My Self-Imposed Writing Residency: A (B)log

My cousins, who live in a beautiful house down the street from my own, asked me to house-sit while they were on vacation. I decided to take the opportunity to take the week off from work, and make some serious progress on my book. I'm calling it my self-imposed writing residency. The conditions:

  • Primary activity must be writing.
  • Each morning must consist of work on the novel (afternoons may consist of other writing projects).
  • Secondary activities lasting more than 10 minutes must be related to writing (e.g. submissions, outlining, free-writing, reading/research).
  • No Gchat, no more than 10 minutes of social media per day, no texting for fun (only for logistics purposes).
  • Daily activities must be (b)logged here, for the sake of accountability. 

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Day 1

Morning: Woke up around 6:30. Hunted for coffee. Eventually found some ground espresso. Made breakfast. Put leftover coffee in the fridge for iced coffee later. Installed Chrome extension StayFocusd, which blocks distracting sites after you've been on them for 10 minutes per day. Wrote 1,674 words between ~7:30-10:45 AM, completing Chapter 30. Took a shower and made lunch.

Afternoon: Outlined the next three chapters, which will conclude Part III (of IV). Worked on this (b)log/figured out the terms and conditions of Self-Imposed Writing Residency. Feel a little silly writing daily (b)log but trying to keep in mind that (A) people read crazy things (e.g. other people's food/sex diaries, a la NY Mag), so it is not impossible that a daily writing (b)log could end up being entertaining, but—more importantly—(B) this (b)log is is not primarily for others' entertainment. It is for accountability. Back to work. Started writing the next chapter. Read some William Trevor; took a nap. Got an idea while half-asleep. Wrote some more. Total words written (not including outlining or this (b)log): 2,094 

Day 2

Morning: Woke up late, around 10, made an egg and some coffee. I have afternoon plans today so I have to make the morning count. Wrote 1,575 words between ~10:30-12:45, completing the scene I was in the middle of yesterday, and outlined the rest of the chapter. Remembering as I often do a bit from Hemingway in A Movable Feast about how he'd purposefully stop writing at night when he was in the middle of a scene or idea, so that he could come back to it and jump right back in, in the morning. 

Afternoon: Wrote 652 more words (not including several paragraphs which I wrote and then extracted because they turned out to be an alternate reality I wasn't prepared for). Total for today: 2,227. Surprised that I ended up writing more today than yesterday, since it felt like I worked more total hours yesterday. Then again, maybe I did accomplish more yesterday just thinking and getting into the zone. I don't want to be obsessed with word count. Still, it is one way to track my progress. There is no perfect method.

Day 3

Morning: Woke up early, before 6:30. Quick iced coffee and back to work. I realized the scene I was working on yesterday would be better if I shifted the chronology, so went back into the middle of it to add what should be the vital turning point. Wrote 898-word scene and finished a 1,208-word scene I'd been working on yesterday between 6:30-9:15. The word count is murky—I'm not sure how many words of the latter I wrote yesterday, and how many I wrote today—but let's call it 1,800.

Because I was hosting a dinner party in the evening, I took the afternoon off to prepare. 

Day 4

Started writing around 9:30. My work was cut out for me: I had the rest of Part III all planned out, and expected to finish it today, which would set me up to start Part IV tomorrow. Realized halfway through the morning, though, that I left some loose ends untied. I accidentally left one character out of an ensemble scene where she belonged, and completely forgot about another plot point which needed to be resolved. I spent an hour going back and writing in what I'd omitted, but was left feeling irritated, inadequate, and mediocre. Sometimes this novel feels less like a compelling story than a confusing pile-up of unrelated logistics. The thought itches: What if this book just sucks? I try to counterbalance feelings of inadequacy/mediocrity with a kind of humble doggedness. If it sucks, it sucks, I tell myself. I've come this far. I'm just going to keep on working on it until it's done. I try to remember that, on the plus side, I am still working on it, and sometimes with really intense focus. For example, because the section I'm working on takes place in December, I keep forgetting what month it is in reality. I know it isn't winter. But is it March? September? Who knows. Losing myself this way seems like a good sign.

I've found that I work best in 45-50 minute sittings. Around the 45-50-minute mark I get restless and have to go do something else. Keeping that in mind, rather than taking one long break between the morning and the afternoon, I took more frequent, shorter breaks and kept on working through the afternoon, stopping here and there to read a quick article, take a shower, or eat a snack. Because of the stuff I had to add in, my word count for the day is going to be an estimate. Let's call the total word count 4,287. That's 4,087 for the new scene + the conclusive section of Part III, + an estimated ~200 for what I added in. 

Day 5

I started writing pretty much as soon as I got up, but got distracted by email (against the rules!) and personal concerns (wtf!). Half-ashamed to admit I ended up spending an hour and a half writing to Dear Polly (probably a waste of time!). It can be a struggle keeping my personal life out of the way the way of my creative process. I get frustrated with myself about the fact that I have to keep clearing the weeds out of the way just so I can see the view. I'm tired of always having to clear the weeds. Then again, a friend cheered me with the kind words: "I think purposefully distracting yourself from writing is like the most writerly thing a person can do." And articulating the problem, even if it was in an email no one will ever read, really made me feel better. Must remember that the weeds are real. Maybe writing to the advice columnist was a way of pulling a few of those weeds up for good, and brushing the rest back into place.

After sending the email, I did manage to get through the first scene of Part IV by 2 pm. 1,065 words. After a shower in the afternoon, I wrote some more, did some research for a new character, and made a detailed plan of what the rest of the book is going to look like. Left feeling excited about being able to see where this is all leading, though annoyed that my word count is low. Total for the day: 1,214.

Day 6

Morning: Got up early and was in the chair writing by 8. Because my word count was low yesterday, and because today is the last day, I wanted to get as much done as possible. Wrote a scene. Added in and edited some existing text. Wrote another couple of short scenes. Then imported an older scene from a previous draft. Total: 3,246 words. Got right up to the climactic scene—and then stopped, as if at the edge of a cliff. Distracted myself with a shower, laundry, doing the dishes, and otherwise cleaning up. Eventually I realized I wasn't going to go back to it, and left my cousins' house for good.

All in all

At the beginning of the week I had high hopes for this self-imposed residency. I thought I'd have time to edit a short story I've been working on. I thought I'd be able to finish an application I was in the middle of. I also hoped to actually finish this draft of my novel. I hadn't anticipated the extent to which, when I take time off from "real life," other concerns seep in. I did end up having to spend a bunch of time thinking about other things. Working on my own life, not just the lives of the fictional people I'm writing about. I think it's important that I did that.

I also hadn't anticipated how slowly I would work when I had all the time in the world. When I write in the hour or two before work, I write more quickly, more urgently. When I have more time, my thoughts become slower and richer. I take time to explore their layers and nuances, the depth of their meaning. I stop to read a short story here, a poem there. I let myself get distracted. In distraction, sometimes, there is serendipity and inspiration.

I think it's okay that I stopped just short of the climactic scene. The climax is the most important part of the book, and I think to be as good as I want it to be will require a more time, more thought, more notes, and the incorporation of more serendipitous ideas over the next few weeks. I'm glad I took the time to clear a path toward it. All in all, I wrote the equivalent of 60 pages this week. I developed a new character, and I established a clear path to the end of the book. That's not too shabby.