Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Works

School started last week and, after depositing my kids in their classrooms, sharp new pencils and backpacks stowed safely, the week stretched before me--a full thirty-five hours to write uninterrupted if I could just ignore the phone, the laundry, the lure of the supermarket.* Not that I was kidding myself; I knew I was never going to spend that much time writing, or even rewriting. But I did have high hopes for getting in a good couple hours each day, establishing my new fall routine.

I didn't write a word.

And why? Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, I'll tell you why: because I kept trying to work in a way that just doesn't work for me.

I've got two finished manuscripts under my belt, and I'm a few thousand words in on my WIP, and of those hundreds of thousands of words, probably fewer than ten thousand were written directly to my computer, or even in my home. I have to leave my house, lugging a spiral notebook and a clutch of pens to some coffee joint, buy myself office space in the form of a two dollar cup of coffee, and then stare into space until the first sentence forms and gives me the impetus to pick up the pen and begin.

That's how I write. It's how I've written for the past four years, since my daughter was in pre-K and I eyed the bagel shop across the street from her school and committed to getting serious, and finally writing instead of thinking about it. I know this about myself: if I get to the bakery, if I buy the coffee, if I plunk my rear end into a chair, I'll stab out words. Maybe not the famed two thousand words a day we all dream of, but what I think of as a section. Sometimes that's a whole chapter, sometimes it's not, but it always begins with a sentence and ends with a sigh, usually accompanied by the triumphant fling of the pen onto the notebook, a satisfying clatter that has come to mean accomplishment to me.

And then my day is made. Doesn't matter what comes next, it's a good day: I wrote. I can clean my house, exercise, read, go to a movie, volunteer at school, indulge myself in half a dozen markets--whatever comes next, I've done my work.

So why the heck didn't I do that even once last week?

The only answer I have is that I tried to do it differently.

"I'll write at home," I thought.

"I should be able to write from home," I said.

"I can do this," I shouted to the empty room.

But I didn't.

What's wrong with doing what works? Ten bucks a week is pretty cheap real estate, and it comes with free coffee. It's the opposite of shame, having a successful method, so why am I reluctant to pull on my yoga pants and just do what works?

Yesterday and today I did. While the kids ate their waffles, I threw on street clothes so I'd have no excuse to return home. Headed directly from school drop-off to the closest coffee shop, and sure enough, two good sections emerged. Which pretty much always happens when I sit down in the right place, ready to work.

This is what I have to remember: Do what works. And then repeat and repeat and repeat and guess what? One day you've completed a manuscript. The rewrites I'm able to do at home, yes, on my desktop in my green swivel chair--in fact, the transformation from notebook to computer is my second draft. But the work of writing, for me, is out, away, over a cup of coffee I did not brew.

As writers, we know what works. It must sound so self-indulgent to non-writers, the fact that we don't always just do that. I can't say I understand how I regularly manage to forget what works, or why I try to convince myself to do something else, but my new goal is simply this: do what works. And repeat.

* You know how most women love the mall? That's how I feel about grocery stores. We have an awesome store here in Texas called Central Market; it's so amazing I literally take out-of-state visitors there to show it off--including an agent I once ferried to a conference. Plus there are a number of small ethnic grocery stores nearby. And of course a day without Target is like a day without...Target. It's a sickness, really.


  1. Absolutely! We don't need to make it more complicated then it already is.

    The library frequently works best for me. If I'm at home, then the laundry timer or dishwasher cutting off will distract me.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I've done the library some. One of them even has a coffee machine, cheap. (See Free Week--ahem.) Haven't tried that one for writing, come to think of it. Maybe I will. Laundry and dishwasher are definitely distractions. Good news is I wrote again today--so working is working.

  3. Elizabeth - I relate to the Target statement. It's my second home. My husband probably does think it's a sickness, but I shop for everything there!

    I gave up on the 2000 word a day concept long ago. It just isn't happening. There are days I'm thrilled when I have one decent sentence and other days I get a thousand words cranked out, only to re-write it all the next day. In the end, it is all about quality. If a coffee shop works for you, go for it!


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