Writing was something I wanted to continue in my time in The Philippines. Hemingway and Maugham had spent time in Manila, so would I. Despite my daughter’s suggestion, I insisted I wasn’t on vacation, or retired, I was in transition. I knew I couldn’t continue my consulting practice from 12000 miles away but I didn’t have to stop writing just because I wasn’t in my Kanata studio. I had brought my office with me. This tour of The Philippines was a test: would I have the discipline and the stamina to continue to hone my new craft, and myself?
Patterns and Routines
I had developed the habit over a number of years of sitting at the keyboard and composing at approximately the same time every day. My habit had been more random in the early days when I had a full time consulting practice to attend to but I became more focused when I was nursing Marlene, racing to finish my book, The Hallelujah Chorus. I would be up before 7:00, quickly check email, coffee and breakfast, and then sit at my computer for a couple of hours before it was time to attend to Marlene’s needs. After she died, or maybe it was a year after she died, these habits and traits carried over to my new identity, author. Or maybe I already was an author but now dared speak its name. I would devote a couple of hours every morning, Monday to Friday, like a regular job. And when the random muse spoke to me at other times – Saturday afternoon, Sunday evening – I’d go to the keyboard and turn out more words. I never had another streak of mania as I did during my mental meltdown two years ago (my god, two years) but I knew that every serious writer carves out some time in his day or at least his week, just for writing and religiously adheres to those sacred hours. Hmmm? With my mental health having returned, or more accurately, returning, I resumed some sort of discipline and turned to my key board every morning.
Being an author may be a career choice, but writing is, can only be, a part time job. Most authors only actually write for a few hours a day; it’s exhausting, even when in ‘flow’. So what do authors do with the rest of their days? Whatever they like. But call it something else: research? regeneration? marketing? Often it is reading, hopefully for mere escape or pleasure, but for a writer it is also to learn: Admire the clever way that writer phrased something, portrayed a character, or built up the surprise. The trick in studying another’s writing is to not try to copy the style but incorporate resonant things into you own toolkit. At the same time, it is important not to be intimidated by that writer’s capability and be defeated. I may never be as good as Graham Greene (who, incidentally, also spent some time in Manila, though under perhaps mysterious circumstances) but when I read his wonderful prose I remind myself, this is a finished product, and he probably went through his own hell revising and editing and scrapping and finally keeping something of his work.
My days in Dasma (and before that Tagaytay, but without the benefit of a pool) brought its own pattern: up at 6:00 am, (not because of self-discipline but because first light penetrated the window and my eyelids, and a partner with a different biological clock than I have, or used to have); then coffee, email and news via twitter and on-line feeds; by 7:30 it’s breakfast and by 8:00 it was poolside gym and a swim. By 9:00 I was dressed and at my keyboard, poised like a conductor about to bring down his baton. And then I write. I almost never have writer’s block. My mind takes about 90 seconds and the ideas for continuing or developing the piece begins. Even if the muse seems elsewhere some days, I sit at the keyboard anyway, if not composing, then editing, and with editing new ideas tend to come. I usually have a few sketched out sketches ahead and when I look over the outline and half-started texts, the moves, adds and deletes begin, almost of their own accord.
My intention is to spend 2 – 3 hours at the keyboard every day and stop when lunch comes, knowing that when lunch does come the creative process tends to stop. My back and glutes begin to complain after only an hour but I ignore them as long as possible, like a long distance runner refusing to stop until the hours have been put in. (And that is a ridiculous metaphor for me because I have always been a sprinter.)
Plans and Goals
My plan is to write for a couple of hours every day but my goals are really what fuel the process, at least for me. One goal is output – not the ambitious thousand words a day, more like five hundred. Even so, I often don’t meet my goal and rarely exceed it except when I am in flow and not interrupted. Doesn’t sound like much, but try it. At times it feels as painful as a Grade 9 English essay assignment. In any event, a thousand words a day is pointless if it’s mostly crap. I think of Hemingway at his typewriter, tearing pages out of his carriage and filling his wastepaper basket, so much more visceral than modern hard drives. I’ve learned to be content with merely a decent paragraph, and just walk away. Tomorrow will be a more productive day.
Having production goals in the form of my blogs help enormously. I produce two posts per week. Each post is like a chapter in a book, a complete thematic in about ~1200 words. (Ideally, in this modern age of deficit attention or harried people, a blog post should be no more than about 750 words; but I am wordy and demanding of my readers; often my posts are closer to 2000 words than 1200.) Two weblogs per week then is about 2400 words, so the goal of 500/day has to be done. Luckily for me, this is rarely a problem, as I said. And in any event, writing is one thing, editing is another. Rare indeed is it to produce a decent draft in just one go. And, for me at least, editing is more demanding and takes longer than the actual original draft. I’m forced by MSWord to edit as I go, correcting typing errors invariably leads to some rewriting; but the real editing comes in the rereading of the text once I am done the first draft. The editing is not as originally creative as the first draft but the polishing can greatly improve the original half-formed ideas. At times the editing actually diminishes the first effort, too forced, too clever, and I’ll scrap it entirely and go back to the first draft, and sometimes scrap that too.
Deadlines help. Output goals – two blog posts a week – are more than producing posts, they also need to be timely. But it doesn’t really feel like pressure, more impetus. Deadlines, even though self-imposed (psychologists call this self-leadership), drive you to work rather than procrastinate. So intending to publish two blog posts a week – one to be released on a Friday and the other on Sundays – compels me to keep the pipeline primed. On Tuesdays to Thursdays I work on generating material for either of the blogs as the mood, or the ideas present themselves. When I’m feeling especially creative I will work on 3 – 4 posts ahead and then resurrect them to edit as the deadline approaches. On Friday I do the final polishing of the Travels with Myself post, get it out there on afspublishing.ca and then promote it via DirectMail. That usually takes the better part of a full day. Saturday I savour the feedback! And put more content to the Tagaytay Tribune/Dasma Diary (as it was then called), preparing to release it on Sunday evening. Monday I rest, like an orthodox Jew with a calendar askew. Then the cycle continues.
When I wasn’t writing those blogs (for what purpose, exactly? – avoiding my other projects?) I was thinking about revisions to the manuscript, Amitié, A Novel, and working up the courage, and considering the consequences, of releasing it: will people like it, or ridicule it? I’m told every writer, even the successful ones, struggle with this problem of approval.
And when I would try to park those thoughts as unproductive I would think about other projects in the pipeline, or back burner, or merely brooding in the back of my mind: two old love stories that could be reviewed, revised, possibly published, or discarded; two other books, each about the life of an important woman in my life: The Marlene Effect, and The Girl From Santa Rita.
I did finally screw up the courage to publish Amitié, a Novel, and now needed to devote time to marketing and promoting it. But I was reluctant to do that, as most writers are; that’s why they seek out a Literary Agent and a Publisher. Instead I retreated to writing my blogs. I had the fantasy hope that my blogs would grow an audience, organically and exponentially, and this would attract a buying public for my books. Psychologists say that being hopeful is good for mental health, but hope alone does not sell books. The self-imposed pressure of producing two posts per week provided refuge from having to address other writing obligations: marketing Amitié; updating my Facebook page(s), twitter, Goodreads, amazon; working on books still in my head, or on my hard drive. But as my two blogs/newsletters began to take on the shape of complete stories rather than a continuous narrative I began to think about converting those blogs into books: Travels With Myself, The Pilipiñas Packet. It’s almost like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (cue Dukas music here).
I kept wondering why I was preoccupied with all this avoidance which only served to increase mental angst – I had now three books that needed promotion and certainly the writing and wrestling with lulu.com was becoming enervating. It was high time I turned my energies to promotion – when I get back to Canada. But in the meantime maybe it was high time to seriously get to work on my next project:The Treasure of Stella Bay.
I had willingly taken on this new identity, author. Striking a balance between hubris and humility I have struck out into the world of writing. Time will tell if it has been a worthwhile endeavor, or whether I merely struck out.
But in the meantime, I listen to my mentor: Keep writing, no matter what.
One of my readers sent me this article about Jean-Jacques Rousseau: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/04/27/what-rousseau-knew-about-solitude/. Clearly she’s on to me. I said I should give myself a nom de plume: Jean-Jacques Jordan. Has a nice ring, don’t you think?