To Thine Own (Writerly) Self Be True

Sometimes I drive myself crazy. I procrastinate. I suffer from imposter syndrome. And to be perfectly honest, I’m a little lazy. But over the years, I’ve monitored my writing habits and learned techniques to leverage my weaknesses, as well as my strengths. The key, I’ve discovered, is to understand what works for me. Not what works for other writers. Below are some of my self-reflective observations and the ways I’ve manipulated my shortcomings to work in my favor. I don’t expect my tricks to work for everyone, but maybe it will inspire you to harness your own failings and put them to work.

  1. I’m a coffee zombie. My daughter once wrote a Shel Silverstein-esque poem called ‘The Thwomplenock’ about a creature with “barbed-wire hair” that always thinks it’s right and rips the covers off cold, sleeping children in the morning. The last two lines of the poem are:

“The Thwomplenock is very mean.
It is my mom before caffeine.”

The key word here is “before.” I’m quite charming after my morning coffee. Know your weaknesses, right? I make coffee as soon as I wake up now. I’m a better mother, partner, and writer. I’m kinder to my family, myself, and my characters.

  1. I am so gullible I can even fool myself. I can conjure up imaginary deadlines and work toward them as if failure would have actual consequences. I can threaten, bribe, bully, and reward myself with great success.
  2. I am kind of lazy. Sometimes my laziness works for me. Give me a snowy day, a fire in the fireplace, a cup of tea, and my dogs, and I will write all day long without moving or even changing out of my pajamas. My absolute favorite holiday is Snow Day, that unexpected day when no one has school or work, and I have no choice but to stay home and write all day.
  3. I must force myself to be active. As much as we writers like to talk about getting our butts in chairs to write, I’m a strong believer that we also need to make sure we get those butts OUT of those chairs. We have already established that I am lazy, I’m a coffee addict, and I’m incredibly gullible. This may seem like a list of weaknesses, but not for me. This specific combination of traits formed the basis of my work-out routine. A couple of years ago I instituted a regimen I call Coffee Sprints. I used to sit there tapping my finger, waiting anxiously for the last drop of coffee to brew. I usually make two or three cups a day, so I calculated I was wasting about twenty minutes a day staring at a coffee maker. Now, I force myself to do push-ups, lunges, squats, and planks while I wait. I am aware this sounds ridiculous, but I have convinced myself I’m not allowed to have the coffee if I don’t do the exercises. And so far, I believe my own threats. I can be very intimidating. In addition to my Coffee Sprint workout, which I do almost every day, I have a compact elliptical machine that fits under my kitchen counter. It allows me to walk while working on my laptop at the counter. It gets my blood moving, keeps my mind sharp, and pries my lazy butt out of the chair.
  4. I need deadlines. As a journalist, deadlines are sacred to me. But no one gives me deadlines for my fiction. When I was drafting my first novel, I felt untethered by this lack of hard deadlines, so I sought out reasons to put dates on my calendar. I identified literary competitions that made sense for my book and treated each contest deadline as a reason to complete a new draft. I did this for a year, submitting to more than a dozen competitions. I was fortunate to win a few and place in others. I connected with writers and agents via the contests, and I received valuable feedback. Most importantly, I used the contest deadlines to bully myself into finishing that novel.
  5. I need accountability. Right now, as I work on my second manuscript, I’m engaged in a Pacemaker challenge with twenty-four other writers. The challenge started Oct. 1 and ends Dec. 31. Everyone in the group sets their own goals, and we update our progress daily so everyone else can see how we are doing. There are days I just don’t feel like writing, but I hate seeing zero progress on my Pacemaker chart for the day, so I force myself write.
  6. I need other writers. I feel fortunate to be an alumna of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long novel intensive. Ten people enter the program each year, and to date, we have about seventy alums. We text, talk on the phone, and meet up in person regularly. We read each other’s works-in-progress, counsel each other through rejection and self-doubt, and celebrate successes. I’d be lost without my fellow Incubees.
  7. I need to get outside. I hear other writers talk about how their best ideas come to them in the shower. I come up with great ideas when I’m in the woods, swimming, or on a walk. In the summer I spend a lot of time outdoors gardening, swimming, kayaking, and hiking. But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m kind of lazy. I often need a reason to pry my butt out of that chair when the weather isn’t great. My dogs help me out with this one. I’m home more than my family members, so most of the dog walking falls on me. I like to complain about this, but the truth is, going for a walk with my dogs, even at 6:30 am in pouring rain, clears my head. I often disentangle some of my prickliest plot problems while walking my pups.
  8. I take cues from the masters. I admire many authors, but there are some in particular who I turn to over and over for inspiration. The authors who capture my imagination right now are: Barbara Kingsolver, Laura Pritchett, Tayari Jones, Robin MacArthur, Tommy Orange, Julia Fine, Thea Lim, Margaret Atwood, Leni Zumas, Jesmyn Ward, Mira T. Lee, Benjamin Percy, Omar El Akkad, and Lauren Markham. When I’m feeling insecure or stuck in my own writing, I crack open a book I love and find sentences, scenes, or images that move me. What is it about their words that resonates? What emotions do they evoke in me and why? Then I dive back into my own writing with new inspiration.
  9. I find motivation in the successes of other writers. I have a personal philosophy that if I am thinking something nice about another person, I should tell them. Because who doesn’t love a compliment? When I discover a book or an author I love, I tell everyone I know. I write book reviews, tweet about books, share articles, and attend readings at local libraries and bookstores. I often write to authors I admire to tell them how much their work means to me. Supporting other writers (particularly debut authors) makes me happy. And being happy improves my writing.

I still have a lot to learn about myself as a writer, but I’m pretty sure I’m headed in the right direction. It took me ten years to finish my first book. It only took me two months to write the first draft of my second manuscript. When I want to curl up on the couch to write on a snowy day, I give myself permission. When I’m feeling sluggish, I withhold coffee until I drop and give myself ten push-ups. When I’m stuck, I turn to my favorite authors and my writing friends. If I’m feeling down, I write a supportive letter to another author.

I don’t expect my personal habits to work for other people, but I do encourage you to make an inventory of your own writerly quirks, needs, and hang-ups. Are there ways to make your shortcomings work in your favor? I’d love to hear what tricks and traps you have discovered about yourselves. Please feel free to share in the comments.

5 comments

  1. Gerald Whelan

    Nice work, Julie. It works both as a window into your writing life, and a mirror for considering my own. And your daughter’s line a winner!

  2. Hi Julie. I absolutely related to all of these quirks. Nice to meet a kindred spirit. I am just finishing up my first month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center (yes, and taking a writing break to read about writing!). I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer–my needs and capabilities. I tested my mental stamina, focus, and productivity. I experienced what it feels like to devote several uninterrupted hours to write in a quiet atmosphere with no demands on my time. I observed my rhythms. I discovered that I am not alone in my self-doubt, moments of despair, procrastination, and getting stuck. I learned that I can push through the hard parts and get into the flow. Magical moments will occur.

  3. Hi, Julie–These are not the practices of someone who calls herself “lazy.” You sound like anything but. Perhaps you have the perfectionist standards of many writers? In any case, great post.

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