Reason #6 : “I’m not in the mood.”
“Show up, show up, show up,
and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
— Isabelle Allende
It’s Monday morning, you’ve had a great weekend, but you’re a bit tired. The prospect of a day at work is daunting so you call your boss and say you won’t be in today.
“Oh, why not?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Fair enough,” she says. “Well, I hope you do feel like coming in again soon. Your job will always be here when you do.”
A likely scenario, right? How about this one …?
You arrive home from a grinding day at work knowing you should put in an hour at the keyboard working on The Book, but you don’t really feel like it.
So you don’t.
But I’ll make it up tomorrow, you tell yourself.
Hold on, you haven’t made up for that lapse last Monday yet.
Well, I’ll have a good long catch-up at the weekend then.
But weren’t you planning to–?
If it’s raining.
Do you see what’s going on here?
How often do you do things you don’t really feel like doing, yet somehow still get them done? Like work today. Did you really feel like going in? (Really?) And doing the grocery shopping on the way home? And the lawns and laundry at the weekend? And …? And …?
Our lives are filled with tasks that just need doing, and we do them without wheedling or making deals with ourselves. So why is it that writing – or any other creative endeavour for that matter – is so much harder to do than something mindless like, say, washing the car?
Stephen Pressfield identified the culprit then named and shamed it in his brilliant little book The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle. He calls it …
“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Pressfield contends that we have two lives:
“The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
Resistance is an invisible, implacable force that seems to come from outside ourselves, but it really comes from within.
“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
Attempting anything that does not provide instant gratification – whether it be writing, music, painting, dieting, get-fit programmes, education or entrepreneurial activities – will attract Resistance. It’s cunning, relentless and takes many forms, (detailed in the book), and the solution is self-awareness, followed by a daily battle.
“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.”
Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.”
One of Pressfield’s suggestions to beating Resistance is to treat your calling the way you treat your job, as if you were a professional, doing all the things professionals do: Turn up every day, on time, stay on the job till it’s done, realise you’re in it for the long haul, and so on. It sounds simple, but it’s very hard to do. And it’s a battle that must be fought daily.
“… a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work
will die without putting a word on paper.”
— E B White
One of the many insidious ways Resistance comes to me is in the title of this chapter; a dull feeling that I’m not really in the mood today. It can take some minutes for my brain to properly engage with whatever I’m working on, and in that start-up time I’m highly suggestible to anything that’s not writing. (Checking emails, my phone, my website, what’s on the news …) But if I persist, I know from experience the resistance will slip away. In fact, I’ve almost come to welcome those not-feeling-like-writing times because they often turn out to be my most productive. At the end of an allocated span, I’ll invariably carry on, sometimes far longer than planned, sometimes having to tear myself away – which is also great because I know I’ll be straight back into it tomorrow.
In Reason #1 I warned about the fallacy of goal setting, arguing that systems are better. Now I’m going to suggest you set goals, but within the system you’ve already established. That difference is important. On their own, goals are woolly things that give no mechanism for how to achieve them, whereas a system sets up a framework in which things can happen. It’s the difference between “I’m going to get fit this year” and “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I’ll run home from work.”
Don’t do this next bit until you’ve carved out a slice of time in which to write each day!
Now that you have, set yourself a daily target, say 250 words per hour. Keep a track of the time you spend and the words you write, and see how you go for a week. If you find yourself consistently slaughtering your target, bump it up. The ideal level is to set it slightly above the speed at which you normally work – say, 5-10% more. There are two reasons for this. First, a little pressure will help keep you focused and make you less prone to distractions. Second, you’ll push yourself a little harder, meaning you’re actively striving to improve. After a while you may find yourself reaching your target comfortably, at which point you can bump it up again. But always do so within reason. A good range is 5-10%. Setting a target that’s too extreme can be self-defeating. If you end each writing session feeling a failure, you’re less likely to repeat it.
Don’t break the chain
Here’s a simple trick from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Every January he’d hang a year-at-a-glance calendar on the wall of his workroom, and every day he wrote some new material he’d draw a big red X over that day. After a few days, a chain of Xs would develop and the idea was that the chain must not be broken. Not only does this give you the satisfaction of marking off successful days, but also a visual reminder to not break the chain.
(In a more advanced form of this you also write up your daily word count too.)
But you don’t need to wait until New Year. Start next month. Visit http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar, print off your own calendar, and start nuking each day with a big red X.
“How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly.
Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”
— Anne Lamott, Tweet, 25 Jul 2012
Another trick: at least at the beginning of this process. Scribble down a note about how you’re feeling at the start of each session. Just one word such as “keen”, “tired”, “flat”, “blah” etc., then contrast that with how you feel when you fill in your word count/draw your big red X at the end. Within a short period of time, you’ll start to notice how little difference those initial feelings have on your actual output; that you can still write even when you don’t seem to be “in the mood”.
A musing about Muses
Next time someone tells you they’re “waiting for the Muse”, ask them which one? Most people don’t realise there were nine of them. If you want to write a short story, for example, you probably don’t want Terpsichore – the muse of dance – turning up.
The Muses were Greek goddesses of literature, science and the arts, considered to be the sources of all knowledge, and one summoned them, especially before telling a tale. Many ancient works open with such a call, such as this from Homer’s The Odyssey:
“Sing to me of the man, Muse,
the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course,
once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.”
These days, the Muses are associated with artistic inspiration, but their legacy lives on in words like “amuse”, “museum” (where they were originally worshipped), “music” and, of course, every time we “muse about” something.
“Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.”
— Lili St. Crow
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Be wary of Resistance (with a capital R). It’s everywhere and comes in many forms.
♦ Set yourself a production target such as 300 words a day, or an hour at your writing desk. Put a big red tick on prominently displayed calendar each time you reach your target. Now, don’t break that chain of ticks!
 The true derivation of this “nine o’clock” quote is unclear. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/30/inspire-nine. [return]