Friday, 18 September 2009


Something for the weekend, as they say. A little thing to get you thinking, inspired by blogger, Twitterer and YA author, Emily Gale - read her post here first.

It got me thinking about something I've recently learnt: the things we believe are habits are just that - habits. And habits can (and very often should) be broken.

We say things about ourselves which sound like truths, but they may not be. Here are some things I've said about myself and which turned out not to be true when tested:
  • I can't write fiction when other people are in the house. [Yes, I can if I negotiate untouchable space. I learnt this when my husband was home for six long months of "gardening" leave. We agreed that if I put a scarf on the door handle, he would never come in. That was a great way to get some secret chocolate eating done. But I did write. I had to.]
  • I always write on a computer. [Not if I don't have access to one. I learnt this when I travelled to the Isle of Wight to stay in Alfred Noyes' house as the guest of his grandson and at the suggestion of his daughter; my laptop spookily stopped working on the train down there and didn't start working again until I was nearly home. Spooo-ky. Now I quite often write on paper, with a pen. It feels very wonderful. It doesn't look very wonderful but I can learn to deal with that too.]
  • I can't write on trains or in hotel rooms. [I tried it and I could. Simple.]
  • I couldn't write fantasy. [I just did.]
  • I don't like short stories. [Until I read Tania Hershman's The White Road, published by Salt. For some reason, I can't do Amazon links any more but you can find her somehow.]
We do two things wrong, I think. [Well, I do many things wrong, but in this context just two.]

  1. We make excuses for ourselves for why we don't write more, more often, more easily. "I can't write on trains" is so much more valid than "I find writing really difficult and sometimes even boring and sometimes even quite impossible."
  2. We create perfect imagined situations for writing - little routines, mascots, mantras [such as tidy desks, or cups of coffee, special pens, silence, chocolate] and then spend far too long getting everything just right instead of getting on with the task in hand.
Crikey, I've even said that I can't write until I've hoovered behind the fridge. Leaving aside extreme work avoidance such as fridge-hoovering [and I've written about essential Work Avoidance Strategies here - no, silly woman, NOT essential, entirely optional] there are plenty of things we do before we write. I'll check all my email addresses, put the laundry on, tidy my desk, stuff that takes so long that I need another cup of coffee just to recover.

And so I have a challenge for you. Next time you have a time when you're meant to be writing, as in proper writing, the difficult stuff, the real important meaningful stuff, do this:

EITHER [see, I'm so kind that I'm giving you a choice]:

1. Write down all the things you normally do before you'll write; include the conditions you think are ideal, whether it's the silence, the tidiness, the coffee or whatever.
2. Refuse to allow yourself any of them. Create for yourself the opposite, if possible - the noise, the untidiness, the tea instead of coffee [yuck]. And then write - and don't stop until you've written 1000 words. Doesn't matter what the words are like, just write them.
3. Eat chocolate

1. Go and write somewhere you've never written before. Anywhere: a café, another room, the park, a station, the kitchen, lying on your stomach on the floor, in the bath. Write 1000 words.
2. Eat chocolate.

That [chocolate-eating] is the only habit you should never break. After all, you couldn't write without chocolate, could you?

This is a picture of me actually in Alfred N's house, reading The Highwayman. What you can't see is that in the background I am also listening to his voice read the poem on an ancient cassette lent to me by his grandson.

PS - if you're interested in my personally epiphanal experience of that trip, here you are. Something else for the weekend.


Caroline Dunford said...

Writing is a job. If you're working in an office, a surgery, or driving a train you're not going to stop suddenly to clean the kitchen floor, so neither should a writer.
I admit sometimes when you hit a plot wall it can be good to go and do something mundane to clear your head, but that should be an infrequent luxury!

Dreamstate said...

Excellent thoughts, Nicola. You are so right. I made excuses for years. When I got right down to it, none of them held up. Regardless of what I thought was necessary, the only requirement was that I write. Full stop.
(Except that I CAN'T write on trains. It makes me sick. Not pretty, and not good for the keyboard. I compromise and write in the waiting room.)

Sarah said...

I'm halfway there: eating chocolate is already a habit.

I've learned the power of having a writing "ritual": a specific place I write, a specific time, etc. It's great, because you hit that place, and there's an almost Pavlovian response to buckle down and pound away.

The downside, though, is that I'd begun to make excuses if I couldn't get to the place, etc. This was a well-needed kick in the pants.


David J Griffin said...

I think that, sometimes, procrastination is a bane to any writer. Although we are consciously putting off writing, we convince ourselves that there's good reason. And yet we also know we are wasting time on purpose to avoid doing something we love i.e writing, and just not getting on with it, for the weakest of excuses. It's a pull-me-pull-you situation.

There's always a reason (excuse), different for everyone. My latest is that I don't want to "spoil my copybook". What I mean by this is: I'm quite pleased with my progress so far, and some days I feel I won't be able to match the personally judged quality of writing. So rather than write something too weak, or just plain not good enough, I'll find other tasks to avoid it. But there's the other voice saying, 'Just write, for crying out loud! It doesn't matter if you think it's good, bad or indifferent. Just flippin' well write!'

And do I? I sure have a bad writing habit to break. I'm going to re-read your post, Nicola and hope that one of your remedies will sink in and work....

Donna Hosie said...

Here's my problem: I like my habits! I get my laundry done and reward myself with an hour of writing time; I deal with my crappy correspondence and treat myself to two pages of uninterupted crafting.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I don't want to break my habits. I write better with a clear mind and I know I will write utter garbage if the floor is covered with fluff!

(and I will gag all over my keyboard if I drink coffee instead of tea!)

Sally Zigmond said...

A very timely post. You've been spying on me again, haven't you. Ms Morgan?

I know it's fear that stops me from 'getting on with it.' Fear of failure; fear of not being able to do it at all; fear of making a fool of myself. Daft, I know but that's me.

Habits are soft and fluffy comfort blankets. I will try harder to do without them but I'm not giving up coffee.

So there.

Amanda Acton said...

I have an awful habit! I google. And then I find stuff like this blog. If it wasn't for habits,instead of reading and commenting on it, who knows what amazing stories I may have come up with! Gosh, I could have had 5 novels all written and published already. :P

Gwen said...

Hi Nicola

I loved your post. I have absolutely no excuse for procrastination, having no kids and living on my own. I still seem to be very good at it. I start a day with the best of intentions, only to get round to writing shortly before going to bed. Must try harder.

Dan Holloway said...

Fascinating insights, Nicola.

As someone who's struggled with clinical perfectionism and OCD for years, I can thoroughly relate to the hoovering behind the fridge.

For many people there IS no easy answer to this kind of avoidance (there is a big difference between work-avoidance and a clinical condition). But what can help even someoen for whom the problem is very serious is something like cognitive behavioural therapy, a technique that takes the compulsions and breaks them down slowly by questionning their validity. This, in fact, is what you seem to be doing with a most excellent habit-challenging strategy.

It's interesting that you have a very supportive partner. I'm sure there are many people unable to negotiate undisturbed time, so there are some real issues that need to be faced (so as not to make people feel guilty if they can't negotiate successfully). for me the issue is noise. My wife can't work without noise, and I always told myself I couldn't work with noise (music). I still think I work better without it, but it isn't an option (noise trumps silence!!), so I've HAD to learn to do the best I can. at times I'm almiost in tears with panic because I just CAN'T think, so I have to take myself through thestages of CBT and talkmyself down until I'm in a state wheer I can at least do something. The choice is not to write at all. And that's not really an option

Nicola Morgan said...

Caroline - vacuuming behind the fridge a luxury, eh?! I know what you mean. On the other hand [she says, making huge excuses], I DO find that doing mundane things is exactly when i have my best ideas.

Dreamstate - good for you, though i also personally don't buy the idea of always having to write: I think permission not to write is also important. I guess we just have to be honest about why we're not writing, and if it's a bad reason we have to knock it on the head.

Sarah - exactly what i found

David - I hope it does work, because you sound as bad as me!!

Donna - fair point. If it aint broke, don't fix it? Forgive me but I've forgotten what stage of writing career you're at - when I was unpublished I found writing much much easier. It's only now it's so hard. Weird.

Sally - no, not spying! Ah, fear, yes. Me too. Te hardest thing [for me and maybe you?] is to allow ourselves to write rubbish. Thing is, i'm not sure if that's a particularly important thing to be able to do, do you? There's switching off the internat ediotr and there's permission to write crap - what's the point of writing crap?

Amanda - oh yes, if it wasn't for the internet I'd be really famous and successful now. It's holding us both back!

Gwen - I don't think we need excuses. My kids are away now anyway but it hasn't made me any better, worse possibly. one thing that really helps is deadlines, and if you don't have a contract you don't have deadlines so [if you're unpublished] you don't have that to keep you going. Maybe set yourself some deadlines?

Dan - thanks for those insights. I didn't realise I was doing CBT - wonderful! I was encouraged to question the validity of my habits and beliefs by a friend who's a life coach and trained in counselling etc. I would say soemthing and the way she wrinkled her nose was enough to tell me I'd "done it again" and made a judgement about myself that was holding me back. And I noticed that things like "I always write at a computer" just didn't have to be true if i didn't want them to be.

But the noise thing is a very difficult problem to deal with. I very much sympathise. I'm lucky that most of the time I am in the house entirely on my own. When I'm not on my own, before I managed to negotiate that at certain times no one could ever come into my room, I found the very knowledge that someone was in the house and MIGHT in theory come in was enough to stop me working and make me very very tense. I think negotiation is essential, even if it starts with an argument. I think often the noise thing is about control - I certainly hate it if I can't control my noise environment. So, if I have put the music on and it's my music, no problem - if my husband decides he's going to play bloody Radiohead just slightly too loud (or, frankly, at all) and if I can't drown it with the far preferable Muse or Kaiser Chiefs, then I'm stressed. Headphones with your own music? Or do you need actual silence? Could you work with whale music or something very soothing? Sorry, you've probably thought of all that before!

An appendage to the "clinical condition" thing - I do think I'm technically addicted to the internet,l or, more precisely, email and any form of communication. I can't (there I go again!!) work until I've checked all my email addresses, blog, Twitter etc, just to see if anyone's sent a nice message or told me anything interesting. My life-coach friend person said she had to call up all her advance addiction treatment training on me and got nowhere. She said i was the most intransigent addict she'd come across!

Anonymous said...

You don't fool me for one minute; you have a choccie bar behind that book - which is utterly fabulous. I just finished reading it the other night when I was supposed to be reading advanced submissions for an upcoming writer's conference.

If they don't get read, I'll blame you.

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, yes, when I taught philosophy, if I could get only one thing across it would be that "always" is a word we should "always" think twice about.

The strategy I've actually adopted with noise is, like you say, to play my own music with headphones. One of the consequences is I've discovered it can be quite a useful way of tuning in to a character or a plot line if I always listen to the same music (new stuff absolutely doesn't work because you listen too attentively) when I'm working on the same characters - I get back into their voice much quicker. So actually a largely positive has come out of challenging an "I can't"

I must confess as I write I'm listening to Radiohead. I listened to The Bends solidly when it first came out, and we saw them at Reading a few weeks ago. Funny that most people compare Muse to them (we're both also huge Muse fans - going to see them in November). I coukdn't write to the Kaisers - the word settings are just SOO bad. GReat tunes, though

Gwen said...

Thanks Nicola and all others for your points. Having thought about this more I think the reason for my procrastination is that, as a beginner writer, I have a fear of writing badly. Therefore I think I need to give myself permission to write, not badly but as well as I can at the moment and the knowledge that hopefully with practice I will improve. Setting deadlines also sounds a good idea.

Donna Hosie said...

Dan - snap! I made my first comment in this thread whilst listening to Radiohead as well. I also find Green Day rather inspiring. I can't write to the Kaiser Chiefs because I find myself dreaming about their rather hot drummer instead of my characters!

Terresa said...

Yes, so true, we do make excuses for ourselves (especially me!). Mine is that I blog and write short snippets (essays, poems) when I really should be working on my novel/WIP. But it's huge and scary and keeps looming out in front of me and blogging feels so much...safer.

Enough excuses, right?

Dreamstate said...

Nicola, you called me on it! Very true, there are times when it is best not to write. I've tried forcing myself and I know that what I'm writing is total dross if I'm in that state of mind. Those days, I (play solitaire, write emails, check out the blogs, and try to) do some research so that I feel like I'm doing something related to writing.

Clare S said...

Thank you so much for this article - writing feels so diffcult and even boring sometimes, but it's as if it's forbidden to say, as if the great big Writing Judge in the Sky will smite me if I uttered the words, because admitting it would be admitting that I didn't love writing enough to be allowed to be a writer. So thank you for writing this and thank you for admitting it. I feel so much better and able to admit it myself.

Jen Campbell said...

I had to be sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea with the house as quiet as possible. At first it was routine but then it did lead to excuses, especially when we had decorators in the house for two weeks and the place was a shambles. No more excuses! And I'm putting myself to the ultimate test: am doing jury service for the next six weeks and (given I have a book to finish before Christmas) I am writing in the jurors' waiting room. And you know what? It really isn't that difficult. Why is it we spend so much of our time worrying instead of just getting on with things... *headdesk*

Jen Campbell said...

PS. because I just read your article. What an amazing experience! The Highwayman was my absolutely favourite poem when I was younger and to go his house and hear a recording of him reading AND be given handwritten drafts? Oh wow. That's amazing x

Nicola Morgan said...

Jen - you're writing in a jurors' wating-room? Wow! And yes, that experience of going to Noyes' house was incredible.

Lynn - am a bit confused - you were reading the Highwayman poem at a writers' conference? Que?

Jesse Owen said...

For me it's the internet - I check my email, Twitter, Blogs, Twitter, Blogs and then I get around to writing or is that more Blogs and Twitter again.

No wonder I'm not very productive!