Sidetracked but Not Derailed

I have a passion for railroad trains. As a child, when I was tucked into bed at my grandparents’ house, I loved to listen to the distant choo choo of passing trains. As an adult, I enjoy living on the wrong side of the tracks, where I can hear the call of the trains’ whistles while I work.

Railways have been a thing since the seventeenth century. They’ve been in use in the United States almost since the country’s inception. But for the first two hundred years, the cars were drawn by horses. In the early nineteenth century, John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, came up with the idea to combine a locomotive with the steam power that was being used to propel ships along American rivers, and it was game on.

The things we love always seem to find their way into our writing, whether we mean them to or not. I often find myself sneaking train metaphors and imagery into my writing without realizing it. Train terminology has made its way into our everyday language, too.

For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin of the word sidetrack:

sidetrack (n.)

also side-track, ‘railway siding,’ 1835, from side (adj.) + track (n.). The verb meaning ‘to move (a train car) onto a sidetrack’ is from 1874; figurative sense of ‘to divert from the main purpose’ is attested from 1881.

 

Originally, a sidetrack was a short length of track to which a train could be diverted for purposes of loading freight or so another train could pass. But the 1881 figurative use of the word has stuck. Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb sidetrack as “to turn aside from a purpose.”

Derail also has its origins in railroad jargon, but comes to us from the French language:

derail (v.)

1850 (Dionysius Lardner, ‘Railway Economy’), in both transitive and intransitive senses, ’cause to leave the rails or run off the tracks; to run off the rails or tracks,’ from French dérailler ‘to go off the rails,’ from de- + railler.

 

If a train is derailed, it is a much more serious, permanent, and catastrophic departure from the train tracks. Like sidetrack, the word derail developed a figurative meaning. Today, Merriam-Webster defines the verb derail as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.” Again, a much more serious tampering, with potentially permanent results.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train at Roaring Camp, Felton, Santa Cruz County, California.

 

Writer, why am I talking to you about trains? Because I’ve been thinking about trains as I work my way back into manuscript revisions.

I decided at the beginning of summer to set aside work on my book for a month, in favor of catching up on some other things and finishing a few projects that were hanging over my head. It’s hard for me to focus on writing when other things are pulling at me. And it’s never a bad idea to give a manuscript a rest, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Once I was in a better place, I was thrilled with the idea of getting back to my book without anything hanging over my head. I woke up early in the morning and headed straight to my keyboard, free of anything else that I felt like I should be doing. But then, life happened, as it always does. Over the past several months, my day job became increasingly demanding. I worked a lot of extra hours–long days, evenings, and weekends. I found myself skipping over my early morning writing to get a jump start on my day work. I really hate having things hanging over my head.

I let myself get sidetracked from my writing.

But Writer, that’s no way to live for any length of time. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and a little blue. I like my day work, I really do–I help people, and it’s rewarding in a real world sort of way. But my family and writing and working with writers are the things I’m passionate about; those are the things that make my life worth living. If I don’t have a balanced mix of all of those things–if I consistently allow my day job (or any one thing) to get the biggest share of me–then I’m not a happy person.

I like being caught up on my work–like I said, I find it difficult to focus on writing when I’m not. But there’s always something to pull us away from our writing, am I right? I can say that just this once I’ll skip writing and start work early, but it can become too easy to do that again tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next. It’s a dangerous mindset to sidetrack the things we love too often or to feel that we must do all the other things first, before we can sit down to write. The most important things should come first if we are going to live the lives we were meant to live.

Let’s face it. Things come up. We’re going to get sidetracked from writing now and then. That’s okay if it’s an occasional thing because, on a particular day, because of particular circumstances, something else has to take precedence. But let’s make a promise to one another, Writer: we may get sidetracked now and then, but we will never be derailed. We will always get back on track.

Ways of Writing

In my teens, I thought writing was agony. I read The Bell Jar and emptied my broken heart into reams of bad, hand-scrawled poetry about the boys who didn’t love me back.

In my twenties, I thought writing was detached, hard-rock glamour. It meant jeans and a band T-shirt, dark shades to block out my bright future, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. I etched my brilliant words into the page letter by letter, with forceful taps on my typewriter’s keys.

In my thirties, I learned better. Writing was a lot of hard work. It meant sitting at the keyboard of my newfangled home computer, forcing the words until they came, then rearranging them until they didn’t make me sick. I wrote this way for twenty-five or so years.

If writing was hard work, then it couldn’t be fun or play, right? A very wise woman, my first fiction mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA, taught me that, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

I studied with Mary Yukari Waters for a year; it was a life-changing year. Mary and all the professors I worked with taught me so much about writing. But Mary also taught me so many things about living a creative life.

Mary taught me that writing a piece of fiction is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires persistence and patience. It requires pacing yourself and giving yourself time and space to breathe. Yes, writing involves work, but it shouldn’t be work. Not completely anyway. The physical act of trying to get the ideas from your brain to the page can be frustrating and difficult and stressful, but creativity shouldn’t be any of those things. Mary taught me that creativity withers and dies in a stressful environment. It runs away when pressed too hard.

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” –Agatha Christie

I’m a list person. I once sent Mary a first draft of a story I wasn’t yet proud of. I loved the idea, but in execution, I knew it needed a lot more work, and I wanted her to know that I knew that. With the draft, I included a list of all the things I saw wrong with the story and all the things I planned to do to improve it. I still have the handwritten note she gave me–it went something like this: “How can you write like this? This list gives me anxiety–I can only imagine what it is doing to you.”

What I learned from Mary is that writing takes many forms. It isn’t only the time we spend writing. It’s the time we spend thinking about writing, maybe while we’re doing the dishes or taking a walk. It’s the time we don’t spend thinking about writing too, when we’re doing something else entirely, and seemingly out of nowhere, the answer comes. Because while we are washing dishes or taking walks or watching movies or putting puzzles together, or even while we are sleeping, our subconscious brains continue to work on our stories.

What a relief it was to learn that. I came into my MFA program with revision anxiety. I tend to be driven, anxious, stressed out. I’ve been called a workaholic. A therapist once told me that, somewhere, somehow, I’d come away with the idea that being an adult is not supposed to be fun. I work a lot. I don’t say that as a humble brag because I think my need to work so hard grows out of a lack of confidence rather than the reverse. I work hard in part because I feel like I need to in order to be considered a person of worth and value. I need permission to take breaks, and when left to my own devices, I don’t give myself that permission. Now I was being told by Mary that, not only was it okay to go easier on myself and to take breaks, it was necessary.

Life-changing advice, right? Breathe it in, enjoy a cup of coffee, and go for a long walk.

“[I]f you sit with a problem long enough, the decision makes itself. The rational brain is overrated. It seems to me that the truest decisions, in life and in art, happen on a visceral, almost subconscious level. It’s like the needle of a compass: at first it swings wildly over the surface, but eventually a deeper magnetism asserts itself and the needle finds its place.” –Mary Yukari Waters, “After the Happy Ending.”

Here’s Mary’s full essay in The Rumpus about writing … and not writing:

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: After the Happy Ending

And here’s a video on creativity and the subconscious brain recommended by Mary:

WRITER TIP: Build downtime into your schedule every single day. Take breaks away from your keyboard. Get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep. Engage in activities that feed your creative soul: painting, gardening, playing the guitar. Go for a walk, a hike, a run. Go into the backyard and play fetch with your dog. Take the kids to the park. Do a chore that doesn’t require brainpower: wash the dishes, wash the car, take the garden hose to your patio furniture. Being overly busy crushes creativity–your subconscious brain can’t help you write if it’s constantly occupied thinking about your mile-long to-do list or your taxes or brainstorming your grocery list.

 

2022 goals, New year resolution. Woman in white sweater writing Text 2022 goals in open notepad on the table. Start new year, planning and setting goals for the next year.

The Power of Persistence

Over the past month, I’ve been setting out the steps for turning your writing dreams into attainable goals:

1.  Set your dreams down in writing (The Power of Words);

2.  Create specific goals (The Power of Goals);

3.  Create a plan to reach your goals (The Power of a Plan);

4.  Focus on one goal at a time (The Power of Focus).

And now:

5.  Reaffirm your goals on a daily basis and never give up. This is the power of persistence, and it’s the final and best step in any successful plan to reach a goal.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually, you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable trait is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler

Once you’ve set a goal for yourself and designed a plan for reaching it, the secret to getting there is to keep going and never give up. Take steps toward that goal each and every day. In football terms, keep moving the ball forward. You might periodically re-evaluate your goals and re-work them or revise them, but never forsake them. As long as you keep moving toward your goals at a steady pace, you will eventually reach them.

I firmly believe persistence is the most powerful element in turning a vague dream for the future into a tangible goal. Some people in my family might call it stubbornness, but when I have a setback, I generally (after the appropriate amount of whining) try and try again.

To be persistent, you have to be ready to weather periods of discouragement. I assure you there will be days when you return to your previous, negative patterns of thinking and convince yourself you will never achieve your dreams. The key is to be tenacious, to ride out those bad days, and to wake up the next morning with renewed resolve.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge

Let’s take quitting smoking as an example. Some smokers joke, “I can quit smoking whenever I want. I’ve quit 236 times!” It’s kinda funny and sorta sad because it plays on how addictive tobacco is. But actually, quitting smoking over and over again is the key to eventually kicking the cigarette habit for good. Quitting smoking is an area where persistence really pays off. Studies show that the more times a smoker tries to quit smoking, the more likely it is they will eventually quit for good.

So, if quitting smoking is your goal, it’s possible you may quit smoking for a couple of weeks and then relapse and smoke a cigarette, or two cigarettes, or even binge on a full pack of cigarettes. The key to eventually kicking the habit for good is persistence. This means not using relapse as an excuse—give it your best effort without keeping relapse in mind as a possibility. But if you do relapse and smoke again, don’t give up. Wake up the next morning resolved to quit again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. You resolve to quit smoking every single day, however many times it takes, until it sticks.

It’s the same with any goal. For example, if you dream of becoming debt free, your first goal might be to freeze your level of debt by developing the habit of not incurring new debt. Your second goal might be to reduce spending to free up more cash to repay your debts. Your third goal might be to start an emergency savings account so that you aren’t forced to borrow when life’s emergencies come along. A fourth goal might be to earn a little extra income so you can pay off your debts more quickly.

You will likely face some setbacks, especially in the beginning. You might have to charge a necessary auto repair to a credit card because you don’t yet have enough in savings to cover it. You may spend unbudgeted money on dinner out because you haven’t yet developed a strong habit of planning ahead for meals at home. You might skip a deposit to your new savings account in favor of buying those fabulous new shoes with the kitten heels you saw in the Avanti store window. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep trying in the face of obstacles and to forgive yourself for mistakes. The fastest path to giving up is to dwell on past mistakes until you are too discouraged to keep trying.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler

Persistence is a secret weapon. Persistence will turn any dream into reality. This is especially true of writing dreams, because writing can be one hell of a rollercoaster and often consists of a whole lot of rejection. Artists often suffer from imposter syndrome–when you convince yourself you aren’t good enough or you don’t belong, it’s easy to convince yourself to abandon your dreams.

If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to slough it off when you’re rebuffed. In the writing business, rejection is not personal. It’s just that—business. And it means nothing more than this: you haven’t yet found your perfect fit in terms of a market, agent, or publisher. Remember that your very best writing is perfect, just as it is, for someone.

Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Even more importantly, don’t listen to negative talk from others–it’s amazing to me that the most supportive friends and family members in a writer’s life often have no problem discouraging that writer’s dreams. Be determined, keep at it, never give up. If you do, you will eventually reach your goals. That’s a promise.

I return to this video time and again when I’m feeling discouraged. If nothing else, it puts a smile on my face:

WRITER TIP: Keep trying. Persistence is nothing more than trying over and over and over again. How do you become persistent? You get up every morning and do it again. The more days you do that, the more proud of yourself you’ll be, and the easier it will be to do it again the next day. Another good idea which I’ll blog about soon is to develop a plan for those days when you’re not feeling very tenacious or motivated. What can you do today toward your goal, even if you don’t feel like doing anything?

On Structuring Your Writing Life

I used to think of structure as the enemy. I believed that, if I tried to impose any kind of structure on my writing life, it would interfere with my creativity. Writers are artists, right? Artists don’t live a boring, rigorously scheduled, 9-5 life. Artists wake up when they please, go out for coffee in cafés where everyone knows them by name, then go for leisurely strolls on windswept beaches or in sun-dappled forests, depending on where they live. In the afternoons, they read and paint and take peaceful naps. In the evenings, they stroll again, this time down to the corner pub. At some point, when inspiration strikes, they sit down at their typewriters and dash off brilliant, bestselling novels.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This romantic notion of writing had me convinced that inspiration would strike when it was good and ready and that I had no control over it. The only thing I could do was answer its call when it did strike. I pictured myself, after a prolonged period of writer’s block, waking suddenly from a sound sleep, dashing to my typewriter, and writing madly for weeks on end, fueled only by coffee freshly ground from the best beans. When they were ready to come, the worlds would flow and take on a life of their own. At the end of that time, utterly exhausted, but glowing with satisfaction, I would pull the final page of my magnificent manuscript from the typewriter.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” –Neil Gaiman

This, unfortunately, is not how it works. For one thing, I don’t own a typewriter. Or a coffee grinder. And I’m actually out of printer paper at the moment and nearly out of ink. I do my writing at a decidedly unromantic computer keyboard. Yes, there are days when the words begin to flow and take on a life of their own, but the funny thing is, this usually happens when I’m already sitting at my keyboard tapping out nonsense. If I wrote only when I felt inspired, I wouldn’t get much writing done. The truth of the matter is, the more I write, the more I’ve written, and the better I get at it.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” –Jack London

The old adage that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration holds true for writing as much as for anything else. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. Write each and every day. Set up a writing schedule, stick to it as best you can, and write, write, write. Don’t pay attention to whether the words are any good or not—that is what interferes with creativity. Filling the blank page with words is the initial goal and all you should think about until you have a complete draft. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Hemingway said. We’ll talk about editing another time, because it’s November, and we’re on a mission to get 50,000 words written.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Brilliance, I have found, is a great deal more the product of arduous work and good editing than it is the product of creative genius. Dedication and persistence will win out over unbridled talent every time. Okay, well most of the time. Yes, those long strolls and those periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential. They have their place, and I’ll write about that soon, too. But in general, if you spend your life waiting for inspiration to strike, you will find yourself waiting for an awfully long time.

WRITER TIP: Author K.M. Weiland wrote: “Inspiration may sometimes fail to show up for work in the morning, but determination never does.” Make determination a part of your writing life. Schedule a dedicated time of day to write, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, and be determined to stick to your schedule.

Writer, Interrupted

A writer’s day is filled with interruptions, and to be honest, most of them are welcome. I’m lured by social media and the pings that alert me to text messages from my squad (messages that always make me laugh). I daydream about what I’m going to do over the weekend. I suddenly realize I need to run to the post office or the grocery store. The interruptions can be constant and, let’s face it, way more alluring than the blank page that’s taunting me. (Excuse me while I check my email just one more time for that acceptance that is surely coming from The Paris Review today.)

When we’re interrupted, it’s not just the moment of the interruption that is at stake. Studies have shown that, after an interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get our heads fully back into the game.1 Every time we stop writing to check email or social media, we lose not only the five minutes or so we spend browsing our Instagram feeds, but that additional 23:15 minutes. This is the time needed to remember where we were in our story, to pick up where we left off, to get our minds back to that magical place, and to be as deeply focused as we were before we took that break.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I write mostly in the early mornings, before most people are awake. Me and Walter Mosley. I imagine Mr. Mosley a few hours south of me typing away while it’s still dark outside, just like me. It’s comforting. Writing so early in the morning helps. There are less distractions, but in the modern tech era, distractions are always at my fingertips. When it’s light out and weather permits, I take my laptop out onto the deck in my backyard, away from the intoxicating lure of furniture that needs dusting and dishes that need doing. For someone who loves to write, I am so often tempted by anything but. Because writing is hard.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway

So my suggestion today is to not only give yourself the first and the best part of your day, before you get caught up in your daily life, but to rid yourself of distractions. Close yourself off from the rest of the world, just for an hour or two, and give yourself the undivided attention you deserve. I find my writing time is much more satisfying when I turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on my cell phone, give social media a break, and let messages pile up in my inbox for just a bit. I sometimes use a kitchen timer for this purpose–no break until that timer goes off. When I’m fully in it, that’s when the magic happens and the words begin to flow.

WRITER TIP: Set aside a certain period every day for uninterrupted writing time, even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes to start. Set the timer on your phone, block out the rest of the world, and write until the timer goes off. Better yet, turn your phone’s ringer off, put your phone away, and use an old-fashioned kitchen timer.

Time Is on My Side

People often ask me how I find time to write. The truth is, for most of my life, I didn’t. I’m a busy person who, like most writers, works a day job for a living. For most of my life, I looked at writing as dessert–a reward for finishing all the other things. It was something I tried to fit into the cracks of my life. It was the thing I most wanted to be doing, but it was my very last priority. I wrote in the little spare time I had leftover after I’d done everything else. I wrote with whatever remaining energy I had at the end of the day, assuming I had any energy left. I often didn’t. So, needless to say, I didn’t write much.

I used to spend a lot of time researching ways to squeeze writing into my life. (Time I could have spent writing, actually.) There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. During my research, I came across unhelpful adages, like reminders that I have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé Knowles. No pressure.

In the end, some of the best advice I ever got was more about mindset than anything else: (1) give yourself the first and best hour of your day; and (2) stop making time to write–make your life a writing life, and put all the other stuff on the back burner.

I have found some helpful advice over the years, though, and I’d like to share my three favorite pieces of advice with you. These are the ones that actually worked for me.

Turn the Beat Around

The trick that has without a doubt increased my writing productivity the most came from my son, Robert, who is also a writer. After I began giving myself the first and best part of my day, my favorite time of day to write quickly became first thing in the morning. I often get up at 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. to get some writing done before work. It used to be stressful time, though. I was mindful of the clock, and it seemed that just about the time I hit my stride, it was time to stop writing, make breakfast, and get ready for work. Sometimes I wrote beyond the time I should, and then I found myself skipping breakfast and racing out the door.

My son Robert’s tip: Get ready for work before you start writing. I can’t believe what a difference this has made. It’s been life-changing. I don’t write in the evenings–I’m an early riser, and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. If I save it for the evening, I generally won’t do it. But mindless tasks–those I can do in the evening. So I started doing a lot of my prep work for the next day at night. I shower, decide what I’ll wear the next day, pack a lunch, etc. The next morning, I still get up early, but I’ve reversed my routine. I get ready for work, make coffee, and then sit down at my keyboard without anything hanging over my head. I write until it’s time for work. I no longer feel rushed, because when I shut off my computer, all I have to do is pick up my bag and head out the front door. This advice alone has made an incredible difference.

Big, Big Plans

Believe it or not, I got this tip from a book I read in the ‘70s called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. It turned out to be a guide for wives on how to make your home a happy one by catering to and manipulating your husband and by suppressing your own opinions and emotions. Needless to say, if you know me, this book was not my cup of tea. (Ms. Morgan would probably point out that I’m sitting here single as I write this.) But I have long said I can find something useful in any book, and this was no exception.

In one chapter of her book, Ms. Morgan outlines a “Million-Dollar Plan” she got from some CEO of a big company–the best way to accomplish the most you can possibly accomplish in a day. Here is the basic plan: Make a list of the things you need to do that day, put them in order of priority, start working on the first task, and work your way down the list. Don’t move down the list to the second task until you’ve finished the first, and so on. Don’t allow distractions, just keep moving down the list in order. You may not finish everything on the list, but by the end of the day, you will have finished the most important tasks and will have accomplished as much as was possible in the time you had. It’s a simple idea, but it works like a charm. As a writer, this idea is helpful in a couple of ways: first, make sure writing is at the top of your list every day, and second, working this way will help free up more time in your life for writing and other pleasurable activities.

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” –Jerry Seinfeld

The Chain

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses the power of visualization to reach his goals. He hangs a big, year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall, sets a daily writing goal for himself, and marks off each day on the calendar with a big “X” when he reaches that day’s goal. The calendar becomes a chain, each “X” is a link in the chain, and his desire not to have a broken link keeps him going.1 I’ve started doing this, too. My daily goal is to write for a certain amount of time each morning. I mark the days off on my calendar with a red Sharpie, just like Jerry. What keeps me going is imagining Jerry yelling at me, “Don’t break the chain!” (You heard that in his voice, right?”)

WRITER TIP: Be like Jerry. Get yourself a big wall calendar where you can track your writing progress. Set a daily writing goal using whatever works for you. Some writers set a daily word-count goal, for example, 500-1,000 words a day. Others set a daily page-count goal, maybe two or three pages. I use a daily time goal: no matter what, I write for at least ten minutes every morning. I can always convince myself to write for ten minutes, and if I only write for ten minutes, that’s okay. But once I get going, I almost always write for much longer, usually two to four hours every morning. Whether it’s ten minutes or six hours, I mark the day off with a big “X” on my wall calendar. Seeing that unbroken chain of progress motivates me to keep going.