How to Write With Yourself, Not Against Yourself

I was recently sitting around a table with a bunch of writers, discussing how we write.

“I get up at 5am every morning and write for two hours,” said a guy who has been working on his sprawling family epic novel for eight years.

We all sat back and looked at him, jaws hanging open. “How?” we asked, as I secretly decided that this guy was a jerk. 

He shrugged. “I swam competitively in college, so we had to wake up early every morning for practice. It’s just ingrained in me.”

Another writer said that she free-writes 1,000 words every day, starting with a blank page. She revises them later. “I know I’ll never be the type of person who gets up every morning at 5am and writes for two hours,” she says. “If I tried to do that, I’d fail. So I just write a thousand words a day, even if I don’t get around to them until 5pm, even if they are terrible.”

Then she said something that will stay with me forever: “I choose to write with myself, not against myself. That’s why I don’t get up at 5 am every day.”

Let’s repeat that: I WRITE WITH MYSELF, NOT AGAINST MYSELF.

Let’s even put it in obnoxious capital letters so it’s easy to come back to.

As writers, I think we often hold ourselves up to unrealistic standards. We will write a book in three months (I’ve done that—not recommended). We will write 2,500 beautiful, polished words every day. We will get up every morning and write before the sun comes up. We won’t check Twitter or e-mail or the news for three hours every day while we write.

The thing is, writers are individuals. We’re all accustomed to different lifestyles and motivated by different things. So what works for my friend who wakes up at 5am or my friend who free-writes 1000 words a day won’t necessarily work for me.

What DOES work for me? Over the past few years, I’ve realized there’s only one thing: specific, externally-imposed deadlines. Chalk it up to half a lifetime of school followed by half a lifetime of writing ad copy on deadline for money, or chalk it up to being a Gen Y-only-child-snowflake, but the only way I can really get anything done is if I know someone out there will think slightly less of me if I don’t.

Because of this, it took me nearly a decade to sit down and write my own book from start to finish. I wrote lots of other people’s books under other names, for money and praise and because I would have gotten in trouble if I didn’t, but it wasn’t until I figured out how to write with myself instead of against myself that I managed to finish my own, original work.

So how did I do it? I created specific, externally-imposed deadlines and made myself accountable to other people. I started a writing group (okay, I started several writing groups, and I’m still waiting for one to stick, but while I was waiting for one to stick I wrote a novel). When I didn’t have a writing group going I took writing classes—not because I needed to learn how to write (although I can ALWAYS learn more about how to write) but because I’d feel sheepish paying money and then not turning in pages.

On top of that, I gave myself external long-term goals. For When the Beat Drops, which I wrote most of while pregnant, my goal was to have the book finished, agented, and out on sub before I had the baby. It was ambitious, but it worked: I mailed in the contract to work with my wonderful new agent, Eric Smith at P.S. Literary, on my way to the hospital to give birth. It went on sub a week later, and by the time my son could smile we had an offer.

How do you work with yourself to reach your writing goals?

 

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