Our Fractured Days
Years ago I rented a little house in Northern California and went there to write. I left New York, resolved to finish a book or kill myself trying. (I wrote about this period in The War of Art.)
The great part about that time—it lasted about eighteen months—was that I had nothing to do all day but write. True, the chore was Sisyphean. I was busting my butt trying to learn not just how to put words on paper but, far harder and more critical, how to finish something. How to wrap up. How to ship.
Still, life during that period was idyllic. I recognized it even then. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, if the process is this hard when you’ve got every hour in the day, how are you ever gonna manage it back in the real world of demands and distractions and the general craziness of life?”
That’s a helluva question.
I’m still not sure I have an answer.
Things can get loony here on Planet Earth. Our days can fracture. Our precious schedule gets torn up and blown out the window.
How do we handle it?
In my little house in California I used to get up and eat breakfast, then sit down and do nothing but write till evening, when I sank into a chair beneath a reading lamp and plunged into War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Red and the Black, and all the books that I knew I should have read but until then had never had the time.
Now, back in the real world, I’ve gotta make the same process happen, only now it’s amid hail and gunfire, not to mention Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If it wasn’t hard enough keeping up with the Kardashians, now I’m got Caitlyn Jenner to worry about, not to mention Donald Trump, the Iran nuclear deal, my family and friends, the drought, global warming, and how to get maximum support to Bernie Sanders.
My day breaks up. It fractures. No longer do I have the luxury of one smooth unbroken expanse of time. Now the hours splinter. They come at me, chopped and diced into fragments.
How can I work this way?
A writer has to focus. She can’t just flip a switch and start grinding. She needs time to settle in, to let the current start to flow. She can’t do that in fifteen-minute increments with the kids screaming and her husband phoning from the office. Nobody can.
How do I do it?
I have two rules:
1. No matter what, I will get my time in.
I am on a mission. I am not screwing around. I fear the Muse. I fear falling out, even for one day. I know how hard Day Two will be, and Days Three and Four.
The habit of work is ingrained in my bones. I refuse to break it.
2. If my day fractures, I improvise.
I have taught myself over many years the knack of adjusting on the fly. In the army they say, “It wouldn’t be a plan if it didn’t keep changing.”
That’s my mantra.
I have learned to re-set without breaking stride.
I was gonna work from ten till one. Now for some reason I can’t. Okay. I’ll move that block from three to six. Do I have to cancel an appointment? No problem. I’ll do it. I’ll reschedule.
I make the mental switch and three-to-six becomes the same as ten-to-one.
Did you watch any of the British Open at St. Andrews back in July? They have crazy weather over there in the kingdom of Fife. Squalls and knee-buckling winds come whipping in off the North Sea. Play gets suspended for three hours, four, five. But the competitors have to somehow retain their focus because the sun can pop out on a dime and suddenly the horn is sounding, “Resume play.”
If your mindset is that of an amateur, this off-and-on stuff will take you right out of your game.
The professional, on the other hand, has worked hard to acquire the skill of managing his emotions. He takes a deep breath. He dials down his impatience. In his mind he prepares for the moment (even though he doesn’t know when that moment will come) when play resumes.
He knows that this skill is just as important as the ability to drive the ball in the fairway or to hole a right-breaking downhill slider from four-and-a-half feet.
You and I as artists face the identical problem: how to hang onto our writing resolve when the day fractures.
No one is born with this ability. We have to fall down again and again and keep getting up and trying harder next time.
It helps, I’ve found, to remind myself that the day is fracturing not just for me but for everybody.
It’s part of the game.
Will I let it defeat me?
Or will I learn how to adapt and adjust?
Earlier this year I read The War of Art and since then have read through other parts of it several more times. At this point I can say that resistance is killing me. My days are always fractured. I have two kids who are 4 and 2 years old, I have a job that I work about 55-60 hours a week that is irregular in its hours. My weeks never look the same. I could blame my lack of staying in the work on my schedule but I don’t want to present to you or anyone else any excuses. I don’t want sympathy but I do want advice. Every day I wake up with that gnawing sensation you wrote about in The War of Art and for me it’s resistance gnawing away at my commitment to work. More often than not these days, resistance wins. I feel like I would have to quit my irregular job in order to beat the resistance I get from my lack of routine. Do you have any experience with this or should I just shut up and do my work?
I’m not Steve, but I’m hoping to play him in the movie.
Begin by beginning.
Here’s an exercise that worked for me: when you have 5 minutes, or can make 5 minutes, set a timer, sit down, and write. Anything. Write “I don’t know what to write” or “That Joel guy is clearly barmy” over and over if that’s all you’ve got.
But do it. Every single day.
Take your laptop into the bathroom in the morning if that’s the only time you can make 5 minutes in one place.
But do it. Every single day. Write for 5 minutes, to a timer.
Once I’d created the habit of writing every day, I figured out ways to write more than 5 minutes.
It’s excruciating. Really it is. At first, anyway. I still have days when I’m avoiding going to bed at night because I still have a nagging feeling of un-accomplishment, because I’ve managed to successfully avoid writing all day long. Except, it won’t avoid me.
It’s not easier to write every day, but it hurts less than the distress of going to bed knowing I didn’t even try.
nice! get the habit going first. Then work on the duration and the quality.
Don’t quit your job to conquer resistance. It does not work that way. I retired from my long-hours salaried job 2 years ago with the intention of writing.I have a contract for a book and I finished one while on salary. I thought the next book would be a snap with all that time freed up. The resistance doubled, tripled. I couldn’t open a file for a year and my project manager started asking me if I would like to cancel. My editor encouraged me to keep going, but I just couldn’t. Everyday there was a new excuse. But I read The War of Art.
Finally, one day, I heard a voice. I guess it was my muse, but if it was, I have one tough muse. In the angriest, most threatening voice I have ever heard, he said, “This is BS. Do it or forget it. Now!” That was it. I realized that I was up at 5:30a every morning and worked till 8p for 40 years. I sacrificed my family to make soulless corporations rich. I had to get to work for myself.
I don’t work the hours I did for the man, but I put in a respectable day. No dodges. My new book is coming out in October.
The resistance is not gone, but I know what it is.
Congrats to you, Marvin. I wish you all the best with your coming book.
Matt, I couldn’t give a better answer than this one from Marvin. Right on.
Marvin, I totally hear you about resistance doubling and worse when you get all the time you need. I myself became overwhelmed with complete TERROR when I gained time by changing jobs. WOW what a lesson. Thank you for sharing your success story.
Dear Steven, wonderful blog post today. I’m back (again) to the War of Art gleaning more nuggets yet again.
This blog posts reminds me to control my environment better.
I am constantly getting interrupted which not only affects my work, it causes frustration unhappiness and impedes my progress towards Mastery.
Please stay in the world and keep teaching.
Terrific post today! I’m remembering another piece of advice you gave some time back about how you log your writing and exercise time on a calendar. As soon as I saw that I started entering my word count on the wall calendar in my writing room. This is what I refuse to break – every square has a number in it. No matter what comes up in my day I will not leave that little square blank – I’m on day 514 today by the way. Thanks for the ongoing reinforcement Steve!
514. Wow, Mary, just WOW!
Yeah; what Jack said.
Thanks Jack and Joel…out of all of the habits I’ve tried and failed to establish, I’m grateful I was able to wrestle this one to the ground! Resistance still comes at me in all sorts of ingenious ways though — got to keep the guard up!
I resolved this problem by dragging myself out of bed every morning at 4:30. Weekends I sleep till 5:30. No matter how demanding the day, I write. Occasionally the workday intrudes, I need to be at a client site by seven. It’s not a problem. I write. On those fractured days with early morning clients I may only have time for a paragraph, a sentence, two words . . . No matter, I get those in, pay my homage to my Muse. Evenings are for family, but my mornings, that blessed time while the sun still lurks below the horizon, that time is mine. You taught me that in the War of Art and Turning Pro and I’ll never be able to thank you enough, Steve.
What he said!
It took me a few false starts, but now I wake naturally at 4:00am, take the dog out for a brisk walk, meditate for 15 minutes, exercise for 15 then I’m free and clear to work until 7:30 when the family wakes. Then the remainder of the day is family and day job.
And thank you, Steven. I’ve been trying to finish a project for 6 insufferable years and it’s finally getting done thanks to you and all your tools from War of Art. Making a commitment to these morning hours is the only thing that’s worked for me. It’s amazing how much quality work I can accomplish in those few morning hours when I’m fresh and the Muse is screaming in my ear. You rock. Can’t thank you enough!
11 out of 10 Steve, brilliant.
There is something to be said for avoiding these other involvements in the first place. Such as, not having children, not having a television set, working part-time and living on the cheap (I realize this is much harder to do now than it used to be). Strictly limiting time on social media. I have heard of the Kardashians, but I don’t
really know who they are, and I don’t want to know. It’s not a path for everyone, but it has worked for me.
It is not only the time to work on one’s art, but a lot of “down” time, for ideas to percolate and grow.
Establishing that habit is paramount. I started with 15 minutes a day, and was shocked to discover how much I can write in that short period of time. At times it is rough. After three years, I still have days on which I sit down and write the equivalent of “Yesterday I went to the store. I bought milk. We were out of milk when I sat down for breakfast, so I had to buy more.” But sometimes, that “Yesterday I went to the store” somehow becomes several pages about the differences in shopping habits among people who shop at different times of the day.
The point is to develop a strong habit, because the habit feeds the work. The brain learns to turn on with clicking the computer program or picking up the writing notebook or carrying the teacup to the desk.
I loved Yehudit Reishtein’s post. I giggled! I can write about going to the store to buy milk. Maybe I can even go a little deeper. My book has been languishing for many years. I hope to get past my Resistance by committing to 15 minutes a day.
This is a great post! Always one of the biggest challenges facing any artist. We have so much choice.
For some reason I am opposite. The busier I am, the more I get done. I took a week at a hotel to finish a book over ten days. It was already 70% written. I just ate ramen and watched bad cable most of the time. I did maybe only 2 hours of writing a day. It was a failure.
But when I had 15 credits in school and a business to run I finished it. So I load up and enjoy the ride!
I have two ‘secret recipes’ for shipping no matter what now. (Although I have to admit, reading your blog is always high up on the list no matter what!)
The newest #1 – work at a standing desk. This cuts down considerably on social media time wasting, reading blogs, or any other enticing distraction. An inexpensive way to do this is simply stack a huge pile of books underneath your screen monitor.( I knew that Random House Dictionary would come in handy some day!
#2 Always make sure there is some outside accountability factor. That is how I’ve managed to ship an AM talk radio show for 10 years – while only I think missing one due date. I’ve shipped through homeschooling kids, care giving for ill mother in law, enduring various serious family illness, including my own. Knowing if I didn’t ‘ship’ there would be 54.48 minutes of ‘dead Air’ and lost opportunity. That motivates.
(Oh, and #3 knowing which blogs/Authors to read for inspirition and guidence. This one is #1 on that list Thank you!)
This came right when I needed it (I forgot to turn off the ringer on my phone this morning and the inevitable happened to my morning.)
I refuse to let my pattern of silly stickers on my calendar be broken. I reward myself with a goofy smiley sticker every day I make my word count. There’s a glaring empty space so far for today.
Time to turn off the ringer, fire up my scene totals on Scrivener and do my patented victory boogie when that ding tells me I still made my word count for today. No excuses!
Oh! I so needed this. Right now. This way of seeing. This way of managing my fractured day. All my fractured days. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now.
Yes Steven, thank you for helping me see that I’m not alone! All the comments above mention resistance and setting some kind of habit.I have to start with the 15 minutes every morning and I will.
This is perfect! It was a revelation when I learned to say, “No, I can’t, I have to write” with the same conviction as, “No, I can’t, I have to work.”
Hey Steven. Hey Joel. Seriously, you guys are the best, once again you’ve managed to touch on a subject that regardless of what it is we’re trying to accomplish affects us all to one degree or another. I think Joel’s suggestion of taking 5 minutes is far bigger than most of us might imagine. Because although it is only an itty-bitty slice of time, when repeated consistently “over time,” it establishes momentum. Which in turn builds confidence. Which in turn imparts a feeling. And oh what a truly amazing feeling it is.
Doing anything on a consistent basis is a challenge. I never know what time it is. When I’m in the zone (writing) the passage of time ceases to register. What broke me out of Resistance Prison was the November phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Everything else I do is non-fiction. Thanks to the November challenge (50,000 word novel in 30 days) I have now cranked out 2 3/4 books of fiction and had a ball doing so. The elation of being “in the zone” was (is) a physical sensation in my brain – one I now crave! I am now far more adept at putting my ass where my head wants to be. I procrastinate about taking out the trash, but somehow manage to pound out prose at a heretofore unprecedented rate. Last year it was 50,276 words in 18 days. Who knows what this November will bring?
I kinda want to hug everyone who has commented on this post.
I am reading The War of Art currently and it is having a positive effect. I actually find myself slowly savouring it as every page compels me to put the book down and write some more. So far this morning I’ve read eight chapters and written 4000 words. The part that stood out the most for me was the part where you were writing The War of Art and you contemplated giving it up as a “manual” and writing it into a fictional story. I too did this with my work and found myself falling flat when trying to put my story into someone else mouth. I was losing my story. After over 30,000 words of fiction laced with my personal truth, one reading session of your book catapulted me into doing what i really wanted; writing my story as it was intended. I am no professional, no connoisseur, not of above average intelligence nor am i financially wealthy. BUT I know life. I know hard knocks and getting back up. I know self awareness and the battle to fight against all that is natural in order to be a better person. I lived giving up everything – physically and someone emotionally – to shed the bullshit I told myself and become a real person. I AM the lessons I long to share. If that doesn’t mean as much as a university degree or a bigger bank balance than I can’t do much more.
I am truly grateful for what you 0 and your words – have given me. I am excited to watch my piece take shape, the shape it was supposed to take.
Thank you for this very timely post!!! A suggestion for those who are continually on the go is to obtain (buy, beg, borrow, or steal?) a small voice recorder. They usually sell for anywhere between $20 to $50. I have mine with at all times and am able to (quite often in the midst of chaos) record a thought or two. Then when I do have time am able to get back into my story without the anguish of trying to remember a special something that was just right for a particular scene.