There Is Always a Way

One of the best habits I picked up was to write 600 words in a journal first thing every morning.  It frees my mind, gets the clutter organized, and puts everything in the proper places.  The key is to not put much thought into what you’re going to write about each morning.  Just pick up the pen and write whatever comes to mind, no editing allowed.

I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve solved, how many decisions in life I’ve made, by working things out while writing these pages.  There is more to it than that, but the thoughts that come out first thing in the morning are a great place to start.  Collectively, it is by far the longest piece I’ve ever written and also the most important.

Morning pages aren’t my idea, rather one I learned about when my wife picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way.  To be honest, I’ve never made it past the bit about writing these pages first thing every morning.  They had such an impact on my life that I felt I had already gotten my money’s worth.  I’m probably missing out, so if you pick it up please be smarter than me and read past the first chapter, will you?

Against the advice of the book, I write my morning pages on the laptop and not by hand.  Because I work on the laptop all day and I want to stay in the practice of transmitting thoughts to the screen through the keyboard.  I suppose if I were a writer who still does everything by pen and paper, it would make more sense to do it the other way.  Whatever works – the key is to do them daily.

This morning, I got off on a real tangent while working on the pages.  I began writing some thoughts about various things going on in life, and a couple of notes about a documentary I watched the other night.  The documentary is called One Day in Auschwitz and tells the story of an amazing woman named Kitty Hart-Moxon.  She was brought to Auschwitz as a seventeen year old girl and survived for years in Nazi concentration camps before being liberated in 1945.  I am an avid documentary watcher – history, science, human events, you name it – and this was one of the best.  If you have a spare 50 minutes, I highly recommend watching this one.

There were many things to take away from her story, but the one that stuck with me was the resiliency of the people who lived in that hell.  They knew survival was out of their hands – a hopeless situation if there ever was one – and yet some still did everything they could to increase their chances.  The Nazi’s selected people to die, seemingly at random.  There was nothing any of them could have done about that.  The ones with a strong will to live, however, did anything and everything they could to make it another day.  In Kitty’s case, that meant making sure she had shoes, didn’t lose her bowl, and made connections with other captives.  Instead of focusing on what was beyond her control, she concentrated on what little she could control.

It would be vulgar to compare situations, but as I listened to this amazing woman it dawned on me that whenever you are feeling hopeless about something, the best thing to do is take whatever actions are necessary to increase the chances of a positive outcome.  You may not make it, but at least you know you did everything you could to save yourself from disaster.

While training for a pilot’s license, for example, my CFI made a point to instruct very early on that when something goes wrong – engine failure for example – the worst thing you can do is nothing.  The engine failed, you can’t change that.  But what you can do is work the problem.  Go through the checklists, look for an open field or sparsely populated highway, no matter how dire the situation may be, do something.  You may not make it, but the ones who do survive because they did everything they could to put the odds in their favor right up to the very end.  Never give up.

Well, here I went on another tangent again.  I originally wanted to tell you about the thoughts I had on evolution, the Big Bang, and creationism.  For the record, I am a huge fan of science.  I am fascinated by the enormity and age of the universe, physics, and the miracle of life.  I see the logic behind the advances humanity has made in science and think society is better for it.  At the same time, I am a believer who applies that same logic to say there must be something more than just happenstance and time.

Ah, that will be for another day.  For now, relaying the wisdom of morning pages and the story of the amazing Ms. Hart-Moxon was the priority.  To quote my old, dearly-departed friend, ““I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”



The Rule of 33%

I had a fun conversation online the other day with a relatively new writer who was facing a familiar problem.  He had a great plot, the basics of some decent characters, and a notebook full of jotted down ideas.  He had even written out a fairly organized outline.  So what was the problem?  Enter the nemesis of anyone who puts words on paper for a living or otherwise: the dreaded writer’s block.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it?  If so, I’ve got good news – I can help you beat it.  I call it The Rule of 33% and it changed my life as a writer.

“When working on a first draft, begin the project realizing that 33% of what you write will be good, 33% of what you write could be good after editing, and 33% will be cut completely.”

The problem with our brains…well, one of the problems with our brains…is that they are designed to think both creatively and logically.  Your creative brain is the one that says staying out at the clubs until four in the morning is a great idea, whoo-hoo let’s have another shot!  The logical brain is the responsible party-pooper complaining about having to get up for work in the morning and reminding that hangovers are miserable.

These two abilities are in direct conflict with each other at all times and, if not managed properly, result in a stalemate in which neither side gets what it wants.  You are either at the club having a miserable time because all you can think about is having to wake up for work, or you are at home and can’t sleep because of all the fun you’re missing out on at the club.  Nobody wins.

Writing is a process of both creative and logical application.  The creative side lets you imagine entire worlds with intricate plots, living, breathing characters, and exciting conflict.  The logical side lets you look back on what you’ve created and objectively identify mistakes in grammar, scene continuity, and format.  Both abilities are crucial if the writer is going to create a successful piece that is both entertaining and coherent for the reader.

As with our club-hopping dilemma, the same conflicts apply when writing.  Creativity is stagnated by the logical part of the brain constantly insisting on pointing out every little problem.  “Oh, missed a comma there, bud”, and “Sigh, that character isn’t believable at all” or “Do you actually think you can do this?”  It’s hard to be creative when letting your logical brain dominate the conversation.

The key is to train your brain when to be creative and not logical, and vice versa.

Logic is essential when editing, but if you aren’t allowing yourself to be creative first there will never be anything written down to edit.  You might muscle out a chapter or two, but if you start editing and rewriting without allowing the whole story to make it on paper, you are in jeopardy of convincing yourself the work you produce isn’t good enough.  You’ll inhibit creativity and be afraid to keep writing.  You’ll move on to the next chapter timid and wary to type anything, because logic-brain has convinced you it won’t be good, so what’s the point?  That’s a block.  Let it happen long enough and you could end up abandoning the whole project altogether.

We can’t very well have that now, can we?  So before you allow logic to play its role in the process, you must give creativity the freedom to do as it pleases. Which is where The Rule of 33% comes into play.

“You’ve heard that first drafts are never good…you just haven’t convinced yourself it’s true.”

You’ve no doubt heard that first drafts are never good.  Or, as I so eloquently like to say, first drafts always suck.  If you’re suffering from writer’s block, it means that you have heard that first drafts suck, but you haven’t convinced yourself that it’s true.  Read that again, I’ll wait.  You can say the words all you want, but until you believe it, logic will always prevail.  And logic doesn’t put words on the paper.  So live it, love it, learn it.  Most of all, believe it.

Here is where The Rule of 33% can help.  When working on a first draft, go into the project knowing that 33% of what you write will be good “as is”, 33% of what you write could be good after editing, and 33% will be trash.  (If you’re wondering where the remaining 1% went, that is your logic-brain speaking.  It is terrified of what you just read and is doing everything it can to distract you.  Stop it.)

Being cognizant of the rule is a good way of telling yourself that what you are about to write doesn’t have to be good.  In fact, you’re already coming to terms with the fact that most of it won’t be.  That’s not only okay, but expected!  So write to your daily goal, and then forget about it.  If something is wrong (and 66% of it will be, right?) you will fix it later.  Much, much later.  Tomorrow, just let creative-brain keep writing.  Get that sucky first draft on paper, because nothing else matters!

Another big plus about The Rule of 33% is that the process compounds.  When you have a completed manuscript and start rewrites, the parts that you revise will also follow this rule.  The first draft is 33% good, right?  So you’re already a third of the way there.  Whatever rewrites you do will also be 33% good, 33% good when edited, and 33% trash.  As you repeat the process, the percentage of “good” overall increases by default.  Do this often enough, and eventually you have a 100% good, completed project.

Here’s the interesting part:  you are already following this rule, you just don’t realize it.

Think about the last time you wrote something and went back to edit it later.  How much of it was good?  How often did you think to yourself, Gee, that’s not too bad.  If I just make a few adjustments, it’ll be perfect?  How much of it were you embarrassed to admit you wrote and cut out completely?  Unless you’re some kind of writing prodigy, you probably recognize the pattern.  And they most likely came in equal parts.  The only difference is by editing as you create, you are interrupting the creative process and therefore never making it to the finish line.

Am I turning on any lights yet?

The beauty of this rule I’ve created is that it is simple and serves as a confidence-boosting reminder whenever you are having trouble getting the words on paper.  When I’m struggling to meet my daily goal, chances are good it means I’m not in creative mode.  I need only remind myself that expectations are low – that my first draft can suck – and the words will flow.  Getting the first draft out is what is important now, I can always fix the problems later.

If you convince yourself to follow this guideline – if you believe your work doesn’t have to be perfect the first go-around – you’ll find the words will flow much easier.  And you’ll never have to worry about writer’s block again.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome below.


100% of the followers of this website don’t get writer’s block.