26 Minutes

I have writing anxiety. Actually, let me restate that: I have WRITING ANXIETY, and one thing I’ve learned is that I am a person who does better, emotionally and project-wise, if I write every day. Yes, this is actually less scary then simply putting my writing off. When I realized this, I became concerned. How would I keep writing? I have friends and acquaintances who write 2 or 4 or 6 or even more hours nearly every day. This is astounding to me. Certainly, when I worked on my dissertation, I had days when I would also write that many hours, and it was sometimes a nightmare.

I am currently working on turning my dissertation into a book for the layperson, especially people who love mysteries and either want to write them or simply read them with more pleasure. This should be easy, right? I’ve laid down the framework with the dissertation, but it hasn’t proven to be as simple as I originally thought it would be. Some chapters were OK, only taking several months to revise (for me that is fast). Others, most infamously Chapter 4, took a year to write. To be fair, I created Chapter 4 out of whole cloth. Chapter 4, the last chapter I finished, was the one that taught me that I need to write every day, and no matter how long I write, all that matters is that I write.

I also learned this lesson by doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2015. I did it unexpectedly, but when Nov. 1 came, I was ready. And I stunned myself by loving it. I ended up doing over 54,000 words, and I did those words, usually in about 20-40  minute sprints a night. Those words added up.

So, for those of you who worry about writing, who always put it off because you don’t have the time, or you worry that you aren’t prepared, I am going to give you the number one tool that works for me, and that is to set the timer (and I prefer using the one on the computer, e.ggtimer.com) for 26 minutes. In 20 minutes, I can write over 1000 words. I may have anxiety, but I am a fast writer; I’m usually pretty fluid and fluent when I get out of my own way.

The 6 minutes I added because something stupid would pretty much always happen just as I was about to begin. A cat would want to be let out; I would need a glass of water; the phone would ring; I could no longer bear the mess of papers around my computer–and I discovered that 6 minutes or less was all it took to take care of whatever crisis emerged.

In 26 minutes (and yes, frequently there is no crisis) I can do well over 1000 words. Is it gold? Is it great prose? Not usually, but I’ve learned in my 20+ years of writing and teaching that there is a lot of crap that has to come out, and it’s better that it comes out in the free writing.

I co-taught with a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, and he loved my free writing exercises and now uses these in his psychology classes. In turn, he explained to me and the classes we taught that one of the values of free writing is that it leads to what he terms “marination.” He says, our brains think about what we have written, so no matter how good or how bad the writing, our brain cogitates on it. The next time we write about the subject, we automatically will have something that is richer and more interesting. Do this cycle enough, and you are bound to have something good.

The other night, I was checking Facebook around 11 PM, and I noticed a post from a former student. She had as her status: “Help! All I want to do is post pictures of puppies, but I need to get this draft written! Somebody tell me what to do!” I immediately replied: “Write for 26 minutes and then reward yourself by posting pictures of puppies.” A few hours later, I noticed that she had pinged me. “Dr. Clark, I don’t like the number 26, so I picked the number 32. I wrote for 32 minutes and finished my draft. Thank you very much! 😉 ”  I loved that!

When I don’t want to write, and that is most of the time, I just tell myself–write for 26 minutes. If you really hate it, you can stop at 10 minutes. I rarely do that–I rarely write for less than 26 minutes, but it is OK to stop when it is unbearable. And I often write for 1/2 hour or even an hour, when I want to, and that is great too.

Anybody, anybody, can write for 10 minutes or 26 minutes. Even you. Try.

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