Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goals, Gratitudes & Learning to Love Writing Again (Stephanie Kuehnert)


Goals, Gratitudes & Learning to Love Writing Again

The fall of 2010 was one of the roughest of my writing life. I hit a major wall on my WIP (The Bartender Book) and felt like I was experiencing the lowest of all writerly lows (as it would turn out, summer of 2011 and the burnout of the end of 2011/beginning of 2012 would give it a run for its money. I decided to try to participate in NaNoWriMo with a new project to shake myself out of it. It didn’t go very far. It was a nice, necessary one week break where I got to feel productive, but then I was DETERMINED to return and finish The Bartender Book (which I did after a few more battles with creative block).

Last November, I was in a better place. I’d just signed with a new agent, who I adore. She’d put the Bartender Book out on sub, and helped me figured out what project to work on next. I was excited and scared to get started on The Modern Myth YA, it was an idea I’d been toying with for years, new territory for me in terms of genre and it changed my typical writing method because I felt the overwhelming need to plot, plot, plot. I decided to try a modified version of NaNoWriMo with my own goals and strategies to get around roadblocks. I stopped before the month’s end, though, determining that while there are a lot of things I love about NaNo (the community, camaraderie and shared goals, as well as the kick in the butt it gives me to just put words on the page when I’m spinning my wheels), but ultimately big word count goals cause more damage than good for me. I admitted I was a turtle writer and tried to analyze what I’d learned about my experience

I do the analysis thing a lot. I can’t help it. Ever since 2008 when I left my full-time job (with steady paychecks and stellar health insurance, sigh) to spend more time on my writing and build my career, I’ve been constantly experimenting and analyzing how to make myself more productive, so that hopefully one day I focus primarily on writing fiction and freelancing for outlets I really love like Rookie  instead of juggling a bartending job I’ve grown to resent and a teaching job (I love that, too, though. I’d happily keep that).

I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever, always have been. So I consistently set goals that are way too lofty (especially given all of my other work)—and in doing that I set myself up to fail. When I fail, I fail hard. It breaks me. I beat myself up for not meeting my goals and I start to focus on all the things I can’t control—ie. whether I’ll ever sell another book. Then, before I know it, I’m in another slump I just can’t shake.

I feel a lot of anxiety about my writing career. I don’t know where it’s headed. Sometimes I feel like a failure, but I am resilient. I am determined. I still have stories that need telling. Tara Kelly, a brilliant, talented YA author who I am proud to call friend and CP, wrote an incredibleblog about working through those emotions. I’m not going to go in depth on my own thoughts about this because Tara basically summed them up.

This year for me has been all about refocusing my energies and rediscovering what I love about writing again. It’s been a hard battle, and I will admit, I actually went back to therapy to work on it. I know, it sounds silly. For a long time I thought, what can a therapist do for me, she’s not a publisher or an agent, but she actually helped me realize a lot about those patterns and writerly experiments I’ve been trying to analyze for four years. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1.     There is no regular writing routine that I am going to be able to ascribe to, at least right now. For the most part, Monday through Thursday, I can sit down and write for 90 minutes to 3 or 4 hours depending on my other deadlines and teaching responsibilities. Sometimes I have to attend to those responsibilities first though. Then writing is like a reward. I’m experienced enough to know the difference between putting off writing for the jobs that pay the bills and procrastination. However, if I try to pile everything on or stick to a routine that is not working out of obligation, I get stressed out, burnt out, and things turn to crap pretty quick.
2.     There is no writing trick or practice that is going to work for every book or even every day. My general goal is to write somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words, but—BIG, BIG BUT—there always seems to come a point where writing fast because writing too shitty and I’m not getting any pleasure out of it, or worse, I get stuck and can’t see the story. This is when I need to go back into turtle phase. I need to circle back to where I last felt good about the story and study it. I need polish what I have and send to a friend to read with an email including all my questions—questions I’m also asking myself, which often times help me through the block. The real goal of my writing is to feel good at the end of the day. Some days I may be happy because I’ve written a lot of words, other days I may have barely written but figured out a story problem, and other days I may have written a medium amount, but really love the word on the page.
3.     I need to find a balance between writing fast and writing well. Shitty first drafts don’t work for me. Yes, there are parts when I need to let myself go, write fast, get through what I’m seeing clearly and go back to clean it up later. When I’m not seeing clearly, though, a turtle approach—slowing down, reflecting and trying things until I see—is necessary, even if it puts me behind on my self-imposed schedule or word count goals.
4.     There are times when I need to skip ahead or skip back to a scene that has changed and not worry about the scene I got stuck in.
5.     I said it above, but it is the most important thing for me to remember—when I set goals that are impossible or too lofty, I set my perfectionist self up to fail and to wallow in that failure.
6.     I need to keep track of what I’m grateful for every day that I write. I’ve drawn bits and pieces from every experiment with writing tricks/practices I’ve tried. When I did this one , I started logging my progress. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of the date, the time, and any notes I may have about what was going on that day (ie. production hindered by election day anxiety.) Then on recommendation of my therapist, I added a gratitude column. Since my biggest goal—bigger than finishing or publishing another book—is to enjoy what I do, it has proven essential to write down something positive, big or small that I accomplished that day.

Right now, the Bartender Book is still being shopped by agent as is a partial of The Modern Myth YA. I’m doing my best to put those out of my mind and let Lovely Agent A and the Universe take care of them. I decided toward the end of summer to set The Modern Myth YA aside while it’s being shopped and started work on The New Contemporary YA. I’m roughly in the middle of it and admittedly was tempted to make another altered NaNo goal to finish it, but I realized that would really rush me and not be very pleasant. Instead I’m aiming for the end of the year, preferably before Christmas, but if not by the time spring semester starts. I’m giving myself do-able weekly goals of finishing a chapter or two and keeping track of how I do with them on another spreadsheet, which also includes a gratitude column.

One thing I’m particularly grateful for is that I have this entire week off to devote to writing with a bunch of my brilliant writer friends in Arizona! This is the sort of view that my writing space has:


I’m hoping to knock out a good chunk of my book, maybe five or six chapters, but as long as I’m enjoying the writing and making some progress, I’ll be grateful.
What are your November goals and what are you grateful for?

5 comments:

  1. the real writing goal = "feel good at the end of the day." YES. A new scene, a character discovery... That's what it's all about.

    PS: I am a turtle writer too.

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  2. Hi, I appreciate this post. I finally unhooked myself from a career--it was a very difficult thing to do--and, since August, have been working to become the published author that I have wanted to be for decades. It feels like never-ending mountains to climb.

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  3. So true, Steph--being proud of what you've accomplished each day is an essential skill for any writer!

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  4. Your angsty writing journey sounds a lot like mine. Writing about it as I went through it helped me to see it for what it is, a part of my process. Apparently I need to have days when I think my work is crap and those are balanced out by the days when I think I am brilliant. Stepping back and reminding myself that I'm pretty darn lucky to be able to do what I do every day helps too!

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  5. It's so important to learn what works for us, instead of trying to force ourselves into a mold!

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