Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Getting My Shit Together

When the wife split, I remember saying to a friend a couple of months later that I couldn't even conceive of dating again until I got my shit together. My life was just beyond my control, as it always had been. You name it, it was going badly. I figured, though, that I could get things on track given a couple of years.

More than two years later (about six months ago), I resigned myself to the fact that I would never, ever get my shit together. I wasn't any closer than I had ever been and saw no way to suddenly turn it around. I was fucked and that was life.

In the last few weeks, two ridiculously simple things have convinced me that I have finally begun to get my shit together.

Numero Uno: The kanban board. The what now? Well, the mighty and much celebrated (by me, at least. The rest of you will catch on eventually) Grant Stone told me he was doing this personal kanban board thing. I googled it, saw a bunch of post-it notes on a white board, and figured I knew what that was about. I forgot about it. Then he mentioned it again and sent me a link to a site which explained it. Just go look:

Watch the slideshow at the bottom of that post. Then read this page:

And that's it. That's all the knowledge you need. Go get your supplies, get it going, you're golden. I even went cheap, tacking up poster boards instead of a white board. I noticed the transformation in my life within two days. A ton of psychic weight had been lifted off of me. I wrote down every little nagging job that came to me and stuck it on the wall. At a glance, everything that used to be bouncing around in my head, waiting to be forgotten until it was too late, was now up on the board. All I had to do was turn my head. It gave me an organizational tool that was easily available. Before that I had been using a to-do list in Google Docs, which is a pain in the ass to pull up if you don't have your computer on and a pain when you want to change around priorities. It just sucked. Now I'm all color-coded and shit. There are my priorities, there is what I've done, there is my entire back burner from which I can move whatever has to be moved to the front.


Numero Two-o: Freewriting. So that was going swell, but I was running into some writing issues. I have a lot of writing to do, like eight-hundred and sixty-seven more stories (you may have heard of this), plus thirty-one episodes of Beware the Hairy Mango for all you greedies in the month of May. I don't have time to not write. But I wasn't writing. I don't really get writer's block. Not really. What I get is writer's avoidance and I'll bet that's what most writers get when they think about writer's block. It's where you find everything and anything to do that is not writing. Hanging with the family, watching movies, going for walks. Hell, getting things done on the kanban board. And yeah, you can put your writing on the kanban board, but writer's avoidance is so powerful, it can overcome the kanban and everything else on the planet. After a few days, I was getting seriously itchy. Five days into it, I started wondering what it would take to make me get into writing again. I mean excited. I thought back to the Beats. Now those mo-fos were excited about writing. I wanted it to feel cool for me like it did for them, but I wasn't sure how. A couple more days of deep thought and it broke.

Freewriting. That was it. A silly little technique I had learned nearly twenty years ago. It was cool, it was totally Beat and, if nothing else, it would definitely get me writing again. If anyone out there doesn't know what it is, I'll explain it. But if you can get hold of a copy of one of the three holy writing books, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, then do so. Joel Saltzman lays freewriting out, baby.

Here's how it works. Figure out how long you want to write or how many pages you want to write. Sit down and start writing whatever comes into your head, as if you were just talking to someone at a party (a drunk would talk a lot more, I imagine) or just talking to yourself, but on paper or on screen. Talk about the color of the walls or how you'd rather be drinking at a real party right now or how much longer you have until you're done or the price of china for tea. You keep writing, you don't pause, until you've hit your time or page limit.

I usually give myself ten pages. Here's how it went that first day. I was tired. I DID NOT want to screw around with this stuff. I kept telling myself to drop this crap and go to sleep. I wrote all of that down. Then I got really angry and let out my frustration. I hadn't written in a week and here I was, wasting my bloody time on gibberish and clock watching. I had some real shit to write. But I made myself keep going, because I knew if I gave in to that train of thought, I wasn't really going to write good stuff, I was going to go to sleep, or screw around and write a couple of sentences and quit. And then go to sleep.

Here's what's happening at the beginning of freewriting: You're priming the pump. When you have to get an old pump going again, you have to pour water into it because it can't pump air. When you start freewriting, you're pouring words through your fingers in order to get words to keep coming through from your head. You get started and pretty soon it's like you've lubricated some old machinery. It starts working like a dream.

Here's what else you're doing: You're flushing out all of that shit that's been clogging the line for however long you've been avoiding the keyboard. You can write about all of your distractions, frustrations, problems, everything that's been weighing on your mind and once it's out, it's out, sister.

Three pages into this exercise, I found I was finally starting to loosen up, I started writing down positive things because I'd run out of stuff to complain about. My language began to get crazier and ideas started to flow. At that point I wrote about enjoying the process I was experiencing and decided that my tenth page would actually be a page of a first draft that I hadn't touched for a few weeks. And let me tell you, when I hit that page of something-I-hope-to-someday-get-published, it just flowed, man. I accidentally went over my limit. And I completely forgot that all I wanted to do at the beginning of the exercise was go to sleep. This was victory on every mental front.

I got caught up in the job and very little sleep and productivity for a few days, but then I was able to catch up and I jumped back into the writing. I decided to make the writing part of my life the priority, because I sort of have to. If there's work in the morning, I'll work first, because I'm not one of those people who can get up at three in the morning and function, but other than work, eating and bathroom breaks, the writing gets done first. Before the tasks and the fun and the family. I completely understand that this may not be possible to swing for many of you. You don't have to do it my way. I'm just telling you what's working for me.

Now that I've done it for quite a few days, I realize that I only need to freewrite for about two pages before I'm ready to hit whatever else I need to do, but I still shoot for ten pages. This means that I'm writing about 2,500 words a day. In my long history of writing, 250 words has usually been a good day. Or at least one that I'm not embarrassed about. And to be honest, there were a hell of a lot more days of zero words than of 250 words. That's why I've been writing for twenty years but am just now starting to make some progress. Even with the silly blathering, I'm getting eight pages a day of good first draft done. I've stumbled into beginning a novel that I'm pretty excited about. I just threw down another 1,500 words for this post. And I seriously look forward to writing every day.

I think I'm finally beginning to get my shit together.


Diane Severson said...

Did you write this post for me? You could have! I'm trying it. Already have way too many post its in my backlog...

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

That huge backlog just means you really needed that kanban board. Good luck!

Jim Benson said...

This post made my day.

I'm glad you're using Personal Kanban, but more importantly, I'm glad you're incorporating it with freewriting and other tools.

Very happy that it's helping you find a bit of clarity (shit getting-together) and on to whatever may come next.

Anxious to hear about how the freewriting informs what you choose to do and how that builds a better Personal Kanban, which creates less stress, which leads to different styles of freewriting, and so on.

Thanks Matthew,

K T Cat said...

That was a great blog post. I really appreciate the fact that you put up a link to the kanpan board. I'm going to try your suggestion freewriting, too.

Having said that, why all the swearing? It comes across like a voice affectation. It's like you want to show us what a bad dude you are. Your writing flows really well and draws me into it until I come across a swear word.

I think you're a great writer and you don't need to do that.

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Jim, thanks for the comments. I was tickled that the post got your attention and hadn't even considered that linking to the Personal Kanban site would draw your interest. Good to know you in this extremely limited way and thanks for everything Personal Kanban.

K T, thank you too, for your kind words. The swearing is how I talk, and when I'm here, I write like I talk, as the above mentioned book suggests. I appreciate that it puts some people off and there's nothing a person can do to appeal to everyone. If it's possible to sincerely say I'm sorry without changing my behavior in any way, then that's what I'm doing right now, because I respect your point of view and at the same time I also have to be myself. Good luck with your own Kanban board and freewriting!

Elke said...

Hang on. You've been active & eating healthier and all that crap, you've been kicking ass with a story here, there, all over the place, and now you're getting your shit together? Will you accept being my hero now?

Does it follow that you'll now consider putting yourself back in play? Something to consider, perhaps: there's a segment of the female population that is less attracted to a man with all this going on already. Some women have a need to see a clear way to contribute, to be useful, if not to ride right in on a white horse with a sword and shield...well, maybe there's a few women like that. Just a note of caution: watch out for becoming so wonderful that it's intimidating to approach you.

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Don't worry, Elke, I've got issues to spare.

I'm not actively sniffing around, but if something happens, that's cool. Not something I expect, though.

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