This won't surprise you, but I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to school.
I was the kind of kid who spent the last weeks of summer daydreaming about long division. Who was itching to buy packs of college-ruled paper for all those assignments. Who loved bringing home a pile of new textbooks.
You know. Definitely a nerd.
So September still means "back to school" for me, even though my last real "back to school" was--cough, cough--ten years ago.
But that doesn't matter, right? It's still a great time to stock up on office supplies (hello and thank you, back to school sales!) and to get back to the good work habits that were blasted to smithereens during the summer.
(Or is that just me.)
It's time to refocus. To get back to basics. To get big mugs of apple cider (!!!) and then dive deep into work.
But the first step of a re-committed writing practice is, oh yeah, remember this?:
You have to sit still, alone, in a room.
I've had so much going on lately, that I feel a little jittery, here at my desk today. ...
Okay, a lot jittery.
A little too quick to jump up and do something else. My brain is pinging every which way, and the voices of my characters are pretty dang faint.
Actually, I can't hear them at all.
... Remember your elementary school science classes? And learning about how some muscles work in opposition?
If not, here's a little reminder: When one contracts, the other relaxes (and meanwhile, your leg kicks out). And then the first one relaxes and the other contracts, your leg goes back down.
Right? Well, I've found that the same dynamic is at work in my writing life.
I have the public, out-and-about, errand-running, meeting-for-coffee, smiling, chatting, pleasant version of Lucy: When the social muscle contracts.
And then there's the other version, the writing version of Lucy. Private, contemplative, inward-focused, and absent-minded: When the writing muscle contracts.
When I'm living as the social version of Lucy, writing feels like a distant daydream. That side of me is pretty well shut off.
And when I'm going full-tilt at work as the writing version of Lucy, anything social feels like an unbearable strain. A shocking interruption. I can't remember how to behave, I forget to answer questions, I'm not really socially acceptable.
(Any of this ringing a bell for you too? Or is this just me?)
It is absolutely possible to get into a rhythm of moving back and forth between these two versions, with a certain degree of elegance. It really can be done.
I can write well and then transition to being social and then transition back into deep writing. Definitely.
But when I've been focusing on one side for a long time, the other side feels foreign. Like it's shriveled up, atrophied. And using it at all is just really hard.
... Which is how it feels to come back to full-time writing, after a super busy month!
It can be really difficult, after all that activity, to remember how to sit quietly in a room. To go from all that social work (with the writing life totally silenced), to the complete opposite:
A strong writing life, and a quieted social life.
Right now, my writing life muscle is weak and wobbly. ... Actually, it's gone nearly to sleep, and today I'm feeling all those prickles, the pins-and-needles feeling of it waking back up.
But you can remember how to stretch out a cramped muscle. And we all know that wiggling-stomping dance we use to get our legs to wake up (please say it's not just me hopping around!).
The same thing is true here: There are tricks to getting the blood flowing back through the writing life. So let's get that muscle warmed up, active, and strong!
1. Go "immersion camp" style.
It sounds brutal, but the best way to get back into a groove is to give myself no other options. To clear the schedule for at least a week, if not two, if not longer.
Beg off commitments, reschedule meetings, and just generally get a wide patch of time. Because basically, you need to be able to get back to your desk, every day, for a set amount of time. And the more time, the better.
2. Ignore all that screaming.
Pins and needles, right? If you're like me, as soon as you even look at your desk, everything in your brain is going to say that this is a bad idea, and there are a zillion things that are more worth your time than doing some writing--which is bound to be bad quality anyway.
Any other form of productivity will seem more appealing. Doing the dishes or the laundry. Getting back to your exercise routine. Cleaning out your inbox. Reading a book about productivity. Anything else that isn't writing.
I've realized that I have to steadily ignore all that. I don't even argue with it: I just tune it out. Let the dishes stack up, and the laundry accumulate.
This is writing time. And I've already decided that it's worth it.
3. Slow the brain down with some reading.
It can be a really, really good idea to re-establish a writing practice by re-establishing a reading practice.
While it obviously doesn't take the place of writing, it still gets our busy, chattery brains to slow down, to start absorbing words, to tune back in to all things literary. (Sometimes I love novels for this, and sometimes poetry feels better. Look here and here for recommendations.)
I like to give myself about half an hour to warm up my brain with reading.
4. Put your work-in-progress through its paces.
This is my favorite, favorite technique for this kind of situation. Here's what you do:
Get a piece of paper (yes, real paper), and a pen (yes, a real pen). At the top of the paper, write the name of your main character. And then grab a timer. Set the timer for five minutes. And then hit Start.
For five minutes, write--yes, longhand!--about your main character.
Write anything. Describe her physical appearance, or write about what she does all day. Describe her room. Or detail all the things she likes. Or all the things she hates.
Write down what she wants most in the story and how she wants to get it. Or just write about how she likes to climb trees.
Your writing can be clunky. The sentences can be ugly and out of tune. That is totally fine. In fact, that means you're doing it right! You just have to keep going.
The point is: Write, by hand, about your main character, for five minutes. No matter what.
When the timer goes off, don't reread your work. But do be very, very nice to yourself, and celebrate the fact that hey, you kept your butt in your chair for five minutes straight, and you wrote actual words down!
After a moment's celebration, repeat the exercise with a different character. Or instead of a character, write about one of the most important settings in your story. (Or heck, one of the least important settings!) Or about one of the main events. Or a minor event.
Write about the beginning. Or the ending. Or the middle. Or whatever.
This is a way to gently re-claim your territory. To get back into the habit of writing, but to do it through very small, very doable demands.
No matter how crazy your summer was, you definitely can scrape together enough focus for five minutes of writing.
And once you've done that--even if it was miserable, even if it was hard, even if all your sentences sounded lame--you've crossed the line. That line that separates a habit of not writing from a habit of yes, I'll write, no matter what!
Maybe you do three rounds of five-minute exercises. Or maybe you fill your day with them. Either way, you can get back into the habit, step by step.
5. Decide to do the same thing tomorrow.
This is where Step One comes back. It's immersion camp style. The main virtue of this getting-back-into-the-groove method is in its repeatability.
If you do this, kindly, gently, day by day by day, then I guarantee: by the end of one week, you'll be feeling a bit more writerly.
By the end of the second, I'd bet that your story is up and running again. And you probably won't need that timer, and you'll be back to your good old writerly self.
Congratulations!! You're back in your groove. And now your goal--and mine--is staying in it! Right?
So we'll be spending the rest of September talking about this back-to-school mindset. Getting back to what we know how to do... and then growing from there!
I'm already feeling excited.
Long division anyone??
(Just kidding. Probably.)