Earlier this year I attended the first stop of Neil Gaiman’s book tour for Norse Mythology. I had no idea what to expect and, as it turns out, he had only some idea of what he was going to do. He walked onto the stage to an unassuming, spotlighted podium and began speaking in his whimsical British voice about how he hasn’t done “one of these” in a while. In his hands were small slips of paper where audience members wrote questions before the show. And in between talking and reading short stories, he answered a few, one of which was:
How do you stay inspired?
Without missing a beat, he said that he doesn’t stay inspired. That he wished he could, but that inspiration lasts for about the first twenty pages of writing a book and the rest is like digging a really long ditch.
Everyone laughed. I laughed too. But I also felt this weight lift off my chest; a confirmation that inspiration is fleeting. It fills you up like a Thanksgiving Day parade and then leaves you with the remnants of confetti and a tryptophan coma.
I think about Neil’s words every time I sit down to continue digging my own ditch. And yet some days, I wonder if the key is simply this: one shovel full at a time. Some days, I can’t help but look toward the end of a long expanse of dirt and think, “Why am I not there yet?”
Each morning I wake up with this source of energy coursing through me and sometimes it gets spent before I sit down to write. Some days it bursts out of me and latches onto the first thing—or the necessary thing—of the day. Before I know it, the day is gone, the page is blank, and my expectations spin into an inner pressure that builds all night and into the next day.
And when I pick up the shovel to keep digging, the un-dug part of the ditch appears so much longer. Instead of excitement that I will get there, I feel dread that I am not there.
What, then, is the key to getting to the end? Or, rather, what’s stopping us?
Lately, I’ve been keeping track of what’s most important to writing productivity. Three tools in the writing arsenal that, when in perfect balance, can bring us steadily closer to the end of the ditch: energy, time, and expectation.
Energy: The right amount of energy is almost as good as inspiration. It’s brainpower and word fuel. It keeps the pen moving or the fingers typing. It nurtures the necessary headspace for creative thinking. But without it, our motivation and ideas sputter out of us like the last squirt of ketchup in the bottle.
Time: Time management is vital for accomplishing any endeavor. It doesn’t have to mean writing at the same time or for the same duration every day (heck, for me sometimes it means staring at a computer screen for an hour), but if you don’t meet the page, your words can never get there.
Expectation: Expectation is the wild card of writing tools. It is woven into all of our writing goals and deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise. Low expectations that are exceeded can lead to a boost in energy or inspiration; high expectations that aren’t met can lead to stunted creativity and self-pressure.
Mitigating that self-pressure is the ultimate key to getting to the end of the ditch.
Allow for a dip in energy, a lack of routine, or squandered expectations. Because if, at the end of the day, you haven’t written a word, but you go to bed okay with that fact, you will wake up excited about your project instead of turning it into just another chore on the list.
So be aware of how your energy, time, and expectations interact. Experiment with when and how long you write. Experiment with different kinds of goals—chapters, word-count, even stream of consciousness journaling. Eventually, the right combination for you will emerge. And in the meantime, remember: every word counts!
Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.