On Daily Habits: Thoughts From Our Challengers

Whenever someone joins this Writer’s March, I ask for an exercise that they’d like to
share.  This year, several responses had less to do about one-time things and more about the daily writing people do to help form good habits.  Reading these changed the way I think about exercises. I always thought they something you did when you were stuck or wanting to get started, something that changed every time.  I hadn’t considered the way we could turn the exercise into something that “unsticks” us on a daily basis.

This morning, as we ate breakfast, Randi told me about how habits are formed.  I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t thought of how those habits are related to the processes of our brains.  As Randi explained, rather than thinking about the left and right sides of the brain, think instead of the front and back.  The front of the brain processes information that is new.  That new information, if repeated often enough (30 days, ahem!), moves to the back of the brain to form habits.  Once things are habits, they become easier to do because we no longer have to think about doing them.  On Sunday, she’ll offer more insight on this (specifically on how to break the bad habits), so I don’t want to give it all away, but here on Day 3, I thought it would be cool to see the habits that are already in place.  These are things the rest of us might steal either for the entirety of March or just for the day: Continue reading

The Will to Fail


This winter, Randi and I took a road trip from California to Norman, Oklahoma for the holidays.  It’s a long drive, over twenty-four hours, and we spend most of the time reading to each other.  Randi had picked up  Dorothea Brandt’s How to Wake Up and Live: A Formula for Success that Works.  Brandt’s other book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the most influential in Randi’s early writerly development.

Brandt’s book, as it’s subtitle suggests, is a “formula for success.”  In the introduction, she tells us this formula has changed her life then teases the reader with several chapters before she gives said formula away.  At first, I’d been annoyed – why dangle the “secret” over our heads (for it is, indeed, similar to the “secret” in The Secret), but as Randi read onwards, I began to understand.  A formula can only be useful if you have taken the time to understand its parts.  And this formula had one part in particular that needed explaining: it was, as Brandt called it, the “will to fail.”

friedrich-nietzsche-power-quotes-the-world-itself-is-the-will-toThis will to fail concept is a variation on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” which my old friend SparkNotes explains as a fundamental part of living, the quest to have and be powerful, a need that is “stronger than the will to survive.”  While this will to power can result in conflict, “Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others.”  In other words, it is our desire to be powerful individuals that drives us towarsd self-betterment (or at least this is how I understood it).

Brandt, however, points out that there is something stronger than this “Will to Power” that Nietzsche doesn’t address, and that is the “Will to Fail.”  For pages upon pages, she offers examples of what this will to fail looks like – the person who says they want to travel but blames a lack of money.  The person who wants more from life but is focused on raising a family.  The person who wants to be a writer, but after receiving rejections claims that they’d tried that and the world had dubbed them not good enough.  Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power was usurped by the stronger will to fail.  And so, despite what might seem like success–person A died a beloved member of his community, person B raised three healthy children, person C lived a long, mostly happy life, Brandt argues they fail in their ultimate purpose.

Now, I admit, there is a harshness in Brandt’s observations.  There is, too, a certain privelege that she brings with her as well, and yet, as she described each scenario, I couldn’t help but think of people I knew, each one doing similar things to those in her examples, each wanting but doing little to make changes, each with another reason or rationale for why the changes were impossible.  Each mostly happy and simultaneously dissatisfied with their current state.  Since reading this book, I have come to notice more and more the way my own excuses have become transparent as just that: excuses.

At this point, you may be wondering…This is Day 2 of Writer’s March!?  Why are you talking about failure?   Isn’t this when you would usually inspire us to craft our goals?  To be excited?  But as I think about my own goals for the month, which are still in the formation stage, I can’t help but feel like it is vital that we examine how the will to fail is playing out not just in our daily lives, but in the goals we are setting before us.

So, here on day two, I offer some ideas of self-reflection.  

First, consider the excuses you make for why you don’t write.  Do you recognize them as excuses?  Do you see them as the obstacles they are?  Second, consider your goals so far.  Are we asking enough of ourselves?  Are we asking too much and setting ourselves up for failure?  Are we aware of how capable we truly are in terms of what we can accomplish?

Find some way to offer yourself a reminder and/or clear the obstacles away.  Maybe it is an object or a quote.  Maybe it is a drawing of what these fears look like.  Maybe you hold a ritual and write the excuses on strips of paper, then burn them away.  Whatever you do, I think it is crucial that we face our own will to fail when we set forth on the journey of this month of writing.

…and if you are interested, it might be fun to share them in the comments below.

Then, when you are done, don’t let your meditation on the will to fail become another excuse for why you are not writing.  Get to it.  Tell us how it goes.

…that moment when you think no one is interested…

…but you forgot you created filters in your email…

…and THAT is what happened!  After sending out my previous post, I awaited responses and heard…well, nothing.  I went about my days thinking, man, I guess everyone is too crazy these days!  And then…very very randomly, I happened upon a response hidden in the bowels of my email inbox!  Doh!-Indeed!

Sooo…  you know what?  It’s March first!  So, it isn’t too late!?  Maybe we’ll get a late start, but let’s do it anyway!  For those who are unfamiliar with Writer’s March – it’s easy!  If you want to participate, set a goal for the month.  This goal can be WHATEVER you want, from write at least 1 word a day to Write 1,000 words a day.  People in the past have treated Writer’s March like a Spring NaNoWriMo.  Others as a way to just get the butt in the seat EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.  There is one requirement and one requirement only…As Cheryl Strayed would say…

Want to participate?  There’s a handly little “Join the March” online form.  I’ll take your info and add it to the site in a list of “Current Challengers.”  Want to write a guest blog post?  Let me know!  And for the rest of this month, we’ll invade your inbox with prompts, encouragement, and – perhaps most importantly – a community of other writers committed to the same butt-in-the-seat task! (and I will remember that I have a filter on!  Doh!)

Sooooo, let’s do this!  Join the March!  And just because it’s fun, feel free to also tell us your goals in the comments below!

Marching across the dunes

(Note: There were a few missed messages about who would be writing the farewell post for the last of the month, so here is a ¡Special Bonus! farewell to March, the final “Monday with Bob.”)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Hello! I hope A Writer’s March has been an enjoyable and inspiring experience for you. On this, the final day of the month, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the challenge, not as the end of a process of growth, but as another step in the journey. A chance to pause and catch our breaths and take a look back before continuing this march on into April and beyond. At the beginning of the March, Sam shared a video of a commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. One of the most striking devices Gaiman uses in this speech is the metaphor of the mountain. He gives the directions for anyone who wants to pursue a life in the arts to think of their goals as being on the top of a mountain, and to make decisions—life defining decisions, sometimes—based on what gets you closer to the top of that mountain.

After hearing the speech, I spent nearly a week trying to determine exactly what my mountain was. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t have one. I am wandering—not exactly lost, but without definite purpose—through a desert where my horizon consists entirely of dunes. I clamber up to the top of one dune, slipping in the sand as I go, sometimes getting winded and needing to take a short rest, but getting there eventually. Then I take a look around and—still not seeing any mountains off in the distance anywhere—pick another dune and start the climb all over again. Continue reading

Week 2 – Post 2: Shape it up

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

You may recall last year Sam shared a video of a talk by Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of plot. If you’re new to The March or if you want to refresh your memory, you might want to check it out here. Don’t mind me, I’ll wait. Now, I enjoyed the video immensely and suspect that Vonnegut is pulling our collective leg. However, there was something about the idea of writing stories to fit specific shapes that I found deeply unsettling.

I’m a firm believer that stories should tell themselves, that while broad structures could be useful in giving guideposts to a writer who is lost in a piece, but if the writing is going smoothly it should be allowed to explore. After all, what’s the point of taking a road trip if you don’t get off the Interstate once in a while?

I thought of doing a sarcastic response to this video by charting some of my own work. (Shameless plug in ten… nine…) “What did he plot?” you’re probably thinking. Well, I’m glad you asked. I decided to plot the first section from my book of short plays. Ok, was that too shameless? Perhaps, but it is pertinent. At no point when I was writing any of these plays was I thinking of structure, and yet each one is—to me, anyways—very satisfying.

At first I thought I’d just draw a random mess of lines on a page and call it a plotting of that section of plays, but struck by a sudden and inexplicable bout of honesty I decided to do my best to accurately chart each one of the 33 short plays according to Vonnegut’s grid. I mean, what if I’ve so internalized the “boy gets girl” shape or the “man in a hole” shape that I’m writing them without even thinking of it? What if I’d charted out my plays and found them clustering around those few tried-and-true curves? It would seem to invalidate my argument, don’t you think? I sat down with the manuscript and three different colors of pens. Here’s what happened: Continue reading

Day 1: Three Things to Know About Setting Writing Goals

Oh, man!  You’re here.  I am so excited to see you.  Welcome to Day 1.  Now, Let’s get down to it.  Here’s three things to know about setting and keeping goals:

#1:  Research Shows that Writer’s March is a Good Idea

cue sad attempt at key metaphor...

cue sad attempt at key metaphor…

In 2011, Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychologist from the Dominican University, conducted a study to find out how setting, writing, and communicating goals affected goal outcome.  One hundred and forty-nine educators, artists, vice presidents, bankers, and a slew of other occupations (aged 23-72) from Japan, England, Belgium, India, and the United States were divided into the following 5 groups:

  • Group 1: Participants who did NOT write down their monthly goal (they communicated it verbally)
  • Group 2: Participants who wrote down their monthly goal
  • Group 3: Participants who wrote down their monthly goals AND identified steps to achieve this goal (steps such as daily goals…)
  • Group 4: Participants who wrote down their goals, identified needed steps, AND communicated this information to a friend.
  • Group 5: Participants who wrote down their goals, identified steps, communicated their goals to a friend, AND updated that friend (weekly!) on their progress.

(Did anyone else feel like they were reading a menu from a Vietnamese Pho Restaurant?)  The results?

  1. Group 5 kicked ass.  Why?  Because 76% of its participants were able to achieve their monthly goal (compared to the 41% of Group 1).
  2. Writing friends kick ass.  Its probably not news to you, but when we tell a friend a goal, we are more likely to achieve it.  Perhaps we are afraid of letting the friend down?  Or, perhaps our friends are good at kicking us in the pants.
  3. Writing down your goals (also) kicks ass.  It is important to note that every other group did a whole lot better than Group 1 (the verbal goal communicators).  Writing down those specific goals really does makes a difference.

So its official: this Writer’s March thing is a scientifically-certified* endeavor.  The next time you talk to someone who is not participating, know that YOU are 30% more likely to get more writing done this month than they are.  Feel free to rub this in their faces.

#2:  The “Best” Goals Are Measurable, Attainable, and Meaningful

DSCN2933There are a number of different websites that will give you all kinds of advice on setting goals.  I like the one offered by Moira Allen mostly because it is the most simple:

  1. When setting your goal, be sure it is measurable.  Not sure what yours should be?  Think in numbers:  “I want to write ___ words by the end of the month.”  “I want to write ___ pages every day.”  “I want to write ___ poems/day.”  “I want to write for ___ minutes/day.”  Don’t have a big goal?  Remember that the monthly goal can be the daily act of writing itself.
  2. Break down your goals into attainable steps (daily goals).  In teaching, we call this backwards planning.  In football, they call it making the first down.  Allen points out that “attainability also means recognizing what is physically possible in the world of writing.”  She advocates to be “honest” and “realistic” with yourself.  Thus, if you are not already in the habit of writing daily, perhaps starting with 5 hours/day is a bit much?  Don’t be afraid of starting simple.
  3. Finally, and this is my favorite: the goal should be meaningful.  It sounds straightforward, but believe me, by day 27, sometimes remembering that the task at hand means something is the only thing that gets me through.

#3  We Aren’t so Much Different Than (Pavlov‘s) Dogs

They say that it takes 30 days to build a habit, so go easy on yourself as you work through the month.  For me, the aim of this endeavor is not perfection but the habit forming process.  And so, as we start the March, here’s some tips for building habits:

  • DSCN3925Use a trigger.  Pavlov rang a bell and his dogs salivated.  The bell became synonymous with the approach of food.  Why not use this knowledge to your advantage.  Some people light a candle to signal writing time.  Others drink wine.  Many writers advocate strongly for an egg timer (set it for 15 minutes and go!).  Personally, I like toast and coffee.  Find something you like.  Use the thing to trigger the writing.
  • Write at the same time, in the same place.  Your environment can act as a trigger as well.  Why not use…a desk, a coffee shop, the angle of the sun…to train your psyche.  I’m also a fan of leaving all  non-writing tasks OUT of that space (that goes for you teachers and yer shtinkin’ grading…).
  • Take away temptation.  For writers, the Internet can mean death to your work.  Perhaps you disconnect your Internet (which also might be a trigger!).  Maybe you take a 1-month hiatus from Facebook.  If you are someone who likes to clean instead of write, maybe you clean the house/dishes at night so you can wake up and go right to it.  You know the things that keep you from working (that’s you, TV watchers).  Why not suspend your cable for a month?  Why not turn off those smart phones?  Why not check your email only AFTER you’ve finished with your task.
  • Change the way you think.  I’ve heard it said: avoid saying things like “I should…” or “I have to…” and replace these ticks with phrases like “I get to…” or “I want to…” (as in, “I get to write today” instead of “I have to write today”) I also think we should all eradicate the word “can’t” from our lexicon…  Seriously.  Stop it with the can’t already…

Whatever you do, take control of the goal or the goal will control you (doesn’t that sounds like a final message from GI Joe?)

Ahem, so what now?

If you haven’t yet, you can officially JOIN THE MARCH by clicking HERE, and I’ll add you to the OFFICIAL CHALLENGERS PAGE.  Everyone else: stop reading this, set up your trigger, and go write.

*this statement has not been approved by the FDA, but that doesn’t mean its not true.

Calling All Writers! 2013 Writer’s March is HERE!

Goodbye, February!  Hello, March!

This is your inner artist begging to be let out.  Notice how nicely it is asking for a treat...

This is your inner artist begging to be let out. Notice how nicely it is asking for a treat…

Dust off your computers.  Buy a new set of pens.  Set your excuses aside.  I warned you this was coming.  Tomorrow: Writer’s March.  Be there or be:

      • sad you didn’t participate
      • mad at yourself for not writing (again)
      • tired of always putting everything else first (again)
      • one of those people who talks more about writing than actually does it (again)
      • square (again!)

Writer’s March:  SIGN UP!!!  Not only is it free, but imagine how much money you’ll save because you’ll spend all your free time writing…

The Challenge (if you choose to accept it) is simple:

1.  Make a commitment to write every day this month. The trick here is that you set your own standards.  Whether its 15 minutes a day or 5 hours a day, you know your schedule and you should keep it.  Whatever you do, push yourself, but make it achievable.  Skip watching television.  Give up that extra hour of sleep in the morning.  Whatever it is, if you want the time, you have it.  All excuses aside.

2.  Decide upon a monthly goal. So maybe you want to finish a draft of your novel.  Or maybe you are a poet and you want to write a poem a day.  Or a short story writer who wants one solid, ready-to-submit story.  Whatever the goal.  Set it now, the beginning of the month, and then work every day to achieve it.

Yes, that's right, it says "I want something else to get me through this."  I don't know.  It seemed fitting...

Yes, that’s right, it says “I want something else to get me through this.” I don’t know. It seemed fitting…cue the song!

3.  Find a writing companion (or make this blog your companion) and check in every day. I had a teacher who required writing partners.  The task: to agree on a time to write every day and call the friend up, commit to the two hours (or three or five) with them, and then call them back when you are done.  I had friends in high school who used to do this when they were running.  5am every day before high school, and the only way they could keep going was by knocking on each other’s window.  Why not do the same?

If you are interested in officially participating in this year’s challenge, please CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE MARCH. I’ll add your name and goals to our challenger’s page: just one more way to hold yourself accountable (you’re welcome).

Changes to this year’s March:

While the idea and the posts will, more or less, be the same, this year, I am looking for more voices of encouragement.  If you’d like to write a blog post to share:

  • your favorite writing excercise(s)
  • the best writing advice you’ve ever received
  • things you do to get you through this…

Please email me at writersmarch@gmail.com.  I’m also very much interested in any interviews or articles or other informational bits you encounter about writing, the writing process, this writing life.

Finally, I also want to add a page for Challenger Accomplishments.  If any of your March writings have been/are published and you want some free publicity, send me that information as well!

March Arrives in T Minus 9 Days and Counting

The month of February is coming to a close, and that means that March is right around the corner.  I am looking forward to warmer days, a spring break visit to California, and this year’s Writer’s March.  I thought that now would be a good time to send out an anticipatory post.  Time to start crafting those writing goals.

For those unfamiliar with A Writer’s March, the idea is simple:  set a writing goal and work every day during the month of March to achieve it. The goal can can be whatever you like–two short stories you’d like to submit to literary magazines, 30 newly drafted poems, 100 revised pages of a novel, seven stellar songs….  The idea here is to think about what you’d like to have completed by the end of the month.  Your goal should challenge , but it should also be do-able.  Even the goal of writing for 20 minutes a day is admirable if that is all you can find.  For me, the importance here is not to exhaust yourself or beat yourself up, but to hold yourself accountable.  You make the promise and then you keep it.  Its as simple as that.  Oh yeah, and I’ll post some things here on the blog–bits of writing advice, prompts, jokes, stories of my own.  You can read the posts, share your own tales and woes, and we’ll go from there.

Why do this?

Today, as I ate tomato soup and leftover naan, I encountered Young-ha Kim’s TED Talk titled “Be an artist, right now!”  Translated from Korean, the main point of Kim’s talk is that we are all born artists and need to embrace art in our life, even when–especially when–it doesn’t seem practical. As he points out, as young children, we draw with crayons on walls, dance and sing in public, play house (aka perform mini-dramas).  We build sandcastles next to waves, not caring that the ocean will soon break the whole thing down.  Why?  Because it is fun.  Because it brings us joy.

“Unfortunately,” Kim points out, “the little artists within us are choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art.  They get trapped in.  That’s our tragedy.” Without art, he explains, our artistic desires reveals itself in dark forms: karaoke bars, crowded clubs, and jealousy.  “We get jealous because we have little artists pent up inside us.”

While Kim’s talk is aimed towards an audience of “non”-artists, I found his message to be inspiring even for those who have more fully dedicated themselves (and their pocket-books) to the craft. I also enjoy his ideal version of the world: a place where someone might be a golfer by day and a writer by night, or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter.  For what is art for?

It saves our souls and makes us happy.  It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.  So in response to such a pragmatic question [i.e. “What for?’], we need to be bold.  “Well, just for the fun of it.  Sorry for having fun without you.”

This will be a fun month.  Together, we’ll get a lot of words written.  We’ll create.  We’ll let the little artists out for some fresh air.  The weather is going to get warmer, after all.  Why not join in?  (No, really.  Click HERE to join the March…)

Additionally, if anyone is interested in blogging with me this month, please let me know (writersmarch@gmail.com)! 

Day 1: Set Your Goals

Since last year’s Writer’s March, I’ve been thinking a lot about goals.  What makes a goal “Good”?   For the purposes of this Writer’s March, I would like to define a “good” goal as a goal that is, above all else, “achievable.”

4 things to keep in mind when setting your GOAL

Start Small but Don’t be Afraid to Push Yourself

If you aren’t already writing daily, don’t jump into five hours/day.  I was writing an hour a day consistently, and when I bumped myself up to 90 minutes, I struggled to keep it.  I grew discouraged, and as a result, I stopped writing.  Don’t let that happen to you.  If all you can do is 15 minutes/day, don’t be afraid to say it.  Chances are that you’ll write for much longer anyway.  Remember, the purpose of Writer’s March is to find a way for writing to fit into your life.  They say that it takes 30 days to create a habit.  Why not make the habit a goal as well?

That said: whenever you sit down to write, aim for more.  Can the 15 minutes become 30?  Can the 30 become an hour?  Just because you’ve set a goal, doesn’t mean you can’t surpass it at every chance you get.

Be as SPECIFIC as Possible.  

They say that goals are better achieved if they are measurable.  In other words, if possible, make your goals concrete.  Here are some of the Current Challenger goals posted so far:

  • Melanie Unruh’s Monthly Goal: To write 4 stories in the month
  • Lenore Gusch’s Monthly Goal: To write a short story
  • Teresa E. Gallion’s Daily Goal: To write a poem a day

What I envy about those training for marathons are the way they are always advertising their running times and training schedules.  Ran six miles today.  Ran ten miles today.  Think of the daily goals as the same thing: what are you doing each day (writing and for how long?),  and what is your version of the marathon (a novel, a story, a single poem)?  And don’t forget: the act of building a writing habit is also an excellent monthly goal.

Once the Goals Are Set: Keep Them!

When I was at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2010, the question posed at every reading was this: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? John Dufresne, fiction writer and author of Is Life Like this?, gave this advice:  KEEP YOUR BUTT IN THE SEAT.

These are words I have heard so often I can no longer count them.  The first time was through Greg Martin in a Creative Non-Fiction workshop.  Greg advocated for a minimum of 3 hours/day for his MFA Graduate students.  He firmly believed that even if you couldn’t write a word, you had to sit there anyway.  As Greg put it, you are training your body to write the same way a runner trains his/her body.  You sit there staring so that the next time, when the inspiration strikes, you are ready for it.  If you’d like to hear more about Greg’s theory, you can visit his famous TREADMILL JOURNAL (for writers).

And finally: Don’t Let the Goal Stand in for the Task

Derek Sivers in this Ted Talk says it best:

According to Sivers:

“Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal make it less likely to happen.  Anytime you have a goal, there [is]…some work that needs to be done to be done in order to achieve it.  Ideally, you would not be satisfied until you have actually done the work, but when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that…the mind is tricked into the feeling that it’s already done, and then once you feel that satisfaction you are less motivated to do the hard work necessary.”

In a way, perhaps this Ted Talk is saying that Writer’s March is a bad idea.  But I don’t think you have to look at it this way.  Especially when, at the end, he says that if you must say your goals out loud,

state it in a way that gives you no satisfaction.  Such as, I really want to run this marathon so I need to train five times a week and kick my ass if I don’t, okay?

In others, rather than focusing on the end result, focus on the difficult path (because writing daily is not easy).   But whenever possible: STAY SILENT.  For my purposes, I’ll keep my thoughts about my novel to myself.  And if you must talk about your writing, why not talk about Writer’s March (…ahem…shameless promotion…)

Got a Goal?

If you want your name and your goal to be on the “official” Challengers Page, please SIGN UP TO JOIN THE MARCH.

The March Begins TOMORROW!

Dust off those writing desks.  Throw procrastination out with the trash (along with bad metaphors).  Got a novel to finish?  A short story to write?  An essay?  A string of poems?

Tomorrow is March 1st and with it comes the 2012 Writer’s March, a writerly month with a single purpose: to keep your butt in the seat one spring day at a time.

The Challenge is simple:

1.  Make a commitment to write every day this month. The trick here is that you set your own standards.  Whether its 15 minutes a day or 5 hours a day, you know your schedule and you should keep it.  Whatever you do, push yourself, but make it achievable.  Skip watching television.  Give up that extra hour of sleep in the morning.  Whatever it is, if you want the time, you have it.  All excuses aside.

2.  Decide upon a monthly goal. So maybe you want to finish a draft of your novel.  Or maybe you are a poet and you want to write a poem a day.  Or a short story writer who wants one solid, ready-to-submit story.  Whatever the goal.  Set it now, the beginning of the month, and then work every day to achieve it.

3.  Find a writing companion (or make this blog your companion) and check in every day. I had a teacher who required writing partners.  The task: to agree on a time to write every day and call the friend up, commit to the two hours (or three or five) with them, and then call them back when you are done.  I had friends in high school who used to do this when they were running.  5am every day before high school, and the only way they could keep going was by knocking on each other’s window.  Why not do the same?

If you are interested in participating in this year’s challenge, please CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE MARCH.  I’ll then add you to the “official” Current Challengers Page.