Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Rules rule

Many of you will have seen this picture going round on Facebook and Twitter. It's Henry Miller's "work schedule". Or not a schedule in our modern sense, but a list of rules to keep himself focused.

I love being reminded that it's not just today's writers who have distractions. It's always (presumably) been hard to focus on the difficult part of our work, hard to stay positive in the face of negative stresses, hard to concentrate and not to flit. I flit a lot.

However, it's also important to realise that every writer is different. What may be right for one need not be for another. It needn't be a rule for you unless you believe it should be and unless you find it works.

I also think Rule 4 contradicts Rule 8. And, to an extent, 9 conflicts with 11. And 1 with 9. On the other hand, I don't know what the Program is that he's talking about. Any Henry Miller experts out there? And I'm sure he never expected his commandments to be discussed amongst strangers around the world!

Rule 5 is interesting: it's very true. But I need to be careful not to let that rule rule me because frankly I'm spending far too much time working and too little creating.

I think I most want to listen to No 3. I think that's the one I most need to work towards.

And of course, I LOVE Rule 7!

But there is only one really important rule: if you want to get it done, get it done. The destination is all that counts, not how you got there.

What do you think? Do you like his rules? Have any better ones? Which one do you think you should follow most closely?

While I have your attention: next week is going to be Pitch Week on this blog, with a new pitch for you to discuss every single day. Roll up, roll up!


Rebecca Brown said...

I need ALL those rules. They could have been written for me; I flit, flirt, flutter outrageously. With writing anyway. But this is the year I learn focus, with rules for myself.

Right after I check twitter, and facebook, and eBay, and pinterest, and goodreads...

catdownunder said...

I will add one...try and take at least a little prowl/pedal/walk each day. It is good exercise for the mind as well as the body. (Seriously, I do a lot of thinking about what I am writing when I am out pedalling - but I admit I am also not attached to that umbilical cord known as a mobile 'phone!)

Whirlochre said...

Aldous Huxley once argued that the destination was less important than the journey on the grounds that arrival at any destination is a direct consequence of the journey made to get there.

That said, there is a broad Start A and a broad End B and a potential straight line exists between the two. It's down to individual writers to work out what constitutes straightest line between those two points.

Lovely to see the presence of distraction in The Old Days — I imagine much time must have been wasted winding up clockwork pipes and combing moustaches and (for the ladies) getting dressed of a morning.

Patsy said...

His rules seem excellent. I like that they seem to contradict each other a little - writing is like that!

M Louise Kelly said...

I think contradictory sets of rules are always best :-)

My fav rule of the moment, because it's the thing i'm finding hardest, is basically your final point, Nicola: If you want to get it done, get it done.

There's a fabulous quote, supposedly from Goethe, embedded in a passage by the Scottish Himalayan explorer W.H. Murray, in 'The War of Art' by Steven Pressfield: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now."

I think it's a great quote (even though it's apparently not by Goethe!) Still, I'd recommend the book to any procrastinators or anyone who resists the real tasks of writing.

Elizabeth Dunn said...

M Louise I like 'boldness has genius,magic and power' linked with Miller's 'work joyously, recklessly.' Is there anything more thrilling than entering that cackling,reckless zone dressed in nothing but your pyjamas?

JeffO said...

Definitely a fan of rule #5 there. I've seen this with me quite a bit, where you really have to work to get words out on the page.

Anonymous said...

Rules and Programs are all very well, but please can others tell me - how do you work when you're stressed? When you're worried about your unhappy child or ill health in your elderly relative? I'm not talking about finding the hour in the day, but writing also requires you to be selfish - in the best or worst of ways - self-contained, self-possessed, self-absorbed - in order to take that reckless leap into another world and dismiss the responsibilities you have here - and how, please, do you clear the anxious clutter from your mind and head off on your calm and joyous journey? When I was a teenager I could write my way out of the problems of the everyday world, but they weren't my problems to solve, just ones to escape. Now the problems lurk round the edges of my writing mind and nag away at me so that I can't focus. All the procrastination techniques in the world don't help there. So what do you do?

Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - I have enormous sympathy. I also don't have any answers. I have been through what you're describing (though obviously I have no idea whether the reasons were similar - but I do, I promise, know the awfulness of not being able to shut out the ugly stuff that may be going on in our lives.) A couple of years ago something happened to me, which I've not talked about here, and it stopped me writing creatively for a year. No one noticed, because I had other stuff coming out, but it crushed me.

I said I don't have answers but I do have something to add. First, be kind to yourself. Recognise that most people, when faced by personal stresses, can't shut them out. That's part of what makes a good person, surely: that emotions can't be subsumed by cold logic. Second, after being kind to yourself, be firm with yourself. Once the worry settles a little bit, *make* yourself write a little bit. Just little bits, when you can, and reward yourself when you've done it. You do NOT have to write every day or even every week to be a writer. Set small goals and small rewards for reaching those goals. Good luck, and please don't beat yourself up.

sheilamcperry said...

This reminds me of someone famous (?Paul McCartney?) who said his family motto was 'Do it now'! I try to follow this 'rule' as far as possible, although it sometimes isn't.
In my experience it's very, very hard to work on something like writing, especially fiction writing, when you are stressed in certain ways such as these 'Anonymous' has just mentioned. When this kind of thing happened to me I was fortunate enough to have my non-creative day job to keep me more or less sane, and I really didn't do much fiction writing for quite a long time. Would it be possible to work on something factual in the mean-time, either something requiring research and logic, or something like a journal, to be going on with until you feel more creative?

Debbie said...

I like the first rule. Sometimes it's hard not to want to start on other projects, when you have ideas whirling around in your head. I do like to finish what I start, and setting targets helps me achieve this.

Katalin Havasi said...

Henry Miller also wrote:

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus. If in fine fettle, write. ...
Paint if empty or tired.
I realized that I was only an amateur at suffering. I discovered that this suffering was good for me, that it opened the way to a joyous life, through acceptance of the suffering."

Anonymous - have you tried writing poetry?

The rule I'd like to follow: Write with warmth.

jayne and her sleekit cats said...

I think one and six are most important - it is too easy to get carried away with your own eloquence and end up with daft fussy writing when a little simplicity and minimalism goes a lot further.


For me, remembering the end result is always fuel to guide me along. I love that exuberant feeling of a piece well-written. Of course tomorrow I might think it's total hooey but that feeling of accomplishment is why I do what I do. I love that feeling.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nicola, for your swift and kind response. Thank you also Sheila and Katalin - I think you're right about trying other ways of making the words flow. (I haven't written poetry for years!) The problem for writers is that writing is how you make sense of the world and when you can't write (because your world doesn't make sense?) then you get even more stressed! So I suppose any words you can get down would help until you do feel calmer and slightly more joyous. I find going out helps, too - somewhere with a wide view, preferably - but you then need technology to get any real work done. I need a laptop and a cafe with a view!

Lisa Shambrook said...

Anonymous, I've been there and back again, so don't give up! I spent time unable to put anything on paper due to 'stuff happening' but I actually did as Nicola advised you...I decided to get back into writing by doing it a tiny bit at a time, even if that only meant writing in my diary!
Gradually my writing grew, slowly. I love the advice here, try poetry, small pieces of writing, letters, journals, write about that beautiful view...but don't pressure yourself, if you can't write one day, let it go.
Allow writing back into your life bit by bit...I also found reading more inspired me to want to write!
I wish you all the best!

Melinda Szymanik said...

Number three for me - I am working on a project right now that is a)very important to me personally and b) already contracted. My nerves are getting the better of me :( Still as with your suggested solution to being 'blocked' by stress Nicola, doing a little bit at a time seems to be helping

David Griffin said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Nicola; interesting indeed. i've not seen it before.

Here's my 11 pence worth (1p per schedule number ;-)

"1. Work on one thing at a time until finished"

Pfffft! I wish I could do that but I've always been the sort to jump from one creative project to another, as the mood takes me.

"2. Start no more new books... etc"

I don't agree with this but can understand the sentiment. But when the "creative urge" takes you, you have to get it down on paper/computer, surely. Over the past three months i've started two novels and hopefully the muse will visit when I finally get back to them...

"3. Don't be nervous.... etc"

What a strange one! Perhaps he means don't be half-hearted.

"4. Work according to program...stop at the appointed time"

I wish I had more of a routine...

"5. When you can't create, you can work."

i'll drink to that.

"6. fertilizers"

Haven't the foggiest what this analogy meant...

"7. Keep human! etc"

Grief, have I got to start working on this one (not not being human, I mean getting away from the computer sometimes). I've a very understanding wife but I know there's a limit.

"8. Don't be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only."

I think most people who write find it a sort of painful pleasure sometimes, of sorts... (no, I'm not talking about masochism! ;-)

"9. Discard the Program... Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude."

Big brother. Seriously, what one leaves out is as important as what is put in, I'm sure you'll agree.

"10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing."

Wise words except I still dash off another plot synopsis or 2000 words of a new novel if the mood takes me...

"11. Write first and always....etc"

Hmm, I've three creative irons in the fire, personally, and I consider them of equal importance.

Apologies for such a long comment, Nicola, I've just finished my very first iPad puzzle app ready to send off for the App Store and I'm a bit elated at the moment!


Lorraine (Unpublished Author) said...

Just found the Rules and I will be Pinning them up because I like them. I will trying to follow them mainly because when I am writing I seem to do everything I should not do. Like watching tv when I should be doing to writing I was doing.

jayne and her sleekit cats said...

Yes, it is amazing and your are right, even if you rewrite it tomorrow or in a month's time the idea is right - sometimes you just need to play with its expression.

jayne and her sleekit cats said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shauna said...

I've just read this post and the comments, while flitting and taking a few minutes away from my editing, oops!

Good points even if we do all work differently.

I can also add my agreement to the comments of working on something different during times of stress. Through the grief of bereavement last year I couldn't write, even though it had always been therapeutic before. I eventually started my way back by doing some non-fiction writing. It takes time, and we need to learn to be kind to ourselves, rather than giving ourselves the usual 'talking to'.