Dismiss whatever insults your own soul is one of my favorite Walt Whitman quotes. I used it in Something Real and have found it to be a guiding principle in my life. It's very apropos for today's post - keep it your back pocket as you read. What would happen if you dismissed whatever insulted your own soul?
I recently received an email from a fellow writer asking me about my writing habits. How often do I write? When? How do I structure my day? That kind of thing. Like her, I’m fascinated with other writers’ and artists’ processes. I want to know what makes them tick. I’m curious how they deal with the challenges of art making, especially art making in our modern world with its myriad challenges Fitzgerald and Hemingway were lucky enough to avoid. In her email to me, my friend specifically wanted to know how I’m able to be so prolific. There are plenty of writers I hear about who write more than me, but I do tend to work rather quickly, for good or ill and this sometimes piques people’s curiosity. I sent her a long email in response, a manifesto of sorts, some of which I’ll share here, revised. The main thing I said to her was that I’d recently buckled down on my time on the Internet. Reducing or even eliminating time online can do wonders for anyone, but especially for writers and even more so for writers who are already published (being published means there are places you can go to, if you are so inclined, to obsess over your reviews and your numbers and what’s happening in the publishing world--it's Dante's secret tenth circle of Hell).
The Internet is a time suck and a confidence breaker and also the most fabulous invention since electricity. It can be very hard—nearly impossible—to resist its siren call. More importantly, it has changed the way we operate in our world. When people send an email, they expect you to be aware of it right away and respond in what is now considered the universal timely manner: immediately. If you’re active on social media, it’s expected that you’re checking your accounts every hour or so and that you’ll respond in the universal manner: immediately. When you have a question or don’t know something, it’s expected that you’ll go online—immediately—to find the answer. Notice a pattern here?
This way of being isn’t healthy. It’s just not. For anyone. It leaves us frazzled, steals our energy, and is very rarely worth the cost of our personal peace. For writers (and other artists, but especially writers because we’re always on our computers), the Internet is a disaster. Yes, it makes publishing our work and marketing ourselves and researching for our books infinitely easier. The fact that I’m able to write and then instantly publish this blog post so that anyone in the world can read it is a testament to that. And yet I find myself wondering…does all this Internet stuff make having a career as a writer easier? Or does it simply add massive complications and unfair expectations? Most writers are now expected to be writers, publicists, marketing managers, and sales reps all in one. You have to be seen as putting yourself out there, connecting—you have to ALWAYS BE CLOSING.
Or do you?
The expectation that we will respond to emails promptly, that we will have a social media presence, that we will interact directly and daily with readers and fellow writers is so ingrained that to absent oneself from the circus—even for a little while—is a panic-inducing thought. If I don’t respond to my publisher right away, will they think I’m a flake? Will they think I’m an alcoholic writer who’s not going to make her deadline and is perhaps unstable to boot? If I don’t tweet about my book, no one will buy it, right? And then I’ll end up homeless, begging people for bread in exchange for haikus about their clothes…right? If I don’t join this newest social media site, no one will know of my existence and I’ll be obsolete by next Thursday…right?
But try a little experiement here. Step away from your online activity for a few days--totally. See what happens. Likely you'll find that all those things that seemed so important and vital and "do ASAP!" actually...aren't. You're the only one who found that mistake on your website at midnight. It can be fixed tomorrow--go to freaking bed. That email from your friend? It's likely something that can wait until you have time--you don't right now because you're supposed to be revising your manuscript. Tick tock. That hilarious video/article/meme someone posted--did you fall off the social grid because you didn't click on it? I doubt it. So, you get the idea. None of this is as important as our pace suggests these online activities are. Or, they're important, but don't need to be addressed with the pace of a dog chasing its tail.
In response to all of this and to avoid the stress social media and email has induced, I decided to post a permanent away message on my email. The subject is Zen Status and this is what it says:
Hello lovely reader!
In an effort to be the best--and sanest--artist I can be, I've decided to only check my email once a day (it's like a New Years' resolution, but for reals). It may take up to five business days for me to get back to you, so I thank you in advance for your patience. If this is a really important matter, please feel free to call me so I can hear your beautiful voice.
Have a lovely day/night/whatever time it is,
This has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time--and many people have commented how much they admire the choice and wish they could do the same. As a result of my choice to re-prioritize the minutes in my one wild and precious life, my day is structured around the work: writing my books. Instead of checking my email first thing, I start the day off journaling and reading and then working on my books. I try to do some yoga in there and walk my dog. Below is part of the email conversation with my friend who sent me an email asking about my process. She's a debut author and wondering how in the world to navigate this whole writing/publishing/living as a professional writer thing.
I'd love to know more about your daily working/writing life. How do you organize your day? Your week? When do you write?
My process is very much influenced by my deadlines and the time of year. The holidays and summer are miserable for keeping to a strict regiment. First, I'm a full-time writer and have a home office, both things that make me very lucky. I've learned that the most important thing is to write first. You can go down the rabbit hole of social media and email so quickly. I'm in a terrible mood and hate life and everyone when it's 5:00pm and I haven't written a word.
I get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep and start my day with Morning Pages and some self-help/motivational reading. (Have you done The Artist's Way? It's life changing). Starting in September, I'm focusing on a poet a month for the next year, so this will go into that time - reading the poet etc. Then I have to walk the dog.
On a perfect day, it would look like this:
7:00 Wakeup, workout from 9:30-10:30, at my desk and eating lunch by noon. Write until 4:00. Take break for domestic/life/husband, then maybe revise or write later in the evening, also read.
Or: 7:00 wake up, write from 9-1, workout, eat, do domestic/life stuff and back at the desk by 2 or 3. Write until 5 or 6. Then the rest of the evening could be more writing, or hanging out with my husband, cooking, running errands, reading.
I write 5-7 days a week. Sometimes I'll take Saturday or Sunday off entirely, but rarely. I keep it fun by going to coffee houses with my husband and writing together (he's working on a spooky YA).
I also work on multiple projects at a time. So, I might have some days dedicated to one project or work on one book in the morning, the other book in the afternoon. I think it's important to be in the "next" project. Admittedly, this can be pretty crazy making. I prioritize for deadlines, but if I get inspired on one book or need a break from the one I'm working on, I'll switch.
The evening schedule is very up in the air. Sometimes I'm going out or whatever and that's fine, as long as I wrote most of the day. I consider it a good writing day if I get a solid four hours in.
Do you make time for social media and marketing in your day-to-day schedule?
I did for a long time and the result was that I nearly had a nervous breakdown. No fooling. Social media, swag, blogging--all that extra stuff--doesn't really get you far. I love Twitter and have made some important contacts there, but I found that it wasn't healthy for me or good for my productivity to be on it all the time. So I look once a day, either in theafternoon or evening. Once. I respond to things, do a few retweets, and then I'm off. This is healthy for Facebook, as well. That can be a huge time suck. Basically, anything that fucks with my Zen doesn't have high priority.
I don't know if you saw my recent away message for when I email people. I'm giving myself 5 business days (essentially a full week) to get back to people on email. I turned off all notifications on my phone and I don't keep my phone in my office, unless it's face down. It's always onvibrate and I rarely answer it. I let myself do the social media that doesn't immerse me in the gossip of publishing a bit more because they're creative and fun for me and help me storyboard: Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Everything else I keep to a minimum.
It's really important not to start your day with Internet stuff. My debut year got me all kinds of screwy because I would get into the social media riptide and by the time I went to go write, I was brain dead, upset aboutsomething I'd seen, and not ready to create.
Themostimportant thing you can do for your career-and I really believe this--is write baller books that people can't put down. Definitely take the time to do Twitter once a day and do a blog tour and all that - but don't let your writingsuffer for it.
Do you have a business plan?
No. The thing is, the more "business" I am, the worse my work is for it. The worse I am for it. Myhusband has been reminding me lately, "You're not in publishing. Your editor, yourpublicist, the marketing and sales people - THEY'RE in publishing. You're in writing." When we spend too much time onmarketing that isn't successful, you're doing their job and not getting paid and not seeing results. This will drive you batty.
Write good books. Makeconnections with fellow writers. Be active on social media, but set boundaries. Knowthyself. Sleep. Exercise. Don't let this world consume you. Publishing can get you down so fast.
This summer, for me, has been a time of soul searching and taking stock. I’m trying to get back to why I love being a writer and why I love writing. I’m trying to get better. And take time out for myself. Part of this is because of an epic adventure I’m about to embark on.
In ten days I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Bali, Indonesia. When I get there, I’ll have a day of journeying to a small island off its coast. After some time there, I'll go to Ubud, Bali's spiritual center, then end my time in Hong Kong for book research. For those twenty days I will not go online. I will not tweet or check my email or see what my friends’ statuses are on Facebook. I will not idly wander through Wikipedia to do research for my books or satisfy every little curiosity. I won’t go on Goodreads to see how many people are reading said books. I won’t turn to the Internet in response to every errant thought I have. There may be emergencies or times I need to go online because of my traveling, but other than that—nada. Instead, I will read books, work on my books, journal, lay/sit/stand and walk on beaches and tropical paths. I will do yoga and rest and wake up with the sun. I will smell the flowers—lots of them.
There are gifts we can give to ourselves and one of the best is to try to achieve balance in our lives: find a little Zen in the whirlwind--be the calm center of the storm--then hold onto that no matter how much the world expects you to be part of the fray.
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