There are wonderful things about the freelance life and being my own boss. For instance, I set my own hours. In the winter, this usually means working early and late so that I can be outdoors during the relative warmth in the middle of the day. In the summer, it’s the reverse: I row my single scull early in the morning and don’t show up at my desk until ten. And then there’s the matter of dress code. Mine makes corporate America’s Friday Casual look like haute couture. But the hardest, by far, is the issue of just showing up.
This is easy when I have a deadline with a paycheck dangling behind it. But then, I’m not really my own boss – I’m the pen hired by a client, writing to specs. But showing up to write fiction? That’s when being my own boss can be tough.
For one, it’s lonely. There are neither co-workers to complain to or about. There’s no office gossip. And there’s no one to motivate me when I’m in a slump or to reprimand me when I shirk my desk all together. This is especially true when it comes to writing a novel, which can take years to draft and more years before it’s published. I’ve never received a cold call from a perspective client saying, “I need an 80,000- word novel right away!”
But I’ve been writing novels – both published and unpublished – for a long time. Over the years I’ve developed different strategies for coping with the inevitable slump when I wonder, Why bother? One is to read the Help Wanted Ads. There are days when I think about going to work at a burger joint, or a bakery, or anywhere else but home.
Another strategy was to schedule a weekly lunch date with a fellow writer to set weekly goals, but that’s petered out. These days, I attend a weekly workshop, where I write with the delicious synergy of other writers, including poets and songsters, memoirists, and story-spinners like myself. It’s glorious, and it always picks me up, helps me keep writing along.
But during the recent and difficult process of finding my way into Ellen, the tentative title for the book I’m working on now, I’ve come up with a series of no-fail exercises that help me show up, sit down, and write.
The first I adapted from Joan Dempsey’s Literary Living. It goes like this: I show up at my desk and start the day with N.A.M.S.
N is for Narrate.
I’ve been journaling since I was nine, and keeping an electronic journal since Microsoft Word came out for the Mac, in 1984. Before that, I used to type – on a typewriting machine. So narrating how I arrive at my desk is how I start my day. It’s a way of talking to myself about all the static of laundry, bills, spousal discord, unhappy kids, sick chickens, the weather. Whatever. It’s a license to kvetch, if necessary, as if I were talking to a co-worker about my existential despair. I spill it all out, typically in a few hundred words.
A is for Affirmation.
Next, I write affirmations. This doesn’t come easy. For years, my self-talk went something like, “Deb, self-pity is a character flaw. Get over it!” But that didn’t seem to help. So now I try to remember what I accomplished the previous day. I list every victory over turpitude and sloth, regardless how miniscule. Washed my face? Terrific! Sat down at my desk at 8? Fabulous! Worked through the temptation to eat lunch at ten? Excellent! Produced x-number of words, researched necessary information, advanced the plot? Another superlative day! Like any skill, I’m getting better at affirmations with practice. And I can tell you from my own experience: the carrot is much more effective than the stick. Also: it’s never too late to learn positive self-talk.
M is for Meditate.
I used to count my journaling as writing meditation, but recently, I’ve started sitting cross-legged on the floor and paying attention to my breath. I started doing this for five minutes (setting a timer), then six, seven, eight – until I could sit still for ten. Each day I added a minute, and each day I’ve been surprised by two things: the time seems to go by faster, and my mind is sharp and clear when time’s up.
S is for Single Task.
I’m now ready to Single Task: do one thing with my full attention. I’m amazed at how much I can get done when I set my mind to it. And when the first thing on my list is finished, I move on to the next.
NAMS is one of several motivational techniques I’ve learned to use as my own boss. In my next post, I’ll explain another technique I’ve learned to nip procrastination in the bud.