I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, so here’s another update, this one on my systems-oriented approach to 2021. As I hinted a week later, the main question was: What might my practice look like if instead of setting explicit writing goals (words, minutes, streaks), I changed a bunch of the stuff around my practice?
One thing I implemented in January is a kind of soft-Sabbath, every Sunday, with very light screen restrictions – no video games, no streaming services (aside from music), nothing that could get out of hand and take over my day. I park myself in a chair (usually the comfortable corner lounger in our sunroom) and process notes, respond to emails, decide on my Sunday letter topic and, most importantly, review the past week and plan out the next one. To support this, I asked a friend to move our regular Wednesday catch-up calls to Monday mornings, as I’m more likely to plan if I know I’ll have to tell someone about it the next day.
Another rule I set for myself was that if a story or project idea jumped out at me, I’d start working on it on the spot, if possible. Even if I had planned to do something else that day, even if it was 8:30 AM and I was still in bed, even if I was in my car in the grocery store parking lot. I’d tap the lines into my phone, or I’d keyboard shortcut into FSNotes and just start typing. (I’m writing this letter in just such a note, laptop braced on my thigh, body inclined 10 degrees above the horizontal, from the aforementioned corner lounger.)
I’d intended also to change my reading habits, but this last one has proven the most difficult in practice. I stalled for a bit on the excellent and abridged (but still slightly longish) new translation of Journey to the West while simultaneously trying to finish The Fellowship of the Ring (one too many epics, Jack). Sometimes I feel the need to finish or even re-read a book before I gush about it here, but then I’ll feel obligated to finish, and the obligation makes it feel like homework, and then I don’t do it. It strikes me that I also need shorter books on hand, and more graphic novels; just the momentum of quickly turning page after page can sometimes carry me a good ways into a subsequent, longer novel. Maybe I also need a rule that I’m allowed to abandon a book if it hasn’t grabbed enough for me to read, say, a hundred pages a week.
So did my “un-resolutions” work? Maybe not the way I’d expected. I’ve put words to four or five story ideas, but don’t have more than ten pages for any individual one. I’ve found myself picking, if not low-hanging fruit, then fruit on the second or third branch up. The weekly review pushes me toward day- or week-sized projects, and not all of them writing related. In this time I’ve also built an alcove desk, installed shoe molding in our guest bedroom, learned how to scrape Facebook events and archaic public-record websites using a headless browser, launched a new podcast, and processed maybe ten rolls of 35mm film.
Still, I think it’s been a not un-successful three months writing-wise. Unlike last year, I haven’t missed a Sunday letter so far this year, and those longer story ideas are now salt-bathing in their fermentation crocks. I’ve also received initial notes from my editor on the most recent book draft, and expect a marked-up manuscript soon.
I wrote, in my planner today, that April is for mapping. As in, the central metaphor of Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer:
Writing is often discussed as two separate acts-though in practice they overlap, intermingle, and impersonate each other. They differ in emphasis, but are by no means merely sequential. If we do them well, both result in discovery. One is the act of exploration: some combination of premeditated searching and undisciplined, perhaps only partly conscious rambling. This includes scribbling notes, considering potential scenes, lines, or images, inventing characters, even writing drafts. History tells us that exploration is assertive action in the face of uncertain assumptions, often involving false starts, missteps, and surprises -all familiar parts of the writer’s work. If we persist, we discover our story (or poem, or novel) within the world of that story. The other act of writing we might call presentation. Applying knowledge, skill, and talent, we create a document meant to communicate with, and have an effect on, others. The purpose of a story or poem, unlike that of a diary, is not to record our experience but to create a context for, and to lead the reader on, a journey.
That is to say, at some point we turn from the role of Explorer to take on that of Guide.
It’s been a fun several months of exploring. I’ve got one map to finish now, and plenty of new lands to revisit.