Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Enough exercise (and a calf update)

I recently came upon an old livejournal post about my struggles to get enough exercise.

It had been written in April 2008, some seven or eight months after I’d quit working a regular job, and was about how I’d always blamed the job for keeping me from getting enough exercise, and how I was unhappy that I hadn’t seized the opportunity that came from my new regular-job-free lifestyle to get into better shape. Here’s an excerpt:

The big advantage of not working a regular job ought to be that I can exercise anytime I want.  In the spring, I can run in the afternoon when it’s warm.  In the summer I can run in the morning when it’s cool.  I can pick the nicest day of the week for my long ride (minimize the chance of being caught miles from home in a thunderstorm) and then organize the rest of the week’s workouts around that.

I say “ought to,” because I haven’t taken full advantage so far.  Last summer I was still working until the end of August, and then I was trying to focus on my novel while still cranking out four or five Wise Bread posts a week.  I tried to get the running habit set up in the fall so that I could continue it through the winter, but didn’t really manage it.

Now, though, it’s spring, and I’ve decided to make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.

Reading that post, I realized that I have, finally, succeeded. I now get enough exercise.

Brief aside: Except, of course, that I’ve scarcely run in a month, because of my injured calf.

I’ve tried three times to go out for a short run, and each time the result has been re-injury. After the third time, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, trying to get back to running as quickly as possible. I decided to wait until the symptoms were completely gone, and then give it at least a full week for further rest and recovery, before trying to run again. On that schedule, my first run would be roughly Saturday. In fact, it’ll be delayed at least two days further, because Saturday Jackie and I will go to Forest Glen and squeeze in a long hike in the morning, ahead of a spinning and weaving event there. (And not taking a day to recover from a long hike before a short run is how I hurt my calf in the first place.)

Basically, though, my calf is fine. It doesn’t limit either my walking (we walked 10 miles yesterday) or my taiji (I’ve taught my class on schedule every day). It has been completely pain-free, except when I re-injure it—then it hurts for a couple of days.

I wrote two years ago about my winter fitness regimen. (Three times a week I lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days I try to walk for an hour.) It proves to be satisfactory to maintain my weight and maintain a base level of fitness.

In the summers, I’ve been doing more. I preserve the lifting and the taiji (and much of the walking, which is mostly incidental to getting other things done) and augment it with running—before my injury, I had been running 7–9 miles most weeks—and have also added a weekly very long walk.

That livejournal post has a chart with the amount of time I had been devoting to exercise the last time I’d been in really good shape. Here’s a similar chart for what I’d been doing until a few weeks ago when I had to quit running:

Activity Minutes per workout Workouts per week Minutes per week
Lifting 30 3 90
Taiji 60 3 180
Short walks 60 4 240
Long walks 240 1 240
Short runs 22 2 44
Long runs 60 1 60
Total 854

The first thing that strikes me is just how similar this is to what I was doing in the past when I’ve been fit. I’ve replaced the bike rides with walking a very similar number of minutes per week. I’ve added the taiji, which adds 3 hours a week, and I’ve reduced the number and length of my short runs, to gain back maybe 50 minutes of that time. But the bottom line is that I’m now spending about 120 minutes a day on fitness-related activities.

Now, that’s great. Certainly it feels great—I feel great when I’m getting this much exercise. And having gotten here, I believe I’m prepared to declare victory, and say that getting and staying in shape is a solved problem.

But how could anyone with a regular job manage such a thing? And yet, much less exercise than this would not build and maintain the capabilities I want. If I want to be able to run for an hour, I need to run for an hour pretty regularly. If I want to be able to walk for four or six hours, then every week or two I need to walk for four or six hours.

I don’t really have an answer here for people who find that making a living limits their ability to be fit. I managed it temporarily a couple of times, but only by letting things slide temporarily—things that I couldn’t let slide permanently.

Still, just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Thanks to the taiji, I move with more ease and control than I’ve ever had before. Thanks to the lifting and the endurance exercise, I have more power and stamina than ever before. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s long hike. And I’m looking forward (after a day or two to recover from that) to trying to run again. (Because, as Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”)

Again with the writing daily

I think the first advice I ever got from a writer about writing was that I should write every day. It’s also probably the best advice. It’s certainly the most common. In any case, it’s advice that I accept.

Writing daily is good for many reasons.

First of all, it means that you’re making progress. That’s all it takes to eventually get to the end. If you write just one page—250 words—each day, then in less than a year you can write an 80,000 word novel.

Second, you’re making it a habit. I find it a habit that’s easy to keep, if I just do it. Even on the busiest days I can squeeze in a few minutes of writing. But once I decide that it’s okay to skip a day to handle some other major task or allow for some schedule conflict, I find that writing “almost” every day is a much easier habit to let go by the wayside.

Third (and this seems especially the case for writing a novel in particular), you’re inhabiting the world you’re writing about. As long as I’m writing every day, the characters remain fresh, their world remains alive, their situations remain immediate. If I wrote yesterday, I’m vastly more productive today than if there’s been an interruption.

I wrote a while back about the difference between writing every day and exercising every day, because I think they’re very different. Exercise is about stress followed by recovery. You can exercise every day, if you’re smart about making sure that each day’s exercise activities allow for recovery from the previous day’s exertions. In running, alternate long runs with short runs. In lifting, alternate upper-body with lower-body.

It may be that reason number 2 (making it a habit) is a good enough reason to create an exercise schedule that allows for daily exercise, but I don’t think it’s important for creating a successful fitness regimen. It’s perfectly possible to get fit exercising just three or four days a week.

But I think reason number 2 is the least important reason why writing every day is important. Reason number 1 (making progress) is more important. It scarcely applies to fitness. (It’s not like you’re ever going to be done with fitness the way you can be done writing a novel.) And reason number 3 (inhabiting the world of your story) doesn’t even really have an analog in fitness.

This post was prompted by the recent post by my Clarion classmate Beth Adele Long, who has started a public effort to write a novel by writing daily.

But I’d already gotten myself back to daily writing some days ago: since January 21st, I’ve worked on my novel every day. Early on there was day that I only managed to get 41 words written, but I got those words and hundreds more each day since then. All together, I’ve written almost 8000 new words since getting back to daily writing—a tenth of a novel right there.

I’d written the first quarter of a novel some months ago (writing daily most of that time) and then stalled out when I discovered that the middle of the novel was terribly dull. I’ve spent the months since then figuring out where I’d gone wrong, and I don’t think I’m going to have to throw away much of what I wrote. I’ve got most of the already-written part whipped into shape and (I think) I’m ready to jump in on the next part and write the middle of an interesting novel.

So, one question is, if I hadn’t let the fact that I was writing a dull middle of a novel stop me a few months ago, would I be ahead now? After all, I could have written 165,000 words of dull middle in that much time—and very possibly I could have figured out where I’d gone awry sooner than I ended up figuring it out.

On the other hand, in that time I finished two short stories and got them out to markets.

So, I don’t have an answer there. But I am back at work on my novel, and I’m once again writing daily.

Losing weight

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

That’s partly because the topic is so loaded with cultural baggage. I think there’s pretty good evidence that eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are both associated with better health. There’s a lot less evidence that being thin is associated with better health—and none at all, as far as I’m aware, that trying to lose weight improves your health, or that exhorting someone else to lose weight improves their health.

Having said all that, my weight is something I’ve been paying attention to, so it seems like something I should talk about here.

What prompts this post at this time is that I’ve reached my lowest adult weight. That is, at 179 pounds this morning, I’ve matched the lowest weight for which I have any record.

I have pretty good data on my weight since 1999. For Christmas that year my brother gave me a Palm III and I installed a weight-tracking app called Eat Watch, which I used fairly regularly from early 2000 until mid 2007. At that point there’s a break in the data, because I lost access to the good doctor’s scale at the Motorola office when the site closed. My bathroom scale wasn’t up to the task. In May of last year I finally bought a good digital scale, and since then I have almost daily data.

Although I’ve been heavier than I’d like pretty much my whole adult life, and have often paid attention to my weight, I’ve largely avoided the curse of yo-yo dieting. Really, there are only two other periods when I’ve lost weight.

The previous one began in 2003. Early that year blood work showed modestly elevated blood sugar levels. The idea that I might break my pancreas was upsetting enough that I took steps: I quit drinking soda and I started running again. From February 2003 through September 2004 I lost 40 pounds, getting my weight down to 188. I kept the weight off for a while; at the end of 2005 it was still around 195, but it was already inexorably rising. By the time the Motorola site closed, it was back up over 200 pounds.

I don’t have much data on my weight from before 2000, but the one exception includes the other period I was losing weight. Back in 1991 I started running, and my running log from that period tracked my weight. I don’t have a value for every week, but I weighed 201 in March that year, and got my weight down to 179 by the end of running season.

In my experience, losing weight is either easy, or else impossible. The easy times are generally summer, when I’m getting plenty of exercise. I’ve tended to blame difficulty in getting exercise for the fact that I gain weight in the winter, but I don’t really have data to show that. It could be other things. Maybe in the dark months I burn fewer calories on incidental movement, such as by fidgeting less. Maybe in the dark months I eat more.

It would only have to be slightly more. One thing the data does make clear is just how few calories it takes to make a large difference. Since May of last year I’ve lost 26 pounds. That corresponds to a daily deficit of just 134 calories. Any little thing—an extra soda, an extra cocktail, an extra beer, an extra snack, an extra serving—would have more than wiped out the deficit. An almost imperceptible change in my amount of fidgeting could easily add or subtract more than 134 calories per day.

It’s pretty much impossible to impose that difference by effort, which is, I think, why diets don’t work. There are extremely complex mechanisms in your body for controlling your weight, which bring to bear powerful forces like appetite and satiety. Making a point of eating less is no more likely to be successful than making a point of breathing less. Losing weight requires changing how you live.

Changes like eating a healthier diet and being less sedentary are likely to lead to weight loss. I used to despair of making such changes. Eating more healthily is tough because (unlike Jackie), I don’t really like vegetables. Being less sedentary was tough because so many hours per day had to be allocated to sedentary activities—sleeping and working.

I’ve improved my diet some. Over the past 20-some years I’ve steadily cut back on the amount of fat and sugar I eat. I’ve also learned to pay more attention to how much food I really want, which lets me get those complex mechanisms for controlling my weight working for me, rather than against me.

Not working at a regular job has helped with being less sedentary—more of my hours are my own. I’ve also made a bit of an attitude adjustment: Before I thought that an hour a day was probably more time than I could afford to devote to exercise; now I figure that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

Last winter I described a fitness regimen that allowed me to maintain a stable weight. Briefly: Three times a week we lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days a week I try to walk for an hour. It worked. My weight was stable. (Specifically, from the beginning of September last year though the end of March this year I lost weight at the rate of 0.03 pounds a week, implying a calorie deficit of 17 calories a day. And that right there is a crystal-clear instance of those powerful mechanisms working. Imagine trying to match your calorie intake and activity level within 17 calories by counting calories. It’d be hopeless.)

Maintaining a stable weight over the winter was key. It was perfectly ordinary that I lost weight last summer and this summer. What was different was that I put two summers of weight loss back-to-back.

That’s pretty much the extent of my plan for the rest of this winter as well—a stable weight, so that I’ll be starting from here next summer.

I don’t have much data on which to base a longer-term plan. The National Institutes of Health suggest that the highest healthy weight for a person my height is 164 pounds. That seems like a good medium-term goal.

Looking slightly beyond that, I observe that Jackie is looking very trim these days. To match her body mass index my weight would want to be around 144-151.

That target is supported by my only reasonably specific recollection of my weight from longer ago: When I was a freshman in college, I got mononucleosis. The combination of nausea and a very sore throat resulted in eating a lot less for several weeks, producing considerable weight loss. I don’t have any records, but I’m pretty sure I remember my weight dropping under 150 (which is to say, probably down to 149¾). Despite having gotten there by being sick, I was by no means wasted away at that weight. In fact, I remember looking pretty good.

So, that’s my weight loss story. I don’t expect to talk about it much beyond this. “Let me tell you how I lost so much weight” is just not a useful or interesting story. I only mention it at all because I’ve been paying close attention to it. It would seem to make my own story incomplete to leave it out.

Mixed success at being monomaniacal

I like to joke that I no longer multitask at more than one thing at a time.

Related to that, I recognized years ago that a certain amount of monomaniacal focus was really useful for successfully completing a large project (such as a novel), but that being able to focus on more than just one thing was important to being more broadly successful.

Siam Dragon Peppers
We keep harvesting them, but every time we return to the garden a few more of our Siam Dragon Peppers are ripe.

I like to joke that I no longer multitask at more than one thing at a time.

Related to that, I recognized years ago that a certain amount of monomaniacal focus was really useful for successfully completing a large project (such as a novel), but that being able to focus on more than just one thing was important to being more broadly successful.

This is all the more true if you want to accomplish more than just one thing (if you want to, for example, write a series of Wise Bread posts, write an occasional short story, and become physically fit, in addition to writing a novel). And yet, each one of those things requires focus, if I’m to accomplish it.

Basically, I need to be able to be monomaniacal about three or four things at a time.

Like most people, I find that I get caught up in whatever I’m doing, both on a minute-to-minute basis and a day-to-day basis.

On a minute-to-minute basis, when I’m writing something, and especially when the writing is going well, I want to press on. I feel this way, even though I know from both things others have said and personal experience, that it’s always best to stop in the middle of things—to leave a ragged edge, so that I return to the work with a clear entry point, already knowing how the next bit goes. Convincing myself to do this routinely would really help with being monomaniacal about multiple things: I’d be quicker at ending the first thing so I could switch my focus to the second, and I’d be quicker at resuming the first thing when I came back to it.

Just lately, my day-to-day monomaniacal focus has been on running. I don’t run every single day, but I’ve had to make it the first thing I do on the days that I do it, because otherwise it’s too hot to run. It’s been working very well for building fitness, but doing it first has tended to result in it preempting my writing.

I’m not quite sure why. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling tired. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling like I’ve accomplished something (so I’m less driven to accomplish something more). Partly it’s just that I’m only at my best first thing in the day, so whatever I do first always ends up being the main thing I do that day.

Once there’s a break in the heat, I want to get back to writing first of all. If I can put that together with taking a fairly early break (leaving the work paused at a ragged edge) and then running (or walking or bicycling or lifting or doing taiji) and then returning for a second session of writing, I think I’ll be more productive at the writing without any loss of success at the fitness thing.

Exactly on topic for the above is Tobias Buckell’s latest meditations on designing a daily routine that provides both writing time and exercise time, while also allowing him to work on different aspects of his work at whatever time of day he’s most effective at that particular thing. Toby is a great writer, but he’s an absolute genius at measuring his productivity and then using that data to tweak his work habits.

I need to improve my own data collection. I already track my productivity at writing, but I need to get a bit more fine-grained about it and track productivity per work session (rather than per day). I’m sure I’m most productive in the first session of the day, but I don’t have any evidence, and I certainly don’t know how much less productive I am during the later sessions, nor to I know whether my productivity declines less if I work on non-fiction (or editing, or research).

The picture, by the way, has nothing to do with this post. I just thought the blog needed another picture, and I’d brought the camera to the garden today.

Not one of the busy people

All my life, starting in childhood and continuing through college, my career as a software engineer, and my career since then as a full-time writer, some of my friends and acquaintances have been busy. They were always hard to schedule anything with, because they were always already scheduled to attend Junior Achievers or to volunteer at the soup kitchen or to meet up with the group they’re joining for a trip abroad or whatever.

I, on the other hand, was not busy. That made it possible to schedule things with these guys, because if they could find a clear spot on their calendar, odds were it was free on my calendar too.

I generally found that to be okay, although sometimes I’d feel a bit taken advantage of. (In particular, when I had to move stuff that I’d planned to do, simply because it was at least possible to adjust my schedule, whereas theirs had no adjustablity.)

In what I now think was an odd reaction, when I was younger I felt kind of jealous of these guys. Sometimes I even went so far as to fill up my own schedule, so I could be one of the busy guys. I think I was just reacting to the fact that everything ended up having to revolve around them, and felt like at least sometimes everything ought to revolve around me.

I’ve since changed my mind. Not being busy is vastly preferable. Plus I no longer feel taken advantage of, because I’ve largely given up trying to do stuff with the busy folks.

Starting way back when I was in high school, I noticed that these unadjustible schedules could suddenly develop adjustability when the right opportunity came along. I mean, sure, if you’re invited to accept the Nobel Prize, of course you clear your schedule. But it didn’t take an invitation for dinner at the White House for these people to shuffle around their schedules. Faced with any sufficiently exciting opportunity, their schedule would suddenly develop some of that hitherto unavailable adjustability.

So, many years ago, I started letting it be a little test. Was spending time with me sufficiently exciting to produce a little schedule adustibility?

I don’t think I’m a jerk about it. Everybody has some immovable items in their schedule—that’s fine. But when so many items on someone’s schedule are immovable that it becomes difficult to make a plan, I become doubtful.

Writing a whole post about it may make it seem like I pay more attention to this than I actually do. In fact, I scarcely think about it at all any more. I pay no attention to whether the busy folks schedules are more adjustable for others than they are for me. (I did briefly, when I first noticed the phenomenon, but that was long ago.)

I just spend more time with people who are easy to schedule time with, and less time with people who are busy. And I make sure that my own schedule has enough adjustability in it that other people can schedule time with me.

Daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna

I’m a student of daily routines. I like to imagine that I’m looking for good models for my own behavior, but that’s only true in an oblique way. By now I understand pretty well the structure of a productive routine; no new routine will be enough better than the routines I’ve already studied to justify the effort of examining them. The value in studying daily routines, for me, is as a reminder to follow my own routine.

For a while there was a great blog called Daily Routines that was very nearly pornography for this inclination of mine to ponder new models. It was there that I found the daily routine for Charles Darwin, which is probably the best model I’ve found so far.

And it is in part because of its similarity to Darwin’s model, that the daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna caught my eye:

At the second hour [after waking] he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud….

Then he sits down, and there is more reading aloud or more talk for preference; afterwards he enters his carriage [for more private conversation].

After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then he again resumes his seat or betakes himself to his room and his pen. For he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness, and wonderful humour, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm.

When he is told that the bathing hour has come—which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer—he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind.

Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.

After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer.

Then dinner is served…. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it is kept up with such good humour and charm.

The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom.

– (From a public-domain translation of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Of course, Spurinna was retired, so one writing session of just an hour or two is probably enough for him. His work when he was younger was as a magistrate and governor, and so probably took place in those conversation sessions that are now just for pleasure.

I think there’s a lot to emulate there. Three walks per day adding up to five miles seems just about right—as long as you include another hour or two of vigorous sport. Of course, he’s in his late seventies. Us younger folk should probably get in a little more than that.

When I’m unproductive

Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
This statue at Allerton Park is called the Three Graces, but I like to think of it as the Three Muses.

I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.

I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.

I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.

I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.

Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?

I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).

Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.

As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.

I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.

More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.

In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.

In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.

Clarion at home: Writing

This is part 2 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on the writing.

Write a story a week

Writing is what a writer does. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. It’s as simple as that.

Having said that, I was surprised to find that the writing wasn’t really emphasized at Clarion. We were kept terribly busy with other stuff—reading, preparing critiques, delivering critiques, listening to everyone else’s critiques, classroom instruction, hanging out with classmates, hanging out with the instructors. It was just as much of a struggle to get our writing in during Clarion as it is at home.

Surprised as I was, I came to appreciate a certain evil genius in the lack of support for getting the writing done. That a writer should write every day is standard wisdom, but what good would it do to have Clarion impose that habit? In just six short weeks we’d all be returning to the real world, where we’d have to be able to generate that habit ourselves. Having it be hard to find time for our writing even at Clarion turned out to be much more effective. We all managed—and all thereby learned the lesson that finding time for writing is simply a matter of making the writing a priority.

There’s nothing magical about a story a week. It’s just typical—if you wrote less than that, you missed out on getting a critique from one of the instructors because you didn’t have anything to turn in that week. But writing a story a week—that is, producing a complete draft of a story, ready for critique—is a challenging but achievable goal.

The writing is not the most important part of going to Clarion, but it is the most important part of being a writer. Squeezing the writing into the interstices of your six weeks is a reasonable, realistic thing to do. But it’s the next bits that make Clarion so effective at making writers better.

Part 3 of this series will be on selecting and reading stories for critique.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

Early morning writing

I’ve known for a long time that writing every day is very helpful to my productivity. In the past couple of days, I’ve been reminded that, at least for my fiction writing, it’s also very important to start early in the day.

I’ve always found this a little hard. It’s tough to get going on fiction, even if I’ve got an outline, or have left off writing at a ragged edge where I know just what needs to come next. Faced with that—or, especially, faced with a blank page—it’s very easy to fritter away a few minutes (or a few hours).

Over the past couple of days, I have started early, and have rediscovered a bit of magic: Once I get my brain back into the story space, it solves problems wonderfully well—even when I’m not writing. While I make a mug of tea, I’ll realize that a scene with a phone call should be redrafted as a face-to-face meeting. In the time it takes me to walk to lunch and back, I’ll figure out that two cardboard characters can be combined into one three-dimensional character. As I shower, I’ll figure out how to replace a dull scene with a one-sentence lead-in to the next scene. (But only if I take my shower after the first writing session of the morning.)

This happens all the time, and if I don’t get started writing until late in the day, it becomes a source of frustration. The ideas will start coming, and I’ll still be fresh and anxious to start working on them—but I’ll be out of time. It’ll be evening. I’ll want to spend time with Jackie, doing something together.

So, a reminder to me: If I’m writing fiction, I want to start early. It’s more productive and more fun.