By: Jonathan Warner
Writing is hard. It’s hard to formulate our thoughts, hard to fend off our self-doubts, and hard to share our words with others. It is hard, but it’s healthy and it’s worthwhile. For most of us, there is no choice – we have to write. It’s part of who we are, how we make sense of the world, and in some cases, how we manage to stay sane.
Even though I know it’s hard work to write, there are a few things that I’ve found that make the struggle a little easier.
As artists, often our strong suit is not organization and efficiency – we’re preoccupied with a single idea, busy chasing our muse hoping for inspiration, or inundated with more ideas than we can possibly research and explore.
I suffer from all of these distractions. For many years my creative process consisted of haphazard fits of scribbling phrases/thoughts/ideas onto whatever scrap of paper was within reach – the back of a receipt, a torn piece of napkin, my roommate’s mail. Naturally, I didn’t file any of these brilliant ideas, so lost them.
My more methodical friends laugh, but we creative types don’t choose when inspiration strikes! My mother is a painter, and her studio is the same thing – a snarl of paints and papers, pictures and brushes that look like they cartwheeled over each other six times before landing in a random heap around her easel.
Two simple ways I’ve improved my organization as a writer:
- I bought a 3 x 4 foot dry-erase white board.
This $50 investment literally changed my life. It’s a perfectly inviting blank slate – ideal for brainstorming. The eraser offers a magically cathartic way to “start anew,” wiping away yesterday’s failures and unaccomplished goals with a quick swipe of the right hand. I find I can fit about 12 boxes of lists on my whiteboard (writing small), which allows me to see everything in one spot and actually fathom how to prioritize my daily tasks (imagine!).
The physical aspect of it has benefits too. Standing up and actively writing ideas out on a board helps me focus on finishing my thought. In addition to being more organized, I feel proud and productive and those are both positive emotions which encourage me to do more.
Pro Tips: The bigger the better, mount the board next to your desk (or wherever you do most of your work).
- Set up your phone to be a repository of ideas/phrases/etc…
Naturally, gigantic white boards are no solution for the brilliant epiphanies that hit us on the bus or in line at the grocery store. For iPhone users, Evernote or Bear Apps work well for this.
I set up several headings that coincide with my thought categories and pieces I’m currently writing. But if inspiration comes, I can take a photo or create a new category at the time, and know it’s saved for later.
Sometimes staying inspired can be as difficult as keeping organized. Often I find I’m at the mercy of my muse, sometimes feeling so enthused I can barely write fast enough.
Other days I stare blankly at my screen in a thick haze of lethargy, wondering why anyone ever bothered to invent language in the first place. So where can you find inspiration when staring at the screen doesn’t work?
- Get Out!
If you’re in a funk, go for a walk, take a run, hop on your bike. Seek out sensory experiences that fire the imagination. I live in New York, so for me there’s nothing like the teeming streets and eclectic characters of the East Village to quickly fill my head with elusive adjectives.
Maybe you live in the suburbs or in the country – it shouldn’t matter. When you change the scenery, it forces you to think differently. For me, crossing some physical distance is important – the thoughts often move with the feet.
Read other people’s writing! This is something I’d been foolishly neglecting recently. How do we expect to become better writers without regular reading? Almost all art is creatively built upon other people’s ideas – don’t cut yourself off from this fun, constructive habit. Currently I’m in the middle of some David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion (I’d love suggestions in the comments!).
- Interact with Other Artists
Community is important. One of the things I love about New York is that finally I’m in an environment where artists aren’t the exception. It’s vital to be able to interact with and get support from the people who understand you, who are passionate about similar things. Seek these people out! Interestingly, I’ve gotten some of the best inspiration from non-writer artists (actors, musicians, dancers, etc.).
3. How To Manage Your Frustrating Day Job
Do you have a day job that you don’t like? Are there some days you resent the job because it takes you away from your writing? You are not alone, so do I.
Don’t get me wrong – it is 100% worthwhile to make a living as a full-time writer. Jeff Goins book reminds us that Real Artists Don’t Starve, but until we have a best-seller, what can we do to ensure we have time to write with our 9-5 day job?
- Start Your Day Well Before 9 AM!
9 to 5 may have my number for a while longer, but at 6:30 in the morning I am king of my day! I usually walk down to a bagel shop on Columbus Avenue for an hour of early writing and an everything bagel with cream cheese. Both the walk and the creative exercise prepare me to face my work email and phone calls with a better attitude.
Pro Tip: Put your alarm clock in the shower – then all you have to do is turn on the water (yes, I really do this).
- Use your day job professional network to drive interest in your creative projects.
I’ve started sharing some of my magazine pieces and blog posts with colleagues who I think might be interested. For me, it’s those co-workers who are intrigued with the outdoor adventures, motorcycling trips, and visual art that I write about. You’ll be surprised what these connections can offer – so far I’ve found that two members of our legal team had written their own novels. I also ended up getting a commissioned painting job for my mother out of one of our Executives!
Pro Tip: Strategically work your way up to share your writing with the top dogs of your organization – their influence and connections can be a big help. (Although I can’t get anywhere near a board meeting, that doesn’t keep me from emailing back and forth with our COO about our mutual love of spray paint murals).
- Use Your Day Job Misery as Motivation
Are you miserable at work? I can tell you that many days I am miserable, irritated, discouraged, and simply tired of spending 8 precious hours of each day at work that I don’t care about at all.
Simply put – use this.
Use the misery, the wasted hours, and the discouragement of your day job as the fuel to spur yourself into daily actions to get to a different place where you are writing full time or able to work fewer hours in a day-job. Pain and discomfort are powerful catalysts for change.
Personally, I try to reverse engineer my situation – how much income from writing will it take for me to quit my job? What is my ideal/realistic timeline for making this change? What are the metrics I need to hit, so I don’t need the day job? What’s my plan to accomplish these metrics?
Beyond setting the goal of full-time writer, I need to rely on internal motivations to pursue this. Here are some things that I had to change. Do you need to change certain aspects to reach your goals?
4. Change Your Attitude
I’m a former athlete. I can make myself do push-ups in the dirt until I collapse. I can run hills until my vision blurs from decreased oxygen. But trying to get buy-in for my creative projects? That’s a different kind of hard. No response to 30 query emails? That hurts!
A few ways I work on developing my grit and tenacity:
- Anticipate the Challenges & Discouragements Before They Actually Happen
The bumps in the road have less devastating effects if we are not blindsided by them and already have a plan in place to tackle them. I regularly write out a list of all possible obstacles/failures that could happen in the future and try to think through how they will affect me emotionally. When they hit I’m more ready for them.
- Treat Your Writing Pitches & Outreach Like a Sales Funnel
This may be easier for people like me who work in sales, but understanding the outreach volume to positive result ratio can be helpful. What is your pitch “close percentage?” 15-20%? Don’t be discouraged.
Managing your expectations with a little math can be a big help. Acquaint yourself with the stats. James Joyce, William Golding, Joseph Heller, Audrey Niffenegger, Dr. Seuss, and Stephen King all received over 20 rejection letters before they found a publisher.
Are you quitting too soon? Remember why you write, and tap into that passion.
5. Find Your Motivation
Maybe this is the athletic competitor coming out in me, but I use the negative energy I receive as motivation. Rejection emails? I print them out and tack them up on my cork board. Looking at the tattered flag of paper failures hanging off my wall puts the fire in my eyes on days when my positive pep talks don’t do the trick.
F. Scott Fitzgerald pinned one hundred and twenty-two rejection letters over his desk while he worked on This Side of Paradise. If he gave up then, we would never have The Great Gatsby.
In summary, writing is hard. I think it will always be, but it’s a beautiful struggle that we can get better at and make easier. Hopefully these simple ideas give you a boost. Thanks for reading, best of luck, and may the creative legion rise!
Jonathan Warner is a writer, adventurer, and a blogger.
He lives in a New York studio smaller than your bathroom and enjoys riding motorcycles in the rain.
He’s in love with Norah Jones and wishes he was better at cooking.
Catch him riding the 2-train late in the evening or connect with him on his blog, The Scrap Journal