Monday, February 4, 2013

Get Yourself a Cow-Catcher

Anyone who writes knows that it’s entirely too easy to find yourself off-track.  I’m not just talking about digressions within a story-line but even putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Distractions of all sorts surround us, and more often than not our best intentions have not been met because we’ve become sidetracked.

When a sketch artist sits down to draw, he or she will have his paper, pencils and charcoal and shading tools and erasers, proper lighting, etc.  No sketch artist who loves his work will walk over to his drawing, sketch in five or six lines, and then get up to go do something else.  Or even sketch in a few lines and then just sit there thinking about a grocery list or a project at work.  He’ll devote at least thirty minutes of uninterrupted sketching to complete at least a portion of his work.

Writers, or at least the ones I know, tend to be different.  While the overall product of writers and sketchers is similar, i.e. something has been created from nothing, writers must rely on their thoughts and ideas and memories to create.  Most sketchers will have at least a model of some sort to work from, either a photograph or an object like a bowl of fruit.  And therein lies the problem with writers.  Taking what you see and drawing a complex copy of it requires some skill, but what you see will usually never deviate much or at all during the course of a sketch.  Our thoughts, however, are never in a fixed, static state, and thus our writing and direction and focus can constantly change.

I mean no disrespect to people who sketch or paint, by the way.  I love to sketch myself, and yet I’ve always found the art elusive.  A wrong angle here or a line that’s become too long there can totally throw off the finished product, and thus drawing requires a ton of patience and a keen eye that few of us possess.

Yet my point with writing is that our models are constantly shifting.  Add in life, that is,  the time we spend doing things like work, spending time with family, running errands, etc., and our best ideas can often be lost or forgotten.  And thus some of our most compelling thoughts are never written down.

I keep telling myself, “Ryan, you need to get yourself a cow-catcher.”  What I mean by that is that I need to be able to push things aside to pursue my passion and dreams.  I first need to move out all the daily crap I deal with and allot myself the time to sit and write, rather than jotting down a few paragraphs every so often when I have a minute here or there.

And I’m not alone.  Anyone can find a free half hour in a week to set aside for accomplishing something.  I was informed of an incident a while back at a company where a boss, during the final quarter of a year when schedules were hectic, stated that year that nobody had time until the first quarter to do an important hour-long training (that had been annually conducted in the fourth quarter for numerous years prior).  That was 62 business days to work with, or 465 hours, and nobody had one hour (0.2% of the total time) to spare.  Really?  Really??  Seems a bit ludicrous to me, especially when daily people could be seen standing in the halls and chatting about personal stuff or sending emails to friends or even surfing the web for a few minutes.

Anyone who uses the excuse that he/she doesn’t have a half hour or an hour to spare in a week is kidding him/herself.  If you are telling yourself that you don’t have an hour, it sounds like you need to take a step back from your life and make some assessments about how you manage your time.  If you are a workaholic, does that project that is due three months from now really require twelve hours a day from you—in other words, you can’t even spare an hour?  If not, you’re probably overworked or need far better time management skills (and possibly even psychiatric help).  If you watch TV, can’t you pick your least favorite of your favorite shows and stop watching it—or else record the season on your DVR and watch it in the summer when reruns abound? (And if you are that glued to your TV, you may need psychiatric help as well!)  If you are a stay-at-home mom, can’t you run a load of laundry and start dinner at the same time, or maybe even get your kids to help you with mixing or stirring or setting the table?  We ALL can find an hour a week, and probably a whole lot more if we really try.

So once you find the time to write (or exercise or learn to play a musical instrument or whatever it is you are passionate about), the next step is to push aside all of the chaos swirling around in your head and focus.  One of the best ways I know to do this is to deep breathe or meditate.  Inhale 5 seconds through your nose, hold for two seconds, then exhale 5 seconds out your mouth.  Count the seconds, focus only on your breathing, and do this for five or ten minutes.  At the end of that brief time, you’ll find yourself relaxed and hopefully focused enough to begin work.  I’ve been trying to do this any time I’m about to start on something that requires a lot of thought, and I’m always surprised at how well it works.  Picture a math professor’s whiteboard filled with all the formulas from the previous lecture, and imagine if he tried to cram in new equations for your class.  You wouldn’t want that, would you?  No, you’d want a clean slate.  It’s the same principle.

And then, when your mind is free, just write.  Sounds easy enough, but I always get caught up in re-reading my last chapter and editing.  Then when I get to the bottom and should start writing new material, I want to take a break because I’m mentally fatigued from all the editing I just did.  Or else I only have twenty minutes left of the time I’ve allotted myself, and so I make the excuse that I can’t write anything meaningful in twenty minutes.  “Get yourself a cow-catcher, Ryan.”  Push that perfectionist out of the way, forget about re-reading and editing, familiarize yourself with where you left off, and then JUST WRITE.  When I manage to do that, it’s usually at that point that the words start to flow, and before long I’ll have completed a whole chapter.

But there are other obstacles that may be in my way.  I’m fortunate enough through my IT work to have developed some quick fingers.  I’ve seen and heard and read of other writers who struggle with typing.  If you can’t type, and you like to write, ditch the keyboard and pick up a pen.  Someone who types 25 words per minute will ultimately lose their ideas and thoughts because they are spending too long trying to get them out.  And if writing won’t work, get some speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate your thoughts.  It’s akin to someone who loves to exercise but has bad knees or bunions.  You can still exercise, but running may not be the best way to do it.  You can work to improve on physical or mental or emotional limitations, but don’t let them become roadblocks to your accomplishments.

We all have obstacles that prevent us from achieving greatness, like cows standing on the railroad tracks.  So get yourself a cow-catcher, push those obstacles clear of your path, and accomplish something that makes you proud!

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