Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 3: Accountability

I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful, and I have been sharing the reasons. This is the third and final post in the series. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.

In my first post about this plan, I talked about how setting limits helped me gain focus and (finally) some success in planning my creative writing. Last week, I described how expectations and timing worked to my advantage as I created this plan. Now: Accountability!

Most goal-setting literature tells you to become accountable in some way: get an accountability buddy, a mastermind group, a workout partner, whatever. This advice always made hyperventilate. I'm introverted. Sharing something deeply personal with someone else is not a step I take lightly.

However, I have found personal accountability helpful in some situations. For example, if you want to play an instrument, joining a group ensures that you play (during rehearsals) and gives you incentive to practice between them (making mistakes at rehearsals). If I were ever to take up swimming again, I'd try to be part of a team -- showing up at the pool would use up most of my discipline; I'd let someone else make up a workout. 

Having seen some value in accountability, I was open to figuring out how it might work in this plan. We included a more traditional "buddy" form of accountability, but I've also found a surprising element of short-term accountability in the process. 

Long-term: My partner in this planning process and I agreed to exchange draft plans and give each other feedback; we had that meeting early this month. It was extremely useful. She's also game to exchange email updates every month or so, and we have scheduled a six-month Skype check-in. I have already found myself listing what I've achieved this month, in preparation for my first email. This traditional form of accountability seems promising.  

Immediate: Another form of accountability element has proved INVALUABLE. Somewhere, I recognized that with this plan, I'm accountable to me -- every day, week, month, year. My left-brained, organized self loved the whole planning process and has stopped nattering in the back of my mind. My more free-flowing, right-brained self has buckled down to send up some words. 

I stumbled on this "accountable to me" aspect by accident. I sat down to work on my plan in a coffee shop, away from my desk. I had forgotten to bring the stack of lists from previous planning attempts (e.g., the Getting Things Done "someday/maybe" lists). So I quickly jotted down a few ideas that had been intriguing me lately. I figured I'd add in some of those "pie in the sky" things later, at home.

Then I tried to slot those few ideas into specific timeframes. I quickly ran into the irresistible force/immovable object problem: with only 24 hours in a day (many taken by other activities), "something's gotta give." Forget about adding things I didn't already have on my short-short list.

So, sadly, I assigned a pet project to 2013 (how can "next year" mean "2013"?) and another to 2014. Yes, it was sad to move them. On the other hand, they're there, on the plan. I don't have to wonder if I'll ever get to them. I don't have to second-guess whether I should be doing one of those instead of something I am working on now. I have decided. I also know that, as long as I work toward meeting my current goals, I have a good shot at addressing 2013's projects in 2013.

For a wonder, this accountability feels freeing. I'm not concerned at all about sharing progress, or lack thereof, with my co-conspirator in this process. I'm not concerned about whether I'm working on the right things. I am still concerned (excited, exasperated, thrilled, eager, frustrated) about the actual writing -- which is how it should be.

In closing: limits, expectations, timing, and accountability all worked together to make both this planning process and the plan itself extremely useful to me. In much the same way that my "25 minutes of suffering" has let me address all the things that could/should be done without freakout or burnout, having this plan lets me focus on doing the writing. And that's exactly what I needed from it. 
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 2: Expectations and Timing

With a writing friend, I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful, and I have been sharing the reasons. This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.

Last week I talked about how beneficial it was for me to limit this planning process, and consider only my creative writing, leaving out issues of exercise, spirituality, and kale. The basic format we used for creating our plan is at the top of last week's post. This week, I look at two related considerations -- expectations and timing.

Expectations. In my previous attempts to create a cohesive plan around my creative writing, the vision statement tripped me up. Anything I wrote seemed so...grandiose? egotistical? ridiculous? impossible?

Oh, vision statements. I've been part of reorganization/restructuring efforts at two large public organizations and a smaller private company. I've jumped off a cliff (attached to a zipline but somehow my brain didn't believe that part) in a team-building exercise. I've stood on chairs and committed to goals. (Yes, I cringe about that, in retrospect. Seriously? Standing on a chair?) And those examples were just for work. That doesn't count all the other exercises for nonprofit organizations or churches.

In my jaded experience, those "vision statement" days, fueled by muffins and peer pressure (with not a little blaming and finger-pointing), produce lots of sticky notes and flip charts but little action. Sigh.

In any case, because a vision statement was part of our template, okay, I wrote a vision statement. I actually wrote it after I wrote down the goals I'd like to complete in five years. That part felt easier, because it was more concrete: a list of projects. The vision statement, which is private, is more fluid. Mostly, it isn't something I'm all het up about. 

The reason I'm feeling more relaxed: I have relaxed my expectations. Although I would love to be a bazillion-millionaire writer of critically acclaimed works with staying power to inspire all future generations and bring peace in our lifetime, most of that ridiculous sentence depends on other people. I can only control the fact that I'm producing writing. 

Which is not to equate "relaxed expectations" with "lazy." I'm still ambitious. Just not about the elements of writing that are beyond my control. So I'm ambitious about the concrete things, the goals. But even there, I focus my goals on producing writing, not on its reception (limits). 

The reason I can relax my expectations? The timing of this writing exercise. Not "time," as in, "this took a lot of time," or "I had a lot of time to think about it," because neither of those statements is true. Timing. As in, this is a good time, both in my regular life and in my writing career, to do some planning.
  • My personal life is pretty settled -- no foreseeable deaths, births, illness, or moves on the horizon. Granted, events like these often are hard to predict. But one of the perks of having lost one's parents, for example, is that you don't need a contingency plan for it anymore. So I'm taking advantage of the relative predictability of my personal life to get this big chunk of Meaningful Life on track.
  • No one, including me, depends on my creative writing to generate income. I have other goals for income-producing writing; my husband and I have other sources of income. More money would always be nice, but this planning exercise simply isn't about money.  
  • More years lie behind me than ahead. I often pretend I'm just halfway through my lifespan. When I'm honest about the arithmetic and life expectancies, I have to admit I'm past the halfway point. If I'm not going to get serious about this "creative writing" thing now, when will I? Five years from now, I don't want to say, "Geez, I wish I could get that novel done." Sure, whatever I produce from this plan might be horrible, but at least I will have given it a shot. I won't have to wonder. 
  • I have enough experience writing fiction and creative nonfiction to know what elements of it I can do fairly easily, quickly, and well, and what elements of it receive a "need improvement" grade -- namely, plot. So I can focus on improving those "skill deficits" and incorporating them into my mix of tools. When I was less experienced, I didn't know what came easily, much less how to stretch myself into things that don't come so easily. 
In summary: limits, expectations, and timing. Relaxing my expectations around (a) creating a life-defining vision statement and  (b) expecting external acclaim and reward for creative writing let me focus on what's important to me: producing the writing. I'm able to set those limits and relax my expectations because of the timing of this planning exercise, both in terms of my personal life and my creative writing life. 

What's left for next week, in Part 3? Accountability. Yes, even my own introverted self sees the value of it. 
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 1: The Freedom of Limits

A writing friend and I just completed a brief planning process that addresses our respective creative writing lives. Here's the outline we used, along with some completely made-up examples:
  • Vision statement: "In five years, I am...." [statement of your writing self in five years. Example: a writer of poetry and mystery novellas who is confident in my use of form and imagery.] 
  • Goal statement: "In five years, I will have:" [bullet list of projects completed/underway. Example: completed four 20,000 word mystery novellas, completed a revision of my sestina-based collection "Lilacs and Lavender," drafted four other novellas, experimented with up to three writing schedules and committed to pursuing the most successful for a full year]
  • Milestone statement for this year: "This year, I will:" [bullet list of projects to complete. Example: complete the draft of novella #2 and revise #1 and #2, use mind-mapping to generate 50 images relating geology and cosmology for further exploration, write an hour every weekday morning before the rest of the family wakes up. ]
Short, sweet, simple. And extraordinarily valuable for various reasons, which I'll cover this week and in two upcoming weeks.

Most important: This plan, by design, is limited. It is a plan for creative writing.
  • It doesn't include resolution-y elements of life: to meditate every day or work out or run a 10k or eat more kale.
  • It doesn't address the writing I do as work or as a volunteer. Those activities may expand my tools, but they aren't directly related to the creative writing goals in this plan.
  • It doesn't include activities that develop craft -- like attentive and analytical reading (some of which I will do anyway), targeted reading of craft books, or taking writing courses (formal or informal). I may revise this choice, but it is right for me, right now.
This limit was important because the other things in my life seem to get done. I shower and brush my teeth. I pay bills and taxes on time. I could always exercise more, eat better, spend more time with family, or volunteer more -- but I do those things at acceptable (to me) levels. I'm more ambitious for the creative writing I want to do. So, this plan looks only at creative writing. The closest my plan gets to addressing areas "other than creative writing" is in its submitting component and its writing practice component.

A. Submitting: I will continue to submit pieces to publications, but my goals require me to focus on producing and revising words. So my submission rate (about 1 per month) will stay the same.

Here's why: I am drawn to administrivia like a moth to a flame (and often find myself sizzled, with no new writing done). Administrative work lends itself to to-do lists, completed tasks, and accomplishments. It is relatively easy to research markets, plan submissions, or print stories and put them in envelopes (or, increasingly, format documents, attach them to emails, and click "submit"). In comparison, it is relatively hard to open a vein or two and bleed onto the page. It is even relatively hard to write when I get over my bad self and just put words down, without all the the "bleeding" imagery and general sturm und drang.

Bottom line: I can push papers around and pretend I'm writing, but I'm not -- I'm doing administration. Therefore, submissions will continue at the current level -- ramping them up isn't a big focus. Note that however this decision changes (and it could), having a strategy for submitting creative work will remain a part of this plan, because that's a part of the creative process that's important to me.

B. Writing practice: I have written before about my love/hate relationship with structure and the freelancing life. Evenings? Weekends? What do they mean when it's possible to be connected 24/7? Et cetera.

I've recently admitted to myself that on long projects (like curricula, or, probably, novels), I work better when I have an outline. So rather than think that I shouldn't need an outline, that only baby writers need outlines (and I'm no baby) (am not) (NOT), that an outline is a crutch, that I need to be a real writer and write without an outline -- rather than bludgeon myself (for any longer than I have already), I'm going to (duh) work to an outline. (What can I say. It's part of my unique charm to imagine that if I can do something in a particular way, I must be doing it wrong and therefore shouldn't do it that way.)

Same with general daily routine. My life really does go more smoothly when I write early, even though I am not (SO NOT) a morning person. Summer is an especially tricky time because mornings here are reliably lovely, and this is the season for outdoor activity, so I say, "I'll write later." But the part of me saying "later" apparently means "October." Fortunately, the largest part of me has these goals around creative writing, and, furthermore, has met my postponing self before and isn't fooled by its attempts to get me to do important things "later."

Bottom line: Aside from planned and designated vacations, I'm giving an honest shot at getting the required writing done before 11 a.m. on weekdays. Note that although this particular writing practice may change, considering whether my writing practice is working for me will remain a part of this plan -- because life changes, but creative writing is an important element of my life.

And here's another important limit I put on this plan: My goals (mostly) address producing and revising words. Although one of my goals addresses published work, 90% of my goals are about production: writing, revision, submitting. Why? Because they are the things I can control (mostly). Having work published depends on others. Yes, revising carefully and submitting well, or revising with an eye toward a particular journal or publisher, can improve my acceptance rate, and I'll be doing some of that. But I won't be looking at specific publications and pitching or writing to them. I'm not writing to a market.

I can do that because this plan is about MY creative writing -- my CREATIVE writing. Which ties into next week's topics, expectations and timing.

I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful. I will share the reasons why in three posts: this is Part 1. Stay tuned for Parts 2 (expectations and timing) and 3 (accountability).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

May, May Not

Here's my 2011 calendar shot for May. It's one of my favo(u)rite scenes -- all mist-erious.

Is the shot from May of  last year? No. That's ice in front of that island. It's from sometime in March. But what I like about the shot is the light,* and to me, light speaks of coming into the "yang time" of the year, when things you've been working on in the dark months see the world. 

One of those things, for me, is a sort of five-year plan for my creative writing. More about that later.

*Or at least that's what I like about it now. I reserve the right to let it tell me something different when I'm at a different point in my life and am listening for a different message.