At a writer’s conference, I heard this quotation attributed to Ron Carlson, “It only takes twenty minutes to write a novel. Twenty minutes a day.” This can be twenty minutes in the car before you pick up your children from school or before you do the weekly grocery shopping. Instead of a dedicated space, it is the dedicated time that will help us get the work done. The novelist Walter Mosley offers similar advice in his book, This Year You Write Your Novel. He asserts that it is through the small goals we climb toward the visions we carry inside us.
In addition to taking the tiny steps to complete the journey, writing regularly in short sessions helps us build muscle memory so that we more fluidly slide into the creative project. If we regularly connect to our vision, it becomes clearer—the peak remains within sight; it does not become so easily obscured by the clouds of self doubt. Mosley calls this connecting to your unconscious mind. Although he offers this advice for writers, I think it can apply to all creative disciplines, “If you skip a day or two between your writing sessions, your mind will drift away from the deep moments of your story.”
For many of us, it is too easy to put the creative project at the bottom of the to-do list, but if we are able to keep it near the top, with a realistic amount of time allotted to the daily practice, we are more likely to stay in touch with the project. I say realistic because I often set unrealistic goals.
For example, even this past weekend, I said to myself: if you don’t work on your current project at least four hours, then you’re not really a writer. (It’s interesting how the inner critic is so ready to help me set up these unrealistic goals). I had to take a deep breath and consider all that I needed to get done—four hours just wasn’t possible. So, instead of chucking the whole venture, I adjusted my expectations and wrote down on my to-do list for both Saturday and Sunday: 30 minutes, memoir project.
Once I re-calibrated, I was easily able to complete these tasks. Over the past 14 months, I have written 220 pages of new material, getting closer to the peak of my goal to complete a full memoir by May 2016. By regularly connecting to the material, I am divining the way.
Working with small goals doesn’t necessarily fit the picture many of us carry about creativity; we think true genius comes only in inspirational bursts. However, working with incremental goals, we will more likely reach the peak. Step by step, we might climb higher than we ever imagined.