The Deep Work Experiment: On Shouldering Through

Here I am, week 11 of my Deep Work experiment. And have you noticed it’s been a little quiet here lately?

I have.

Sometimes, when things don’t go exactly to plan, I have a tendency to interpret that as failure. Anything less than complete perfection, I can interpret as failure.

As with most things in life, this has both negative and positive aspects. On the plus side: I hold myself to high standards, and I am capable of being my own accountability mechanism. There’s no-one who could be a better drill-sergeant for me than myself.

On the negative side: When I consider myself as having failed, there can be an urge to give up. I’ve already failed… what’s the point of going on? This has been a pattern in many areas of my life – trying to learn how to play an instrument; not getting into a PhD program; trying to lose weight or get fit; and, of course, writing.

Sometimes I have been right to give up. Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t. I’m trying to hold onto this simple motto for me and my writing these days:

It’s about progress, not perfection.

Simple, but it might be the hardest thing in the world for a perfectionist like me.

So the last few weeks have been a little dicey in terms of working on my project, and in implementing the skills I pulled from the Deep Work. I’ve been backsliding in certain ways, I’ve been exhausted, things got hard, excuses piled up, and the more I felt like I was failing, the more I didn’t want to write.

I was feeling very in this failure over the weekend: telling myself that this was just like all the other times. You’re never going to finish this book. You’re a terrible writer. Just give up, no-one cares about what you write anyway. 

The seductive thoughts planted by my inner gremlin.

But then I remembered, progress, not perfection. So, I’m back. Here, being honest, being accountable, and looking back over what I have achieved in the last three weeks.

  • I have just under 35,000 words total written – that’s almost halfway!
  • In the past 3 weeks I’ve written over 7,000 words. No, it’s not as fast as I was writing in the first flush of this work, but it’s also significant progress. I didn’t stop writing.
  • I’ve been gently dipping my toes into research, pulling inspiration and ideas.
  • I’ve read some really good books – this is a way I fuel myself as a writer too, and important to acknowledge.
  • I’ve been busy at work. Sometimes I think I forget that this is a valid reason for feeling a bit tapped out for my own writing. I love my job – but it does use my creativity, my resources, my time. It’s ok to admit that sometimes it’s hard to find the energy for both writing and work, and sometimes work has to win in that equation.
  • I’ve been trying to take care of myself. I’ve been learning to meditate. I’ve taken some much needed naps. I’ve been taking care of my physical health – working out, and taking long walks. This too is part of the creative process – allowing myself to be looked after and able to do this work.

For the next little while, I want to refocus on the basics of the Deep Work Experiment. Get back into the swing of the tools that made so much sense to me at the start of this journey. And most of all, to keep going.

The Deep Work Experiment Week 8: The Halfway Edition

When I originally set out on the deep work experiment I gave myself until the end of September to finish a first draft of my novel. Four months during which I was going to quit social media, practice deep focus, and make monumental progress on a dream I’ve had ever since I was a little girl.

Halfway in and I feel conflicted about the progress I’ve made. I’m not halfway through my novel – I’ve currently written about 27,000 words and I think I feel confident in saying I have Part 1 of 3 more or less drafted and typed up. I’m wondering if the goal I originally set myself is too ambitious, if I can make it to the end of that first draft by the end of September. I remember how much other stuff goes into writing – the plot development, the character tweaks, all the spanners that seem to get thrown in all the works. It’s not just word counts – it’s everything.

On the other hand, I have never felt that I have more discipline and confidence in my writing process. I do believe that I will finish this novel. I’m excited about writing it. And mad though it might be, I do kind of want to hold onto that original goal.

What next then? I guess buckling down and writing more. I’m hoping some of the ground work I’ve laid in these first couple of months will mean I can push through more into straight out production for the next stage. Nose to the grindstone time, I suppose!

The Deep Work Experiment Week 7: The Vacation Edition

I went on vacation last week: a luscious trip camping in Northern California, falling asleep under the stars, hiking during the day, and eating the most gourmet camping food you can possibly imagine.

It was a rich, beautiful, full experience. I did not write a word.

Hiking, not writing

I had harboured great hopes of writing during my break – on the plane, in the early mornings, by the light of my headlamp… I did none of these things. 

I suppose I ought to feel shame or disappointment, but instead I’m feeling an intense sense of relief and freedom. I still thought on and off about my project. I ended up reading some books for research. I still feel connected to my novel, and ready to get back to work.

And that was the key revelation for me this week. That one little word. Work. I have been treating my writing like it is part of my work: this is not my hobby, not something I indulge in. It’s something I work on, am dedicated to. It’s also something I sometimes need to take a vacation from.

This mindset feels liberating in all kinds of ways. Of course I’ll come back to my novel: it’s my job to write this novel. There’s no way I’ll just abandon it – I would never walk out on my work. 

It’s an entirely psychological shift, of course. I’m not paid to write this book, there is no manager pushing me to meet this deadline I have set myself. It’s all about my attitude. Over the last two months or so I started treating my writing with a new seriousness – a new depth. And in return it has settled into a deeper part of my life. The unquestioned part. The required part. The this just has to get done part.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to get back to work.

Deep work experiment: Week 6

A tiny check in this week because mostly the last week hasn’t felt like it was about depth at all – it has felt hectic, and harried, and just full. I think it’s been a good reminder for me that no matter how intentional I am about my deep work and my writing, I can’t always control the external environment. I have my job, I have commitments, I have my life – all of which sometimes get in the way.

This isn’t to say I haven’t written because I have – it’s funny that what in previous months would have looked like a stellar writing week for me is now a below average one. I’m finding that I’m reaping the benefits of having created the outline: I’m no longer stuck as to “what to write” next as the plan is RIGHT THERE. (Although the small matter of what I feel like writing is still an open question). Research has also continued apace.

Perhaps that’s the real lesson of the deep work experiment: that because I’ve set myself up with strategies that work and a framework for commitment, I managed to squeeze in all kinds of work on my novel even when life became a whirlwind. 

I’m now about to have a completely different experience – travelling and camping. Being off the grid – check. But also being sociable and in vacation mode? I’m taking my notebook but I’ll be checking in here next week to see how I get on.

Things which are also writing

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Writing doesn’t just happen at that moment when pen glides across page, when fingers strike the keyboard. Most writers know that writing happens even at the most unexpected of times: as you daydream in the shower; as you struggle with a blank page; when you’re eavesdropping on that couple fighting on the subway; when you’re not even consciously thinking about your writing and then, suddenly an idea pops into your head, as if from nowhere.

And yet for myself, and I suspect many other writers, there’s an ever-present twinge of guilt whenever we’re not in the physical act of writing. A feeling that we’re somehow not doing what we’re meant to do.

I’m pretty interested in this idea – this question of how it would feel to let go of all of the preconceptions about what we should be doing and embraced doing what feels good. What if our definition of writing was broad enough to encompass all of these things which nourish our writing; what if we could accept the natural ebb and flow between frenzied production and thoughtful pondering; what if we could actually be a little bit kinder to ourselves, not always be beating ourselves up?

Here are some of the things that make up my writing life without being explicitly writing: naps (vital for resetting the consciousness); tea, in near industrial quantities (luckily I have a good selection of herbal teas, otherwise I might be a nervous wreck); daydreaming; staring at a blank screen; doodling; finding new notebooks (see also: finding new pens); drawing up character sketches; reading books set in the same period as my story; reading books I love and have nothing to do with my story; watching documentaries; listening to podcasts; noting down random ideas in the middle of the night; talking through my ideas or the writing process with someone who understands; writing something that isn’t my main project; knitting; listening to music; and did I mention eavesdropping? (Honestly, I think half the reason I am a writer is because it gives a certain loftiness to my nosiness about other people’s lives)

Some of these things may sound more productive than others – some of them might even strike you as being perilously close to procrastination. But for me, allowing myself to daydream, to let my mind wander, is a key part of my creative process. And if I’m honest with myself, I know when I’m daydreaming because it feels good and right, and I know when I’m daydreaming because-I-just-don’t-really-want-to-write-that-scene. I can tell the difference, and that is how I am able to give myself permission to indulge when I need to.

So, what about you – what are the non-writing aspects of your writing life?

Photo credit: Annie Spratt

Deep Work Experiment: Week 5, or how I learned to tolerate outlining

This week has had a pretty abysmally low word count (hello, summer cold) but something amazing did happen. You guys… I outlined my novel.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 5.27.25 PMAn honest to god plot outline!

Confession time: I’ve never been good at outlining. It’s one of my (not-so-secret) writing coach shames. Students will share details of their elaborate outlines with me and I’ll have to confess: it’s not something I usually do. On the plotter to pantser scale, I know firmly what side I come down on.

It’s curious because I actually love talking about plot structure and narrative arcs. It’s one of my loves in literature. But somehow the act of sitting down and meticulously planning out my plot before I wrote my way into the story? Totally inconceivable to me. It seemed boring, like something a teacher might force you to do in school without offering any clear benefit. I just want writing to feel fun. 

Of course, there’s not actually very much that’s fun about staring at your notebook, having painted yourself into a plot corner and not knowing how to fix it. There’s not a lot that’s fun about that agonizing feeling of being ready and willing to write but not knowing what to write next. And there’s certainly very little joy to be felt in rewriting the same scenes over and over, while you try to figure out what happens next.

There’s lots of things I like about my looser approach to plotting – most of all, I like the sense of surprise of following a story, of hunting it down like a detective. I suspect it makes the plot less predictable because, hey, I certainly don’t know what’s happening. And on the other hand, it’s also not as if I have ever worked completely without an outline – I usually have a vague sense of the direction my story is heading in, and the key beats I want to hit.

But there’s also the cold hard fact of this being the novel I want to finish, and potentially take further, out into the world. My old techniques weren’t working for me and I felt as though I was floundering. And so I pulled up a chair, dug through the 17,000+ words I’d written so far (did I also mention I don’t write chronologically? I like to keep things nice and easy, that’s for sure) and sat down to create an outline. Three cups of tea and a couple of hours later, I had one. Sure, it’s sparse in places (I get a lot less detailed the closer I get to the end), and there’s plenty more information to be put in as I do research and explore the scope of this story but… it’s an outline!

I feel like without the principles I’ve started practising the past few weeks as part of my deep work experiment this might never happened: tolerating boredom, taking on difficult tasks, working through problems… these are skills that cultivating a deep work habit have helped me to develop.

And now I get to get back to the fun part again!

 

The Deep Work Experiment: Week 4

Here it is, I am officially one month into the deep work experiment. During this time I’ve been committing myself to really and truly working on my novel – giving up my attention sapping social media habit, and trying to schedule uninterrupted sessions of working time in order to complete my first draft by the end of September.

This week was a bit of a challenge as I had a friend visiting and staying in our small apartment. Regardless, I managed to hit the following word counts:

June 20 823
June 21 1046
June 22 1329
June 23 506
June 24 0
June 25 329
June 26 381

Another successful week at just under 4,500 words – and bringing me to a total of around 17,000 words for the month.

As I look forward, I can tell that the next month is where I need to get disciplined – and where I need to actually put some more effort into my deep work activities. So far I have mostly relied on being off social media to help me focus on my novel – but as I enter the next phase, I need to really work on concentrating for longer stretches of time, grappling difficult questions, and not relying on the many other ways the internet can amuse me to procrastinate from work.

Why do I know the next phase is going to be more difficult? Because it always is: this is the stage where I (traditionally) run out of steam. The initial blaze of the idea has simmered down, and now comes all the tough stuff. The research. The piecing the plot together. The creating of those little scenes that keep the plot moving but just never feel quite that exciting. This next phase is the graft. 

I’m resigned to the fact that my word counts might drop a bit during this phase, but I’m trying to remain optimistic. The only way I’m failing is if I abandon the project – and there’s no sign of that yet.

On Space

 IMG_4048My preferred summer writing spot

Have you thought about WHERE you write recently?

As writers, we often obsess over our tools. Getting just the right notebook, just the right pen. Evangelizing over the perfect word processing program that will ensure our New York Times Number 1 Bestseller (I’m looking at you, Scrivener enthusiasts…).

And while tools are important (I myself am on a lifelong quest for the perfect notebook), an often-neglected conversation is where we write.

It’s a question I ask my coaching clients frequently: where do you write? What does your writing space feel like? Is your current set up working for you?

So often we resort to the stereotype of what we THINK a writing set up OUGHT to look like. I spent many wasted hours in the library getting nothing done, in Starbucks coffee shops getting even less done and spending too much money on peach tea, and a hell of a lot of time trying to make my desk at home into my writing space. I was so hung up on what my writing space “should” look like that I never even considered thinking about what I actually wanted.

It turns out, desks and tables really don’t do it for me when I’m writing. In the winter, I curl up on my couch or in bed with a notebook. In the summer, I improvise a couch on my balcony using patio chairs. I like cushions, and tea, and blankets, and zero attachment to my technology. I don’t actually like being surrounded by lots of other people. I like to work alone, most of the time.

What about you? Do you know where you love to write?

If you’ve never really thought about this before – here’s a challenge for you. Spend the next few weeks experimenting with your writing space. Try coffee shops, and libraries, and parks, and desks, and benches, and the couch. Try busy places, and quiet places, and being completely alone. Mix it up. And at the end of each writing session, take a few brief notes dissecting the experience. How did you feel during this writing session? Was the environment inspiring and creatively nourishing? Or did you feel drained? You may need to try some spaces more than once to get a really good feel for whether they work for you or not, or whether there’s a particular time you prefer.

If you decide to take this challenge on, I’d love to hear what you learn. Let me know in the comments.

The Deep Work Experiment: Week 3

It’s week three of the deep work experiment and I’m doing a flying accountability check in. Here’s the numbers for the week:

June 13 1024
June 14 221
June 15 363
June 16 1793
June 17 689
June 18 147
June 19 350

Even though I have some low production days in there, I actually hit my highest word count of the experiment so far – north of 4,500! I also spent a considerable amount of time this weekend working on transcribing some of my handwritten sections (I always write my first drafts by hand) on to the computer – so really, it’s been a fantastically productive week.

At this point I feel two, somewhat contradictory, things:

  1. I feel deeply embedded in my project. I am living and breathing this project in a way that feels deeply, deeply satisfying.
  2. I am starting to get worried about “what to write next.” This is somewhat linked to my research problem but also partly just a side effect of having worked through all my “easy to write” scenes.

So mostly, this week is about feeling that good momentum, but also seeing the potential roadblocks ahead. Let’s see what unfolds in week 4.

My biggest block: Research

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Photo Credit: Jordan Whitt.

I’ve recently become a fan of DIY MFA: this is a site chock-full of resources and interesting articles – and as someone who has always “kind of sort of” wanted to go get an MFA but who really lacks the money to do so, I’m attracted to the idea of building my own MFA-like experience through my own discipline.

In a recent DIY MFA newsletter, the following prompt was offered as inspiration:

Is there a wall, a block, an obstacle that is getting in the way of your creative work? Name it, then consider whether there is some piece of it that you can responsibility for. When we blame external blocks for our lack of creative progress, we give away all control. But if take responsibility for the block (or even just a small piece of it), it opens the door for us to reclaim our power and break through that obstacle.

love this. Identifying blocks is the easy part – almost every writer I know could list off 1000 reasons why they’re not writing right now. Taking responsibility for moving through a block is far more difficult. After all, the very nature of a block is that it seems insurmountable. When I think about blocks with my coaching clients it is often in terms of breaking down the block – either into smaller pieces, or by trying to see what’s the fear that is lurking underneath the block, so we can tackle the root causes together. Of course, it’s always much easier to help someone else in this process; I’m a lot more myopic when it comes to my own writing practice.

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