writer’s block

Trying the Don Roos Kitchen Timer system

This week I’m trying out a new system of setting and tracking writing goals. More of a philosophy, in a way.

I think it’s called the kitchen timer system, as espoused and/or created by Don Roos, which I learned about because my wife was reading Lauren Graham’s book, which lays it out, and she showed it to me.

The basic idea is that each day you set a time goal for the next day, and you spend that much time with only two things in front of you: your journal and your work-in-progress (hereinafter WIP).

Turn off your Wi-Fi, turn your phone face-down and ignore it, don’t watch or listen to anything except music without words, and start to write.

You have two options. You can either work on your WIP, or, whenever you want and without recrimination, you can write about anything at all in your journal. When you get bored of journaling, you can go back to your WIP. When you get stuck on your WIP, you can go back to your journal. You can even sit and stare at your journal and/or WIP without writing if you want, as long as you don’t switch to anything else.

If you put in the time goal you set for yourself, you win. Simple as that.

Even more canny, if you don’t hit your time goal–and this is critical–you just move on. Take it as a sign that your goal wasn’t very realistic and set a shorter one for tomorrow. DO NOT set an even bigger goal to “make up for it” tomorrow.

It’s kind of genius.

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to journal or freewrite for a very long time at all without getting down to the roots of whatever emotional/intellectual/creative issues have me stuck or preoccupied. It’s also very hard, having gotten down to said issues, to journal or freewrite about them for very long without some sort of useful resolution or reframe emerging. And once my issues are resolved, I generally find the WIP writing easy and fun, even addictive.

This system is also great because it defuses the psychological risk inherent in high-stakes and/or high-intensity creative writing goals, especially those framed in functionally less actionable terms. If my goal is to write 1,000 words on my WIP, I’ll finish that in somewhere between half an hour and never, especially because the implicit goal is to write 1,000 good words, preferably 1,000 brilliant words.

Usually, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll sit and think harder. More realistically, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll play a dumb game on my phone or turn on a sitcom. Or both. (I’m a terrible person.) This method invites me, when I can’t find brilliant words, to just write whatever words, which I can always do.

That keeps me writing, trends toward resolution (and, eventually, a return to brilliance), and gives me a controllable win. All I have to do is stay there and not open any other things until my time’s up. Unlike being brilliant, that’s something I can simply decide to do, and my brain gets a lot more excited when I make the win about a concrete decision, not an unpredictable flash of insight (much less a thousand of them in a row).

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Near Miss #17 (Or Why ‘Distractions’ Aren’t What’s Keeping You From Working)

This was originally posted on 12/11/10 on a different blog. I still love it.

Oh my gosh, guys. There is such an intensely strong correlation between lack of clarity and distracting myself with internets. I’ve started paying attention, and it is practically one-to-one. When I know (e.g.) the next thing that needs to happen in my story, I make it happen. When I’m not sure yet, I open a new browser window and check something. Anything.

It’s kind of blowing my mind. Every time I hit Ctrl-N on pure instinct, I stop myself for a moment and pay attention to how my story/planning/life is progressing. Every single time, it turns out there’s a question I’m too chicken to face. I’m never just bored. I’m not even distracted. (!) I’m scared of uncertainty. New rule? Brainstorm, don’t evade.

Is this just me? (Seriously. Leave a comment. I’m curious.)

Case in point. For an upcoming DWC episode starring Summer, I had a rather obscure planning note: ‘Near miss with Alex.’ I don’t even know what that means, much less how to do it. Suddenly the internet blossomed before me. But I fought it. Opened a blank document and, before sense could catch up to me, typed “Seventeen kinds of near miss with Alex:” and started a numbered list.

Rrrgh. Seventeen is an insane number of kinds of near misses. I ran out of ideas after number 3 (and checked 43folders). Then I ran out of ideas again after number 5 (and checked my e-mail). Then I ran out of ideas again after 7 and 8, which were both lame anyway. (I quote: “7. He asks her out but she’s not feelin’ it. 8. She asks him out but he’s not feelin’ it.”) Then a bookshelf fell over for number 9. Then I ran out of ideas again and checked Penny Arcade. Not kidding. I ran out of ideas after numbers 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16, and checked some website every single time.

Lesson: If you’re like me, you’re never “getting distracted.” You’re not sure what to do next, and you’re trained to dodge the question instead of answering it.

Incidentally, numbers 11, 14 and 17 were were worth something.  Side lesson: You don’t actually run out of ideas. Just keep punching your brain. Training yourself to dodge that painful moment of effort is very comfortable, very easy, and totally deadly.

Origami Lunchbox: Butt-Kicking Thoughts on Life, Fear, and Creative Work

Hey everyone! It’s been a crazy day, so this will be quick. My friend, sounding board, and unofficial publicist Joe recently launched a very stylish site that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called Origami Lunchbox and it’s—well, think inspiration the way it should be. Not fluffy thoughts about imagining success and feeling good, but honest, no-nonsense, and surprisingly vulnerable advice and reflections to get you pointed in the right direction again. If you’re an idea person or do creative work, check it out.

OrigamiLunchbox

Sometimes you need a kick in the butt, sometimes you just need a reminder that others are in this with you. Origami Lunchbox will give you both.

Cheers!

—Ben