Asking an author if she tends to procrastinate when writing is like asking Lorelai Gilmore if she likes coffee.
Why do I bring up Lorelai in the first sentence of this advice column?
Well, you see, she has – quite literally – been in my ear these last few days. Ever since I bought Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between), her most recent book and memoir, I haven’t been able to tear myself away from my Audible app, finding various cleaning projects around the house in order to prolong my stints of guilt-free listening. The kitchen counter has never been this sparkly.
Also, Lorelai, I mean Lauren Graham, is the one who inspired today’s topic. The advice I’ll be relaying further down is verbatim from Talking as Fast as I Can.
Of course I didn’t buy it looking for advice. I bought it because Lauren Graham is funny. Which of course you’ll know if you, like me, have watched every episode of Gilmore Girls. But not every actor who is funny on screen is also funny in real life. After all, their TV role is scripted. But if there ever was a TV role meets real life person match made in heaven, it’s this one. Lauren admits as much herself.
I came late to Gilmore girls, my own daughters recently having convinced me to sit with them to watch all 7 seasons, and then more. But I honestly think that even without ever having watched Gilmore Girls, I would have loved Lauren’s voice in this book, whether in print or audio. If you know her as Lorelai, the audio is a must.
I think it’s her self-deprecating humor that is so entertaining. She relays a story from when she was an apprentice actress and did an audition. The audience was soon convulsed in laughter, and in a matter of seconds she had the wildest fantasies of a future life of stardom going through her head, only to come crashing down after she had finished when she learned that what she mistook as cheering was actually laughter at a blunder she made. The book is full of such anectdotes, but it digresses in a million different directions in her stream of consciousness style of writing, as if she’s having a conversation with you at the kitchen table. In fact, she sounds very much like Lorelai, so you wonder how much Lauren’s personality actually inspired Lorelai’s. Or wait, is it the other way around?
But I promised you advice, not a book review. Hearing from other writers about their “secrets to writing” is somewhat of an obsession of mine. Every time I go to an author reading – of which there are plenty to be had in Nashville, home to Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books – and the forum opens up to questions or it comes time to join the queue for an autograph, I ask the author to share what his or her typical writing day looks like, or how they go about laying out the structure of a new book.
Not surprisingly, authors cannot be pigeonholed. Some, like J.K. Rowling – not that I have, in fact, ever spoken to her directly – have the entire structure of an entire seven part series laid down before they pen the first sentence, and keep dossiers of character profiles much like an intelligence officer would. Others, like Stephen King, have a certain scene pop into their head like, say, a person filling their car with gas, and proceed to write down this single scene, from which an entire book follows, much to their own surprise, with characters they had not even conceived of at the outset.
In fact Stephen King is the one whose advice in On Writing I have been following for the last several years. I’ve been pursuing my goal of writing at least 1,000 words a day and have slavishly logged my word count in a special spreadsheet. Except I only ever reached my goal of averaging 1,000 words a day for an entire month in October of 2014. Lately, I’ve been hovering around 250 or less.
And totally out of the blue, here comes Lauren Graham and offers the very sophisticated… wait for it… Kitchen Timer Method! By her own admission it’s not her invention but that of Don Roos, a screenwriter and friend of a friend of hers who up until now I’d never heard of.
Here is Don’s sage advice via Lauren (via Google Books):
The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and do-able way of being and feeling successful every day.
To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. We set up a goal for ourselves as writers which is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.
HERE’S HOW IT WORKS:
- Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes. Or use a timer app. Or tell Siri to start a timer for 60 minutes.
- We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day, but a half hour is also good, or twenty minutes. Some of us make appointments in our calendars for these hours, as if they are lunch meetings or business calls.
- The Kitchen Timer Hour:No phones. No texts. We silence our ringers; we turn our phones facedown. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. “I was on an hour” is something they learn to understand. But they will not respect it unless we do first.No music with words, unless it’s a language we don’t understand. Headphones with a white noise app can be helpful.No internet, absolutely. We turn off our computer’s Wi-Fi.No reading.No pencil sharpening, desk tidying, organizing.
- Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don’t have a project we’re actively working on, we just open our journal.
- An hour consists of TIME SPENT KEEPING OUR WRITING APPOINTMENT. That’s it. We don’t have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen or the page. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, what we ate for dinner, even “I hate writing” typed four hundred times.When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don’t take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it will rarely happen that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it’s fine, good, and right if it does. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.
- It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half or quarter-hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.
- When the hour is up, we stop, even if we’re in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again — to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours; the “I’m sorry I can’t see anyone or leave my house, I’m on a deadline” method. Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.
- If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have probably scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write two hours and didn’t make it, we schedule a shorter appointment for the next day. We don’t add an hour to “make up” or “catch up.” We let the past go and move on.
- When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.
- A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, and the stilling of that hectoring voice inside of us which used to yell at us that we weren’t writing enough — all this opens us up creatively.
Does it work?
You be the judge. I dare you to give it a try, starting tomorrow. Surely you can find an hour, or even 30 minutes, in your busy day. The trick is to do exactly as she says and turn off all distractions. And tell your family what you’re up to so they know to leave you alone. I’ve made a DO NOT DISTURB sign for my door.
I for one can say that in just a few weeks I’ve made more progress on my Book Two manuscript than in the last year. The trick is to sit down regularly, and to focus on process rather than outcome. Sitting down to write is what should count as success, not the output of words. Which can get a bit ridiculous if you’re like me and like to cheat yourself, say, by including the word count from the email you sent to your child’s teacher.
If you have a book in you, or a half-written manuscript begging to be finished – if only to move on to your next project which is the story you really want to write – then grab the old kitchen timer and get to work. You will love it because you’ll feel successful every single day for keeping your appointment, and minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day you will crank out your project faster than you ever thought possible.
As a wise guide leading me up the world’s tallest freestanding mountain once told me: Pole pole, one step at a time. But you gotta take the steps, folks – no one ain’t carrying you up that mountain!