Priorities, Fear and Failing to Write

(When I talk about writing in this post, I mean fiction, not blog posts or journaling.)

Sometimes it feels like I waste all my free time. That's an exaggeration, but I do waste a fair amount of time. Just today, I wasted several hours aimlessly wandering the internet from blog to blog, and checking out the floor lamp options at various retailers and on Craigslist. Because, you know, lighting is important.

Davos, Switzerland - where I realized I wanted to be able to tell people I was writing. And almost died of embarrassment when Eric brought it up at dinner one night. This would be a beautiful place to die. Or to write. 

Davos, Switzerland - where I realized I wanted to be able to tell people I was writing. And almost died of embarrassment when Eric brought it up at dinner one night. This would be a beautiful place to die. Or to write. 

I've wrestled with this time-wasting problem a few times, most recently with The Productivity Project's help. I've added healthy habits to my routine, taken some time-wasters out, reduced my stress level at work, tracked how I spend every hour of the day... and yet I'm still not writing. 

Somewhere in The Productivity Project, the author, Chris Bailey, suggests listing your values and goals. Your goals should come from your values. In no particular order, what I value right now includes creativity, compassion, giving, solitude, nature and animals, close relationships, ideas, physical and mental health, art, literature, freedom, fairness, exposure to different cultures and places, trying new things... 

And my main goals right now are writing, reading, exercising, meditating, and staying in touch with friends and family. Some of my friends and family might think I'm failing to stay in touch, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm failing at just one thing - writing. 

I wouldn't say I'm blocked, but I can't quite figure out where to start. I tried re-reading some books about writing (which is not writing) and reading the draft of the novel I'd like to revise (also not writing). I've thought about starting something new, but I don't have a good idea (not writing). I've tried everything except actually writing, so maybe I am blocked. 

Everything worth doing takes effort. Way to go, Earth!

Everything worth doing takes effort. Way to go, Earth!

I used to think being blocked was kinda, well, ridiculous, but I didn't know what I was talking about. When I started writing sometime in the late '90's, I just didn't stop, until I really stopped about five years ago. I wrote nearly every day for years and it turns out that's the kind of writing practice that will keep you from getting blocked. I also worked during that time, but I didn't do much cleaning, cooking, or exercising. And I didn't even consider giving writing up in order to add in those other things. Life was fine. 

It wasn't until my stress level at work went way up with managing people that I gave up writing. If you've ever tried to write creatively (or do any other creative endeavor on a daily basis), you know it's not a stress-free activity, no matter how rewarding it is. So that stress plus work stress, without any healthy stress-reducing activities, made life really hard.

When I gave up my management position at work last April, I thought I'd just start writing again. Seemed logical. I stopped doing the thing that kept me from writing, so i should start writing again. 

That was five months ago. Very few words have been written. Perhaps I am blocked. 

At the time I quit writing, my routine went like this: Wake up and waste time on the internet while ingesting caffeine. Write a short draft in response to a writing prompt. Write part of whatever longer thing I was working on (I aimed for 2000 words a day). Revise older part of longer thing. Revise shorter things. Research writing markets. Send stuff out. Do administrative stuff (I had a website with links to my published works, a database of where I'd sent stories and when, a bio to update, cover letters, etc.)(everything has an administrative part and yes it is annoying). 

One of the very few cats we saw In Davos. 

One of the very few cats we saw In Davos. 

Most days I didn't get through half of that list before I had to go to work, but I think I had it right in terms of importance. Writing and revising first, submitting and admin last. 

So what's preventing me from taking up the old system? Fear of not having anything useful, like a novel I could try to publish, in a "reasonable" amount of time. Also, fear of having too much new material. This is a silly fear, but real. New material becomes material that needs to be revised. Revised material becomes work that needs to be submitted. Which needs to be tracked. And so on. 

But what I used to have was a system that worked. Writing from prompts may not sound like much, but it's a great way to defeat a blank page, and in the past, it yielded a surprising amount of usable stories. And by adding a couple thousand words a day, I completed quite a few short stories and full drafts of two novels. I did a lot of revising, which I found annoying, but so necessary. And I submitted quite a bit. And some of it got published. 

Cat art on the trail. 

Cat art on the trail. 

And I felt like I was writing.

My plan: I'm going to make writing, as in putting actual words on a blank page/screen, my priority. I'm going to use prompts and exercises to make it happen. Experience tells me that this will lead to other things. Maybe I won't have a revised novel at the end of this year, but that's okay. At the rate I'm going now, I'll never have one. So I might as well try something new. Or old. I might as well try what worked in the past. 

It seems obvious, but I think I didn't get the idea of being blocked simply because I never stopped writing, and I was able to keep writing because I didn't set high standards for what I wrote. There was so much writing, no one part of it mattered all that much. The prompts were just exercises, the first draft was just a first draft. Revision was going to sort out the good from the rest. It was a system that worked, given time. 

I'm going to give it time, start where I know I can start, and put the internet to good use - looking for a prompt to use tomorrow. 

PS - I have probably mentioned this before, but it's worth bringing up again. A counselor once told me that success doesn't come from a single plan - it comes from trying many things, and from being willing to try something new if the current approach isn't working out. I tried one thing and it didn't work, so now I'm going to try another. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else. I'm telling you about it because it keeps me accountable (now I have to actually try it), and I hope hearing about what I'm trying will encourage someone else to try a new approach to something that isn't working. Maybe even you.