Writing Rhythms

I’m up to my neck in short story revisions at the moment. Which means less of the fun “I’ll fix this problem later!” typing, and more “Crap, how do I fix that problem?” staring at my computer screen. I have twelve stories I’m mending at the moment, making sure that the stories have forward movement and clarity, their backs sewn up into fulfilling arcs.

There’s a lot riding on these twelve little stories. They comprise my thesis for my MFA degree. When they’re finished, I will have to defend them in front of a panel of university professors. My thesis and its defense will determine whether or not I will be able to graduate with my MFA degree. And I need my degree to get a job teaching composition (and hopefully someday creative writing) at the community college and/or university level.

I have also taken the “all or nothing” approach to finishing my thesis. I quit my job working for a non-profit, where I worked 50+ stressful hours per week, and am now living on my student loan. So I have to make these days, hours, minutes, and moments count. Because I am paying for them, with interest.

The problem with this is that I have a hard time stepping away from work. Even if I am not physically sitting in front of the computer, my mind is still working away at my story problems. It’s difficult to turn off the “how do I fix this story?” stress level.

Recently, I tried implementing a new kind of writing rhythm into my daily writing schedule. This advice came to me from Ellen Sussman’s article “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity” published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Poets & Writers. 

One of Sussman’s suggestions is to use “the unit system” :

Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a fifteen-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work. 

Before I read this article, I had been dividing my days into two giant groups of time – working on thesis time and rest of life time. But I wasn’t ever able to really transition from one to the other. I’d dread sitting down at the keyboard, because I was stressing over my stories constantly. I would already feel like I’d been working on writing before I even opened up the Word document.

But forty-five minutes – that’s a manageable amount of time. I can push myself to be actively productive for a forty-five minute stretch, if I know that I can get up and walk around at the end of it. In those fifteen minutes I do the little chores that let my mind take a break. I feed the cats, do the dishes, check the mailbox. Sometimes I dance. And when I come back to my story on the start of a new hour, I feel newly energized. I don’t always have Aha! moments after those 15 minutes, but the knots in my stories are usually a little bit looser, easier to pull apart and straighten out.

Making the transition between conscious writing time, and non-actively writing time, several times a day has helped me step away from the story world more fully at the end of the day. In the evenings I still read stories and novels, observe the world around me, and do all of those other activities that help nourish writing. But I take a few hours to breathe, to tell myself that the stories are coming together. And the next day I’m rested, ready to sit down and start to work.

Even if you only have an hour a day to write, I think this is a great system to try. I know that for myself, it is easier to be productive when I know that there’s a break – or a change, no matter how small – looming just over the horizon.

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