I’ve started a new writing habit that has been unbelievably helpful. It’s so simple.
My problem is that I tend to have a thousand writing projects on the go at any given time, so I nibble away at this one, then that one.
I end up amassing a huge backlog of work without getting much finished writing out there.
Is writing ever finished anyway? Valery said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.
Recently, as I was going through my files of “almost ready to submit” work – poems, memoir chapters, prose pieces, flash fiction – I realized that 90% of my writing time (at least 4 hours a day!) goes toward beginning new work, and about 10% goes toward finishing work that I started months, and often years, ago.
Why do I put off finishing? I think I prefer my work to live in possibility. I can read it and think, “Oh yes, this shows great promise. When I finish it, it will be amazing!” Then I leave it for years and start other potentially “amazing” pieces.
If I finish my prose pieces, I might ruin them.
A good friend of mine said she’s afraid of committing to endings for her short stories, so she rarely finishes them. I can relate! There are so many endings out there, so many metaphors, so many open doors.
Li Young-Lee, one of my favorite poets, once told me in an interview that as soon as one of his poems begins to take shape, it’s a bit sad because all of the open doors close. Each decision we make – format, rhyme, meter, metaphor – narrows a poem’s scope until we have closed all but one single door. And that’s our poem.
One of my favorite Dylan Thomas stories is about a guy who becomes infatuated with a girl, and they’re at a strange party in a hotel together. He goes out to get something – maybe cigarettes? – and when he comes back to the hotel, the stairwell is dark and he’s disoriented, and has forgotten the room number. He frantically searches and tries to remember which door that incredible girl – that feeling of possibility – is behind.
That feeling of loss comes either way, whether I never finish a piece (I imagine Thomas’ idealized girl is still waiting for him in that hotel room to this day) or if I do. If I finish it, it’s never as good as it might have been.
It’s so much easier to let our writing linger in the zone of possibility, waiting for us to get back from the shops with cigarettes.
Here’s how I’ve been getting past procrastinating and finishing all of these pieces that I start.
I set a timer for 5 minutes. I spend that time thinking about my writing goal, whatever it may be that day; a scene, a conversation, a description. You might call it a meditation of sorts.
Once my 5 minutes is up, whether I’m ready or not, I set my alarm for 15 minutes and write as fast as I can – no inner censor, no looking at it through other people’s eyes, no worrying about grammar or trite passages.
My inner censor likes the intrigue, the flirtation, the courtship of new projects. It doesn’t want the long haul. It’s got a short attention span and performance anxiety both. So I make myself write so fast and furious that my inner censor doesn’t have time to notice there’s scribbling going on right beneath its nose.
And: I write in a notebook. There’s something so satisfying about crossing out passages and connecting islands of text with arrows.
At the end of my 15-minute manic writing spree I take a quick break. I get up and walk around, do something completely different (a little yoga, some weightlifting, make a snack, have tea, stare out my window, etc), Then I go back and begin another 5/15 minute burst.
I do four 15-minute bursts a day, which is really only an hour of writing. Extremely focused, distraction-free writing.
The rest of my writing day is devoted to typing my 15-minute notebook entries into Scrivener, revising whichever chapter I;m working on in my memoir, shuffling scenes, proofreading, and thinking about what writing I’l need to do the next day.
These 15-minute bursts have helped me to focus on finishing one project at a time, rather than dallying over five prose pieces, two memoirs, and six poems at once, and never finishing any of them.
Now I must get busy closing doors.