spend one- to two-hours a day at the desk at least five days a week. But whatever you do, don’t let the days and weeks and months (and years) slip by unconsciously. You’re too lucky to have such work waiting inside to let that happen.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

2 responses to “ABOUT YOUR WRITING: Show Up

  1. Good advice Steve. The challenge for me proceeding without an end in mind. There might be some Yogi Berra in writing: if you don’t know where you are going you might end up some place else.

    I just finished rewriting my opening paragraph for the tenth or twelfth time. I know some editor will can it, but this was the first time I got stuck on writing like this. I think the virus voodoo has made it north. Non-fiction books seem to need a structure from the beginning, not so creative non-fiction and other forms, or so it seems to me. When I wrote my two non-fiction books that were published, I just followed the outline. Working on my memoir is much harder. Here is a sentence that was probably written once; I’ve had to re-read it multiple times to get it then read it again to be sure I got it. From Sebastian Berry “A Thousand Moons” about native Americans in Tennessee in the days after the Civil War down where Steve now lives. He writes the way he imagined Indians learning English try to find expression. He writes: “See, if you don’t remember nothing,” said Thomas to Lige Magan, “it don’t mean it don’t done happen, that’s a fact.”

    Got to go to finish that page.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Josh, and for your comments. I love the Yogi Berra quote and plan on stealing it. Yeah, I think for most all of us (there are exceptions) having an end-point you’re heading toward (and also a few points along the way) is a very good idea, and especially for a long-form project. I’ve been dealing with writers lately though who *know* where they’re going and still are stuck, and that’s why I wrote this particular column. A lot of people are really frazzled and tired and their art is suddenly seeming less important, or even less interesting than, say, reorganizing that closet or watching the Game Show Channel on TV. Pushing forward page by page is, on average, the most successful way I know to break through, but it’s definitely not the only way. Good luck!

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