Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - No comments

Three Hours at the Office

“As Thoreau famously said, it doesn't matter where or how far you go - the farther commonly the worse - the important thing is how alive you are. Writing of every kind is a way to wake oneself up and keep as alive as when one has just fallen in love.”

― Pico Iyer

It’s been three months since we returned from our Great Southeast Adventure, and I am still working on the same stories as I was the week after we got home. I had grand notions of writing up all my anecdotes by Christmas, but instead I am still sitting here with a hard drive full of photos, a mind full of memories, and a whole pile of half-finished pieces in front of me.

This feels like the story of my “travel writing career” this far: a lot of great ideas, but very little to show for them. Sometimes a blinking cursor on a blank white screen feels like an invitation to greatness, but more often than not, I get the feeling it is mocking me. Between neighbours and crises and laundry and lessons, even if I manage to find an hour to write, inspiration and free time rarely seem to coincide, and I too often find myself closing the lid to my laptop to move on to the next task having only written a sentence or two.

This will never do.

It’s been a battle of a journey, this process of coming to see my writing as a calling instead of just a hobby that I dabble in for kicks on the weekend. Even the phrase “my writing” has sounded so pretentious to me that I’ve been hesitant to call it that for fear of sounding like one of those starving artists who lives in a loft in New York City, eating Ramen Noodles for dinner every day and dreaming of that elusive “big break,” but never producing more than a few creative obituaries.

Thankfully, over the past year, I’ve come to a place of recognizing that writing is a gift and a passion that has been deposited inside of me to be used, not just dreamed about, and I am ready to put in the hard work that it will undoubtedly take to carry me from “someone with potential” to “someone who is regularly published.” Before Paul Theroux wrote “The Great Railway Bazaar” he had to take a whole lot of notes on a whole lot of trains over a whole lot of months. And even before that, he had to exercise his ability to see the stories in the world around him, and work his “describing muscles” to the point that he actually had something to say that was worth reading.

I am ready to work my muscles.

"I only write when inspiration strikes...Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp."

- W. Somerset Maugham

Several of my “New Year’s Anticipations” centre around carving out a place in my life and my schedule to develop my skills as a writer. Much as I like the idea of inspiration striking at random moments when I just happen to have the time to sit down and let the words flow, it has proven to be highly unrealistic. The only way I’ll become a writer is to write, and the only way I’ll write is if I set aside (and fiercely guard) specific time devoted to writing and then....write. Instead of waiting for the dream to somehow magically evolve into discipline, I need to start with the discipline that will pave the way to my dream.

For me, the first step (besides giving value to this endeavor in my own heart) is to make regular time in my schedule to write. I’ve decided that if I can set aside one afternoon a week to write for three hours or so, I will consider myself a wild success. Besides the fact that that is about as much time as I can realistically spare right now, that is also about as long as I can solidly write before my creative engine starts to sputter. At least for now. (I intend to strengthen that muscle!)

I haven’t found that I do so well writing at home, as the voices of the washing machine, my roommate, the phone, the doorbell, and my internal to-do list never fail to call me from my place of creativity and steal those precious minutes of focus. Leaving the house and going to a specific place, on the other hand, lets me feel more like I am “going to work” and gives me the opportunity to ignore everyone around me and focus, and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

My chosen “office-away-from-home?” The back corner table at Starbucks.

On the bus on the way here, I listened to a “Writing Excuses” podcast that was, “coincidentally” bang on for where I’m at today. The guest speaker’s challenge was to see whatever time you set aside for writing as a job that you show up to, punch your time card at, and give your undivided attention. If you were to work at a bank, you couldn’t just “not feel like going in today” or allow a million distractions to steal you away from the task at hand. In the same way, a writer must see their “shift” as a non-negotiable and give it their all accordingly.

I was really encouraged to hear the guy say that most writers, unless they’ve really made it big and write “full-time,” work another job and write in the evenings on the weekend. If the average writer writes a solid 200 words in a concentrated hour, and they spend an hour a day writing, five days a week, that’s 52,000 words a year. If the average novel is 100,000 words, that’s half a novel in a year. Not phenomenal, but not bad either. Considering that what I’m going for right now is not a novel, but travel and culture-related articles, I should be able to crank out several dozen this year if I really give myself to it.

And so it is that I spent a solid three hours today over coffee with characters from my trip to Mardin. Peder Yakup was there - the priest who lovingly tends the restored Syriac church in the village of İzbırak despite the fact that there is no congregation. And Maria, the nun, with her gum boots and shalvar and her cigarette. And what’s-his-name (whose name is written safely in my notebook at home) our guide at the ancient and soon-to-be-underwater city of Hasankeyf. At 692 words of what I daresay was inspiration, I’m gonna call it a day.

I am happy to report that, I showed up for work, I sat down at my desk, I stared that blinking cursor in the eye, and I won.