Thirteen Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 13 tips for actually getting some writing accomplished.

One of the challenges of writing is…writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page:

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

Teaser for The Happiness Project book (due out in January) – there I write about my experience when I wrote a novel in a month, inspired by Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem!. Yes, you can write a real novel in one month. It was a lot of fun.

* I always find something great on Dumb Little Man.

* If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Page on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

A Strategy to Alleviate Anger.

One of my personal major, constant happiness challenges is trying to deal constructively with feelings of anger and irritability. Yesterday morning, my father-in-law mentioned a strategy that he recommends: when a person does something that annoys him (or whatever the negative emotion might be) he recalls a situation in which he made the same mistake, himself. That makes him less angry, more understanding.

This strategy doesn’t work well for everyone, however. Some people, my father-in-law observed, are able to do this effectively, but for others, the recognition that they’ve behaved similarly doesn’t translate into greater understanding or forgiveness. And a third category isn’t able to see any parallels at all — to these folks, they must have had a good reason to have acted the way they did, and the mistakes others make are inexcusable.

I tried to apply this strategy myself. Here’s a small thing, but a recurrent source of anger in my life: my husband’s failure to answer my emails dealing with logistics. “Can we have dinner with so-and-so on June 22?” “Do you leave for London on the 3rd or the 4th?” “Did you reschedule the orthodontist’s appointment?” These emails just don’t get answered. It drives me nuts.

I’ve tackled this problem in lots of ways. I’ve tried working on the logistical side, and I’ve tried working on my mental-attitude side. But I had never thought to try to put myself in my husband’s place, and ask myself, “Do I fail to answer people’s logistical emails?” The answer to that question is a resounding YES. I often procrastinate on doing exactly this kind of work. I just can’t face the kind of systematic thinking, checking, and replying that it takes.

Ok. I think I do understand better now. Does it makes me less angry? Actually, I think it does. It also reminds me that I should do a better job of answering other people’s logistical emails.

* Penelope Trunk has a fascinating post about how to decide where to live. This is a complicated, difficult, and extremely important decision that has a lot of significance for your happiness.


* Considering doing your own happiness project or have some ideas to share? Join the discussions on the Facebook Page to swap insights, strategies, and experiences.

Loving-Kindness and the Less Exhilarating Elements of Goodness.

“Loving-kindness is the better part of goodness. It lends grace to the sterner qualities of which this consists and makes it a little less difficult to practice those minor virtues of self-control and self-restraint, patience, discipline, and tolerance, which are the passive and not very exhilarating elements of goodness. Goodness is the only value that seems in this world of appearances to have any claim to be an end in itself. Virtue is its own reward. I am ashamed to have reached so commonplace a conclusion….I have gone a long way round to discover what everyone knew already.” — W. Somerset Maugham

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If you haven’t seen my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short, you might enjoy seeing that.

Be Happier: Control Your Exit.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

This weekend, when I was home in Kansas City to go to my high-school reunion, I ran into an old family friend. “Let me tell you one of my personal secrets for happiness,” he said. “Control your exit.”

“’Control your exit?’” I asked. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It means, always be able to leave when you want. Drive yourself to a party instead of getting a ride, so you can leave when you’re ready. Try to go to someone else’s house, or a public place, instead of having people over to your house, because there’s nothing worse than seeing someone lean back and cross their legs when you’re ready to go to bed. Or else have people over to your house before some event – before a dinner reservation or a movie – so you have to leave by a certain time.”

My husband would certainly agree with this advice. He never agrees to go to a party on a boat, or to go on a bus tour, or to put himself in any situation that would prevent him from leaving whenever he wants. He feels trapped and unhappy if he knows he’s stuck.

It occurs to me that “Control your exit” is advice that’s figuratively true, too. For me, one of the most memorable pieces of advice from Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin with the end in mind.” That is (if I remember correctly), know where you want to go. When you start or do something, maintain a vision of where you’re headed – especially important for people who are considering law school! Friends, don’t go unless you know where you want to end up!

Speaking of my husband and law, he applied this rule when he was considering post-law-school jobs. He thought that working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney sounded great, but he wasn’t sure what he’d do after that. What was the exit strategy? He knew he didn’t want to work in a law firm, and he wasn’t sure what other jobs would follow from a stint in the U.S. Attorneys office; he was worried about taking a job that didn’t seem to lead to any other opportunities that interested him.

My newest Secret of Adulthood is that “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” It occurs to me that in some situations, not controlling your exit would lead to happiness. There’s a lot of happiness to be gained from spontaneity, impulse adventures, and unpredictable undertakings. Even in those cases, however, I imagine it’s better mindfully to embrace this idea of uncertainty – to know that you’re deliberately choosing to give up control of your exit – rather than to have it take you unawares. For instance, people often ask me, “Where is all this happiness project stuff going?” I’m not really sure, and I’m trying to embrace that uncertainty as exciting and fun, instead of letting my control-freak side become obsessed with certainty and control.

What do you think? Is a resolution to “Control your exit” more or less likely to lead to happiness? Maybe, as Bill Murray explained in Ghostbusters, of “never getting involved with possessed people,” “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.”

* Gimundo had an interesting post about Happy News from the Recession: 5 Good Things about Hard Times. Encouraging information there!

* If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Page on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

How to Get a Quick Fix of Happiness.

There are certain images, phrases, songs, and memories that always make me happy.

For some reason, this line from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson strikes me as one of the funniest things I’ve ever read (and it’s not even a quotation from Johnson):

“Lord Chesterfield being mentioned, Johnson remarked, that almost all of the celebrated nobleman’s witty saying were puns. He, however, allowed the merit of good wit to his Lordship’s saying of Lord Tyrawley and himself, when both were very old and infirm: ‘Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years; but we don’t choose to have it known.'”

An image that always makes me happy: the famous opening hat toss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards’s feeling of sudden exhilaration is familiar, but rare and precious.

A memory that always makes me happy: early in our marriage, my husband walked into our bedroom in his boxers and announced, “I am LORD of the DANCE!” and started doing that Celtic dancing. I still laugh out loud every time I think of it. He’s never done it again, though I’ve often begged him for a repeat performance.

I like keeping a mental list of these kinds of things. It’s a way of cultivating an area of refuge.

Do you have any ways to give yourself a quick fix of happiness when you need one?

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