Plays Well with Others

I promised a blogpost about writing in community, and even though I’ve now been thinking about this post for a few days, I’m still not quite sure how to shape it.

So I’ll just tell you what I’ve been thinking.

Because I facilitate a writing group (The Writing Lab), which used to be closely associated with my college, and is still loosely associated with it, I frequently talk to people who are curious about our group, but don’t “get it.” I don’t write in groups, one faculty member told me (with a sort of sneer).

I’ve also met people who would like to join us, but “can’t” write in a group. It’s a solitary process for them, I guess. Someone said to me that there’s a reason knitting isn’t a team sport (except people do get together in knitting circles, right?). They would be willing to show up at the end and share their work, I’ve been told. One of these people added, “I think you would enjoy it.” I wasn’t sure how to take that.

The group, as it’s evolved, isn’t about entertaining one another. It’s more like holding our feet to the fire. We are writers, not having-writ-eners (?). (There are critique groups, to which one brings work in draft, of course, and they can be very useful.) Nothing new about this, as there are Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones type groups all over the place.

We don’t write from prompts (we used to, and then we kind of went off in our own direction.) Our group is maybe a little like AA or Weight Watchers. Except instead of quitting alcohol or losing weight, we’ve made a commitment to get together and write. Some of us have made a specific commitment to write on a certain project (I now work only on poetry when I’m at Lab and this is slowly helping me to find my way toward a new manuscript). And even though the other members are receptive and never-critical and pleased in fact with almost everything, having made a commitment to them makes it easier to follow through on that commitment.

You don’t have to travel to belong to a group. Julia Cameron suggests contacting a friend (by email or text, or a quick phone message) to say “I’m going to write now,” and, later, to say “I wrote ____ words” or “____pages.” And there are lots of internet groups for people more technologically savvy than I am. But I like having actual people physically sitting at a table with me.

More than anything else, though, more than sitting at the table even, is the belief that we share: the belief that writing is valuable, that it is worth doing.

“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.’

“The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the world that each of us inhabit.”
–Charles Duhigg, 
The Power of Habit (273)

By the way, once Duhigg got to William James, he had completely won me over. You could read just the Afterward and Appendix and be inspired (though I think you would then be inspired to read the whole book).

And, please notice, I wouldn’t have written this post at all, had I not promised it to you, dear community of blog-readers. Having a community supporting any goal is a gift.

What do you hope to change?

color outside the lines“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (273)

Before you change your life, it helps to know what exactly it is that you want to change.

So, Bethany, what would you like to see more of in your writing life?

  • If I had a more organized send-out habit, that would be wonderful.
  • If I could be more organized, I think that would help me to finish more work, and so have it available to be sent out.
  • On those days when I’m not driving to see my mom or on some other errand, I’d like to actually write for several hours. Several? 3 or 4? 6?
  • If I could go to bed earlier, and fall sleep earlier, I could get up earlier in the morning, and write, even on days when I’m traveling. As mornings are my absolute, best time of day to do creative work, this would be ideal.

The other day, I suggested that you jot down what you want to accomplish. But now, what does one DO with that list? The key, I’m convinced, is to focus on one item, and break it into parts. Into the smallest parts possible. Or as some writers would emphasize that phrase: The. Smallest. Parts. Possible.

In order to send out my current mss., what small actions can I take?

Find the emails about PEARL’S ALCHEMY that I’ve sent most recently. Draft a new email. Find addresses for all the agents and editors I met with last summer. Get a copy of the PNWA 2014 program?

Decide what exactly I need to fix in the closing section of the book, in order to follow up an initial request, or a 50 page excerpt, with the whole book.

When I look at the small parts, just one each morning, it doesn’t sound that difficult.

In her book, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper SARK includes a wheel of small, intentional actions. If I still had the book, I’d take a picture of her version — but here’s mine (messier, less colorful) for this project of 1) making a list; 2) choosing one item; 3) breaking it into small parts; 4) figuring out what small, action I can take next.

sark2If I’m remembering it right, SARK’s wheel says “5 seconds or 5 minutes.” When you’re trying to create a new habit, the smallest action can help. Alongside other small actions, repeated over time, it can start everything sliding downhill.

One action, I find, encourages another.

In my next blogpost, I want to add 2 cents more to this thread on habits — this time about finding or creating a supportive community.

Maybe it’s not commitment. Maybe it’s habit…

P1040290I do a lot of driving, and while I drive I listen to books on CD, checked out from my local library. Lately I have been listening to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (another book recommended to me by Louise DeSalvo).

A lot of the book is about institutional habits — about football teams and factories. Another large percentage of it is about habits that I don’t have, such as smoking. And a huge amount of text is dedicated to advertising. If I were reading this book, I probably would have set it aside by now. But because it’s the only book on CD in my car, I’ve powered through about 2/3 of it in a little under a week, and it has finally, completely hooked me. Now that Duhigg is talking about small keystone changes (which sound a lot like my “small good choices”), I get why I have come across this book in more than one of my books about writing.

Is it commitment that has kept me married for 30 years, that makes me get up every morning and write, that helps me find the time to floss my teeth? Or is it just good old habit? Charles Duhigg would say that it’s habit.

He also has managed to get me to think about things that I believe I can’t change, to think about those things differently. Here’s a sampling: I work in the morning, and I can’t work in the evening. I can’t work when my kids are home. I don’t like to exercise. I would like to take the dog for a walk every evening, but I just don’t have the time. I was told by a physical therapist that I should sleep on my back; what did I say? I can’t. I have to sleep on my side!

My point is, that we — or I, at least — say these things without thinking.

Now you try. What stock “can’t” or “won’t” statements do you keep ready in your quiver? I’ve tried to lose weight and I can’t. I’d like to take a walk (join a bookclub, see a play) but I can’t miss NCIS. 

(There’s also the stock phrase, “I don’t like ____”  [you fill in the blank]. And here’s one of my parenting deadends: I have a daughter who won’t eat lettuce — not if she is starving! Not to save her life! But I read [in yet another source] that taste is largely a matter of habit, and if you will eat a little bit of one of your forbidden foods every day, after three weeks your taste buds will adapt. My daughter won’t hear this from me, but maybe it will help you.)

Or that bugaboo that I’m always addressing here: I’d love to write, but I can’t.  

What if those obstacles were not huge personal character flaws? What if it wasn’t actual, physical limitations of your life that prevented you from achieving what you would like to achieve? What if it was merely habit?