The very first time I made fresh pasta, it took all day. I had the recipe. I had the ingredients. I had the pasta machine. I had everything I needed. But I just couldn’t make the pasta. Every step took forever. I was paralyzed, standing at the kitchen counter, unable to proceed, frozen in my inability to get my head around the process. I would read the recipe, go to do the next step and right before I started, go back and read the recipe again. But I added a bit more grit to the situation and I got through it. I, that’s right, little ol’ me, had made fresh pasta. It took 3 minutes to boil and probably less than that to eat. But I had done it! The second time I made fresh pasta, it went a bit faster. And then, with enough practice, I could crank out a bowl of pasta in no time with ease.
Years later, I laughed as I watched Chef Anne Burrell from the Food Network describe how she went through the very same process when she first learned to make pasta. I felt less alone in that experience of being intimidated by a bit of flour and an egg. I could forgive myself a bit if Anne Burrell had struggled so when she was making an initial attempt.
I share this story as it has helped me to work with this same sense of paralysis when it comes to my latest project, writing my first novel. Having made an initial attempt at both pasta making and novel writing and, so far, having only succeeded at one, I have concluded that writing a novel is a tad more difficult than making fresh pasta. In looking around for a way to add a bit more grit to the situation, I have stumbled upon a number of online resources for writers, including the CWC, IWSG and WEP to name a few (see sidebar). In getting involved with these groups, the question came up about how I approach writing. Well, that’s a very good question. I looked within for the answer about how I get into this mysterious state known as the zone and was met with a hollow silence that directly points to the problem I am having in writing the novel. I may have everything I need. I may have the cast of characters, the plot outlined, original source documents already researched. I have made some progress; I have some, let’ say, 20,000 words written. And, yet, I’m stuck. It became apparent that I needed to keep pushing through if I ever hoped to complete my first draft, I needed to come up a much more disciplined routine. Just as I now know how to make fresh pasta, I needed to develop flow; I needed a writing habit.
What follows is the story of my own little experience following the yellow brick road that leads to this mysterious somewhere-over-the-rainbow of flow. To be very clear, I’m the noob around here. What I do bring to the table is what is known in the East as “Beginner’s Mind.” Because I pretty much don’t know anything, I see everything with fresh eyes. With that disclosure, I will share what is a beginning of a writing habit for me.
One of the first resources I found when I began my journey was a YouTube video on flow by Einzelgänger. That beautiful video describes what is flow and how one can go about approaching it. On days when I am discouraged or uncertain, I watch that.
I then stumbled on the work of James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. I decided to build my writing habit from the moment I woke. As I looked around for a way to build a morning routine, I discovered a strategy called the Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. I adapted that strategy to make it work for me. I prioritize my quiet time in the morning, making a plan for the day, making a note in my journal about why I’m grateful and affirming what kind of day I want to have.
In addition to preparing mentally for the day, I looked around for a way to prepare physically. I needed something safe, cheap, not dependent on good weather, low-impact yet aerobic. To my surprise, I landed upon rebounding. For years I’ve been rolling my eyes every time I saw one of those little mini trampolines. As it turns out, that’s how astronauts exercise. Done safely and on proper equipment, research shows it to be a highly effective form of exercise. I have found it helpful to get the heart pumping early in the day or anytime I need a break. What I also like is that, as an activity, it doesn’t demand any of my attention. I can listen to videos about writing as a craft as I bounce up and down. One video or so later, I’m sweating and have done some good for myself.
I will also mention as an aside that I made some changes to my writing setup to address a few ergonomic issues. I moved my laptop on a stand so that it would be slightly above eye level and the keyboard rests on one of those lap desks in my lap. I realized I was being distracted from pain that results from sitting with the head bent forward. That has helped.
As you can tell by now, another resource I rely upon is YouTube. I am finding that it helps me very much to start my day with a video or two from published author or almost anything informative and intellectually engaging. As long as I time-box my viewing, watching a video or two provides useful information, encourages and challenges me. The insights of others who have more experience than I helps me gain some perspective on my current level of progress and often shed light on next steps. Here is a YouTube playlist I found that helps me: https://youtu.be/UJM7FpnPGYc.
Another useful strategy for me has been to find a schedule and stick with it. Having completed my morning routine, I sit down and commit to a specific number of hours to work uninterrupted. Two resources I found about how to schedule time for work were Cal Newport’s Deep Work and the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo.
Every day has its own grab bag of challenges, successes, setbacks, steps forward. I am imperfect in my execution of all of these strategies. As I sit down each day to work on my novel, I still feel like I’m making that first bowl of pasta . But more days than not, I’m doing it. I am pushing through the unfamiliarity and uncertainty and putting words on a page. As I put my attention and effort in to my work, the sense flow is gradually beginning to build, a bit like mist rises off water as it hits the rapids.
These are approaches that seem to be helping me. I would be interested in what others have found as they have developed their craft. Thanks for having a read and, as always, comments are most welcome.
Below the fold…
The post above was first published on April 19, 2020. I find that I continue to stumble upon bits of video, resources, or other insights that I find are helping me establish my writing habit. In the hope that compiling such a list would prove useful not only to myself but perhaps also for others who wander by, I will use this post as convenient location to make such a list.
- https://youtu.be/Q0tHddpViWM <<== Wow. Just wow.
- I made a standing desk and now start my day of writing there. As soon as I get into the flow, I then allow myself to sit down for the rest of the session. That is really helping me get started.