Friday, August 28, 2015

Self-Discipline and Writing

I'm frequently told that I accomplish a great deal -- criminal justice professor and mystery writer -- non-fiction and crime fiction. Right now, I'm in the midst of writing a nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice and a historical thriller. Meanwhile, I'm working out the plot details of another mystery. But the truth is, I am easily distracted.

As Donis told us in her post yesterday, sometimes there are ants in the kitchen -- or some other distraction from sitting down at the keyboard and writing. I think at some point, all of the Type M-ers have recounted a major or minor distraction from writing. So I know I am not alone in having to cope with the ups and downs of the real world. In fact, these legitimate reasons for not writing on a given day are of less concern to me than the thought that I waste time. I admit I have a limited supply of self-discipline.

Over the years, I have tried to develop strategies to compensate for my lack of discipline. I have read numerous books and articles and blog posts from other writers about how to be more productive. I have tried to apply some of that advice. For example, the advice to "be consistent" and "develop writing habits". I have tried getting up at the same time every day and going to my computer. That would work if only I could persuade myself that I should go to bed at the same time every night, or set my alarm to go off at the same time every morning no matter what time I finally fall between the sheets. I am a night person. I like being up and reading or doing research at night. When I have a deadline, I write at night. After all these years, my bed time remains erratic, and so does my rising. Actually, in summer I am much more likely to wake early because of the light pouring in. But if I am tired, getting to the keyboard consistently is still a problem. Hence, my feeling all summer that I was wasting my precious mornings with tasks around the house and to-do lists.

I am on sabbatical from teaching this fall because I need to finish my book on dress, appearance, and crime. I did a proposal, so two chapters and the introduction are already done. The other chapters are outlined. My research is done and I am ready to write. I have a deadline -- the beginning of January when I need to start preparing for spring semester. I know I will get the first draft done because I must. But it is still annoying that I could not develop and follow a writing schedule this summer. Yes, it was true I had another lingering writing commitment that I needed to finish up, and I served on a committee, and I cleaned out my office and my house. And my spaces are now much more tidy. But I might have finished those tasks more quickly if I hadn't been distracted by ideas that occurred to me and sent me off to the computer to spend whole afternoons looking for articles and then reading the articles or requesting the ones I couldn't access from the library. During the summer, I created new piles of articles and books to read. Some of them may be useful in the end, but looking for them was a distraction because much of what I was looking for could have been found later when I got to that point in my writing.

Right now, I am fascinated by Eleanor Roosevelt. I am reading her "My Day" newspaper columns (collected in book form). I needed to only read the columns from 1939 for my thriller. But the columns cover the period 1936-1945, and I sure that I will not be able to stop reading when I finally get to 1939. Eleanor and I will go right through World War II together. And then I will have to restrain myself from reaching for Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a hefty volume about the home front during World War II. But my book is set in 1939. I need to exercise some discipline and focus only on what people living in the years leading up to 1939 would have known. And as intriguing as she is, I will stop reading about Eleanor. I will get back to what I am supposed to be doing.

But you can now see the problems created by my lack of discipline. In spite of the good advice that would undoubtedly make my writing life easier, I am not consistent. I don't have a fixed time to write. I don't have a  word count/quota that I am trying to reach. I don't have -- and this is one of my greatest distraction even though I tell myself that it isn't -- but I don't have one place that I write each day. I move back and forth between my office at home and my office at school. I fear I am wasting a significant amount of writing time in transit. But even this fall when I will be on sabbatical, much of my collected research for the nonfiction book will be stacked up in boxes and file cabinets at the office. And I will still focus best on my fiction when I work at home.

I am thinking of designating days of the week for working at school or at home. On those days, I will get up and move briskly to reach my desk -- a few feet into my office or get dressed and out the door and drive into school. I will sit down, I will focus, I will not be distracted by ideas that pop into my head that seem urgent but can be thought about later. I will write those ideas down on a pad and come back to them later. I will have a designated day of the week when I will do all my chores such as grocery shopping and taking clothes to the cleaners and filling the car with gas.

I will not be distracted. I will be consistent. . . well, I will at least do a calendar and write down proposed word counts and try to follow it. I must because if I don't, January will come and I will not have finished what I must get done.


Donis Casey said...

Research is my bugaboo, as well, Frankie. I can start out at my computer with the best intentions in the world, suddenly discover I need to research one fact, and end up spending the entire rest of the day becoming an expert in the field when I really don't need to. Blasted history is just too fascinating.

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post, Frankie. I consider myself lucky that I'm a morning person. I get up early and go to bed early. The downside is I tend not to go out in the evenings, which rules out evening performances of concerts and plays and the like. I usually end up falling asleep. I guess there's no way of being a writer that doesn't require some sacrifice. Sigh.