You’ve waited all year for vacation, and you’ve decided to spend it at home, at your desk, writing. You have weeks, maybe even months, of unstructured time. You also have a goal: You are going to write and write and write.
Except you don’t.
Or you’ve carefully carved out two hours a day in which you’re not on the job, you don’t have housework or kids to look after, you’re in a quiet room, and you’re ready to create.
But you don’t.
I won’t even mention quarantine—who can get anything done in a pandemic? It’s hard to look at that kind of free time as a blessing. But you’ve resolved to try … and it isn’t coming.
Well, maybe you write a page, but you aren’t particularly happy with it, and since you can now say you’ve written something, you dwell on what makes you so unhappy until it’s time to go walk the dog.
What happened? Why is this gift of time so unproductive—and what can you do to change it into the creative idyll you’ve been anticipating?
We’re used to structured and scheduled time, a day broken into blocks of an hour or fifteen minutes. At home, we naturally drift—pick up books to read, check out the latest on climate change. This drifting is important for a writer; you need your daydreaming time.
But I don’t need to tell you that creative work also needs focus and structure. Goals, yes, but maybe not the kind that you’re used to.
In fact, what you need isn’t actually a goal, it’s a challenge. A dare, if you will.
Here’s what I told my students when they asked, nervously, just how much they should get done over a break. It’s what I also tell myself when I’m making plans for finishing (or starting) a long project:
Aim for a little more than you think you can accomplish.
I’m not talking about wild intentions to write 30 pages a day—that’s crazy pressure to put on yourself, and chances are you’ll break down in frustration if you try to do it for even a couple of days. Or, maybe even worse, you’ll write just to keep the page count rolling over, and you’ll pad your work with extra description and sloppy tangents until you can’t see your characters any more.
I faced this kind of time—unwelcome—with my latest novel, Mermaid Moon. I was trying to recover from a pesky brain injury of long reach; my health got worse, and there wasn’t much structure to my life other than pain pain pain and why are you so confused and silent.
But a story occurred to me, a spin on old fairy tales: A mermaid goes to land to find her mother, who is said to have been an ordinary human. The mermaid also figures out what she wants from her life and the work she needs to do among her people.
So I had an idea; I had time; but how was I going to write it when I couldn’t even read?
I dared myself.
My thinking has always been that if you assess, realistically, what you are able to do in the time you have—let’s say a couple of weeks—you will underestimate what you can actually do. You might think you can produce, say, 40 creditable pages. That’s a good, solid number. If you were your own employee, you’d sign off on the memo and be pleased when the employee (you) actually delivered.
Now try telling yourself that you’re going to write 50 pages. That’s a less reasonable goal, but it’s a good dare. It feels just a bit out of reach, yet not too far beyond what you know you can do.
If you end up with 50 pages you like, wonderful, and you will be very proud of yourself. Even if you don’t quite make it, you can still be proud, because you’ve done good work and almost conquered an ambitious challenge. You came a long way.
What you won’t do is meet a too-easy goal and then stop writing—or write slowly because, after all, you’re only planning to produce 40 pages … even though writing is, in a way, relaxing—it’s that thing that clamors for attention until you give in, and you feel much better afterward.
See, there’s one danger in setting your goals within easy reach, and that danger is that you will actually meet them. When most people meet a goal, they pause for a breather. It’s only natural; marathon runners don’t keep jogging for a few more miles past the finish line.
Or if a group gets half an hour to invent a story together, they will insist on using the full time, even if the actual writing takes only fifteen minutes. Speaking for myself, if I say I’m going to write 100 pages in a month and I get there by the end of week three, I’m going to relax a bit. Until my natural-born anxiety starts prodding me to get up and do something more.
Anne Lamott’s bible for writers, Bird by Bird, offers what might seem like the opposite advice. She says you should look at the world through a window the size of a postage stamp and give yourself small assignments, especially when you’re just starting out. And that is great advice. We simply must let ourselves do small assignments that lead to the other famous takeaway from Lamott’s book, shitty first drafts.
Lamott’s great advice doesn’t make mine any less great. A single small assignment can lead to a novel of five hundred pages, but to get that novel done, you’ll have to keep one eye on the horizon, the amount you can get done in two weeks or a month—the book you’ve been intending to write. You need a lot of small assignments, and you need to set yourself a challenge.
I’ve had students come back from a break talking excitedly about having done much more than they believed they were capable of—good work that propelled their novels and story collections not only toward graduation but also toward publication. Maybe they finished the dare and maybe they didn’t, but they all surprised themselves with how much they accomplished by pursuing a goal that was in sight but seemingly just out of reach.
It worked for me too. As I lay in bed, I imagined the story as I lay in my darkened room. Then I told myself to try writing it down, in bed with eyes closed and a laptop propped on my knees, a few pages a day. Just a little more than I thought I could manage, when I thought I could barely manage anything.
The first draft of Mermaid Moon was a mess. So I dared myself to revise, and I started writing from the beginning. In a few years, I had a manuscript—which I hadn’t truly believed I could ever produce.
Give this a try for two weeks, whatever kind of time you have: Set yourself a reasonable goal, then dare yourself to exceed that by about 15 percent.
Wouldn’t you like to be surprised?
Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and sometime professor of creative writing and modern literature. She’s the author of several novels, the latest of which is Mermaid Moon (Candlewick Press). Her first young adult book, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, received a silver medal from the American Library Association. Her shorter work has been published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, such as Electric Lit, Prairie Schooner, Writers Ask, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in a creepy old farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, with seven cats, a big dog, a spouse, and some peacocks that supposedly belong to a neighbor. Learn more at her website.