This is an e-mail I received on Friday, January 4, 2013:
The alarm rang at 4:45 AM.
I fell asleep at 12:30 AM, but if you’d asked me if I got any sleep, I could have passed any polygraph.
There was no reason for me to get up for at least two more hours…except that mornings are the best time for me to write. Once my 3-year-old wakes up, once I check my email, once I go to work, then there are thousands of distractions pulling me away from my script. But before the sun comes up, tired or not, it’s just me and my story.
So I stumbled out of bed, sat at my desk and stared at my notebook.
Psst. Come here. My bed called to me. The sofa called to me. Hell, even the floor called to me. But I stayed focused and waited.
Why not sleep now and write during lunch? Or sleep now and write after dinner…I’ve got nothing planned, right?
I checked my watch. It had been 45 minutes and I hadn’t written a single word. My thoughts weren’t even in coherent sentences.
I grabbed my pen and forced myself to write down a question to focus on: Why does my protagonist do _____?
C’mon…it’s freezing out here. The bed will be soft and warm. You’re not even thinking straight. You’re better off sleeping than trying to write.
I started writing down what I already knew. Re-organizing my thoughts. Seeing if I had missed any threads when suddenly, quietly, an idea popped in my mind. What if…?
The solution to a long-standing problem in my story fell onto the page. I quickly wrote it down and smiled.
And the bed stopped calling my name.
Today, I’m going to give you the secret to success…Do what you don’t want to do.
Not once. Not grudgingly.
Regularly and happily do what you don’t want to do.
If you want to get fit, you have to eat healthy — and not eat all the tasty junk food you really want to splurge on — day after day after day. You also have to exercise regularly and push yourself out of your fun, relaxing comfort zone (each time).
Sure, everyone wants a salad sometimes but only the people who eat the salad when they really want the fettucini alfredo will be healthy.
And everyone likes to work up a sweat sometimes, but you’ll never lose that weight if your fitness regime depends on the weather, your workflow, your family, and what side of the bed you woke up on.
This is how life works.
And when I say do what you don’t want to do, I don’t mean something mildly tedious. I’m talking about doing something painful, boring, upsetting, and exhausting.
It’s eating healthy even when your junk food cravings scream in your ears, when your brain works overtime to convince you that that apple-nut muffin is healthy because it has apples in it. It’s pushing yourself to exhaustion at the gym again and again when all you really want to do is put on sweatpants and watch Food Network. It’s sticking to your diet even when your friends and family are pressuring you into breaking it so they don’t have to feel bad about their own choices.
Success is doing what you don’t want to do.
The same is true of writing.
If you want to improve your writing, you have to learn how to write even when you don’t want to.
And not once, or a few times at New Year’s, or after a long cold spell…but every day .
We’ve all had hot streaks. You know those days when you’re on fire and crank out 10 incredible pages. Or the three weeks when you finished an entire script.
The joy and power and possibility felt during those streaks may be why you fell in love with writing in the first place. But the real writers, the ones who go on to become professionals, are the ones who move beyond that “kid in the candy store” mentality and focus on the long-term.
Do what you don’t want to do.
That motto also sums up deliberate practice — that focused, repetitive, exhausting training that turns amateurs into masters. It’s the difference between playing a pick-up game of basketball on the weekend vs. spending hours every afternoon practicing dribbling, passing, and lay-ups. It’s the difference between kicking back with your favorite movie vs. spending hours tearing it apart, scene by scene, pen in hand, to see how it really works.
How does this really work?
Again, it helps to look at health and fitness.
Healthy people eat right and exercise every day because they don’t judge an activity (should I eat this?, should I go for a jog?) based on how it will make them feel in the next 10 minutes. They ask if that activity aligns with their long-term goals and act accordingly.
What’s their secret? How can someone always say “NO” to cake and “YES” to broccoli?
Here is it: If you consistently do what you don’t want to do, it gets easier. It becomes a habit. Then it becomes who you are.
Instead of forcing yourself to eat salad instead of fettuccini alfredo, you become the kind of person who wants to eat salad.
Instead of forcing yourself to sit at your desk trying to write even though you’re stuck, you become the kind of writer who enjoys the hard, lonely process of turning an idea into an entertaining, artistic story.
There are a 1,001 reasons why you couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t do that thing you don’t want to do. If only our brains were as good at being supportive as they are at rationalizing why we don’t have to stay committed to our goals.
But if we step back, we’ll see that tomorrow, or next month, or next year — none of our rationalizations will matter. All we’ll have is the results of our choices. The food we ate or didn’t eat. The exercises we did or didn’t do. The pages we wrote or didn’t write.
Here’s to a year of doing what you don’t want to do!
P.S. Tell me — what are you going to do this year that you don’t want to?
As a continuum from my last post, well, the old bug-a-boo did get me. I succumbed; I admit it. With hindsight as a great little nag (I told you so, I told you so); I see how I went astray. Not making excuses, just understanding how/why it went wrong to avoid getting off track in the future. We all have life pressures; at times they’re more intense, so feel free to trade in your own for mine and let’s start from there.
On that morning, feeling guilty for not doing what I knew I should be doing… but doing it anyway–surfing the Internet (the bug-a-boo embodied in my world) and reading e-mail, I opened the one from Ryan. He’s a screenwriter I somehow found surfing the Internet (Good things can be found there.) and I signed up for his newsletter at Master the Craft. I highly recommend it. (There’s another site I also recommend, but not wanting to dilute Ryan’s message, will save that for a future post.)
Bottom line; loved his message and now, almost every morning that I don’t feel like jumping up and writing, I hear his voice. (You can too, if you want to listen to one his You Tube two minute tips like: How Do You Find The Time And Energy To Write Every Day?)
Anyway, I found his letter particularly helpful and asked to share it with you. He said “Yes.” so here it is. Hope you find it helpful, too. ~ Gayla
Amen! I might add, read something, like his letter, that inspires or convicts you every day. It sometimes gives the little push that even good intentions need.
Thanks, Candace; yes, I’ve reread his letter a number of times; sometimes before I go to bed. 🙂
That voice is always driving me crazy! I just read an article (can’t remember from where) that said the best thing to do is not to make New Year’s resolutions but incrementally improve yourself. Like, if you never exercise, exercise for just 5 minutes and add a minute every day or so – one doesn’t get discouraged. This is from a psychologist – not a self help guru. Anyhoo – glad you’re writing again.
Thank you, Paula! Always like to hear your thoughts!
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