Improve your “Writer’s Stats” and Dream that Impossible Dream
(More Notes from the Writer’s Files)
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
I know it’s Friday and all you’ve got on your mind right now is sleeping in tomorrow and maybe dropping by that happy hour or house party. If you’re like me, the work week usually ends with more of a whimper than a bang – in part because of all the “to-do’s” from Monday that remain stubbornly check-mark free come Friday afternoon.
So let’s talk a bit about organization. As I mentioned in a previous post, a couple of weeks back – while cleaning out closets and cabinets – I came across a folder full of writerly printouts. In those pages, I found advice on conquering writer’s block, the importance of an error-free query and tons and tons of other stuff that I’ll be sharing in the weeks to come.
Today – after a stressful lunchtime spent mapping out a 6-month impossible dream plan courtesy Timothy Ferriss and the 4-Hour Work Week (**more on that below**) – I checked in with my “Writer’s Files” folder and discovered this straightforward little gem from Diana Barnum, “Building Healthy Writing Habits.”
Barnum begins her piece detailing the successful career of 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope. Trollope was a British Postal clerk with novelistic aspirations – and he set about achieving his goals by setting one benchmark: write 3,000 words per day. Apparently, Mr. Trollope began each day with a session at his writing desk, finishing up his pages before setting out on into the flotsam-and-jetsam of 19th century London. His determination paid off, and he ended up publishing several novels, including Phineas Finn and He Knew He Was Right.
I don’t know about you, but 3000 words sound like an awful lot of “alphabet-soup” to bang out before breakfast. Of course, as an editor, I probably circle that number plenty of times throughout my day – blogs, editorials, assignments and a mountain of emails requiring responses – but in my “other” life as a creative writer, the 900 or so words I get out in this blog are often the sum total of my day’s more creative efforts.
So how do we improve our writer’s stats?
Barnum suggests the “Five A’s”
Account: “Make a written account of any habits you’d like to work on” suggests Barnum. For example, perhaps you want to get more organized, or garner more freelance work. Stop compulsively checking your email and getting everything perfect advises Barnum, instead list some goals that you want to accomplish.
Acquire: “Gather information about the habit from several sources,” writes Barnum. So get thee to Google and find out all you can about getting organized, launching a freelance career, starting a blog, etc. One word of caution – don’t overwhelm yourself. An old writer instruction once told me that if you’re going to write a book about flying planes, and you’re not a pilot, don’t try and become an expert – just buy a children’s book and get the basics. You can refine your information later. At this point, you’re just trying to get yourself off that ledge and into the writing stream.
Action: “Develop a course of action for working on each habit. Be specific as possible.” Barnum gets down to the brass tacks here – the part that’s the most difficult for most of us. Writing out steps that you must accomplish – and that, more importantly, you can accomplish – can be daunting…”You mean I have to do all that? And when I do do all that, you mean what might actually get what I want?” (be very, very careful what you wish for!) Barnum suggests getting a calendar and scheduling actions – today, make phone calls, tomorrow follow up with emails or internet research, write a letter next week, draft a proposal by the end of the month; you get the picture.
Assess: “Log your progress to follow ups and downs.” Barnum’s recommendation here can actually bring you some satisfaction that will keep the momentum going. There is nothing more glorious that finally marking a big black “X” on some task you’ve been putting off. I am also a bit of a geek about tables and charts – I love watching numbers got up or down according to whatever achievement I’ve got in my crosshairs (in case you’re wondering, I’m always aiming for checking account balances that rise and scales that move backwards).
Appearance: “Take time to relax and reflect on this change of habit,” concludes Barnum. “How do you appear now? Happier? Healthier? Feedback from friends can be helpful too.” Make any adjustments that will lighten your load and reduce stress – this is all about the long haul, not the short sprint. As Barnum says, “Remember, none of us are perfect. Each one of use had something to work on for self-improvement. It’s a process!”
The 4-Workweek and Impossible Tasks
I’ve mentioned before that I’m slowly making my way through Timothy Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek. This week’s chapter, “System Reset: Being Unreasonable and Unambiguous” is all about setting goals and reaching not just for the stars in your local Milky Way, but for nebulas in another galaxy far-far-away.
In the chapter, Ferriss outlines a task he likes to give students during his guest appearances: contact three people who seem impossible to reach and try to get them to answer three thought-provoking questions. The student who accomplishes this task the most thoroughly wins a round-the-world ticket.
So the stakes are high. And yet, more often than not, few rise to the challenge.
Ferriss blames this failure – or “cautionary tale” – not on lack of will or inferior intellect, but on insufficient confidence. The task – and in fact any seemingly impossible goal – can be achieved as long as you convince your self that it is achievable.
“From contacting billionaires to rubbing elbows with celebrities,” writes Ferriss, “it’s as easy as believing it can be done.”
“It’s lonely at the top,” he continues. “Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time and energy consuming.”
Reading those sentences again, I’m reminded of my own “impossible task” from a few years ago. After stalling out in the legal field – and doing my damndest to avoid the omnipresent and oppressive California Bar Exam – I paused to reflect on what I really wanted to do. I’m not going to lie; the procedures were pretty dorky and very clichéd. I spent evenings in coffee houses scribbling in notebooks. I spent time lurking in the self-help section of my local Borders. I think there were some collages and “visual roadmaps” constructed out of construction paper, rubber cement and pages ripped from O Magazine.
But I digress.
The point is…I did some soul searching. And I realized that I yearned for my first love: editing. Throughout my school years – from junior high all the way up through law school – the one thing that I always found time for, the one thing that lit me up inside, was editing – my yearbook, my school newspaper, my friends’ reports and cover letters. I loved it all.
But my little (ok – moderately sized) beach town is not known as a hotbed of journalism and publishing. Folks told me I didn’t have a shot at finding a job “’round these parts,” and that I’d have to venture further south, to Los Angeles…I might even have to jump on a red-eye to New York if I really wanted to give it a go. But I stood firm. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be an editor. And I wanted to do it right here in Santa Barbara.
That might not seem as lofty an achievement as, say, winning an Oscar (or the Nobel Peace Prize), but to me it was a dual accomplishment: I got the job I wanted, and I proved the naysayers wrong.
Want your own shot at those damn “rain-on-your-parade” types?
Start out with a plan. Any plan will do. I’ve concocted plenty out of spit and elbow grease. In his book, Ferriss lays out one approach: Dreamlining.
“Dreamlining is so named because it applies timelines to what most would consider dreams.”
Intrigued? I’ve only just started out the initial diagram – naming goals, assigning costs, deciding what I want versus what I want to “be” and what I want to “do.” As Barnum suggests above, once you’ve set a goal or a habit, the next step is to do some research. I’ll continue highlighting my progress with Ferriss’s book here – and I’d love to hear from any of you out there who are in the trenches with me, or have just finished your journey – and I’ll also be casting a wide net to gather up any and all available resources that I think will help me in these Dreamlining efforts.
Check back soon for updates and have a great weekend!
All original content is the sole property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer. If you are reading this blog on another website, it has been reposted without the author’s permission in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
- 4-Hour Everything: How Tim Ferriss Tracks His Life’s Data (fora.tv)
- Shine a light, grab a pen, and banish those fear-mongering demons in your head. (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- New Seats and Bigger Challenges (thedailycreativewriter.com)
- Five lessons from The 4-Hour Work Week (whiletruecode.com)
- The Mustache Story (continuedstories.wordpress.com)
- Improving Personal Effectiveness with “The 4-Hour Workweek”, Timothy Ferriss. (Book 25) (scitnecessitas.com)