It takes discipline

Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s National Novel Writing Month, and it usually happens in November. NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing group: you sign up online, keep track of your word count online, and communicate with your fellow writers online. This year they’re holding a summer edition called Camp NaNoWriMo, which is for the month of July. Thanks to some awesome Twitter friends (two of four I’ve never met in person), I was invited to join a ‘cabin’ (i.e., a writing group) that will provide support and encouragement as we aim for our word count goal for the month.

You don’t actually have to be writing a novel – you just have to be writing. One person in our group is writing blogs and photoblogs, one is writing a novel, and three of us are writing creative nonfiction.

My goal is to complete two creative non-fiction essays by the end of the month. And what I’m quickly learning is that I haven’t been taking my writing seriously – at all. While I’ve been putting words on paper every day, journaling isn’t the same as writing, and it’s becoming abundantly clear that what I’ve been missing is discipline. Writing a blog post is one thing, but writing a personal essay is something completely different. When you’re aiming for the level of stellar non-fiction authors like Rebecca Solnit or Charlotte Gill, Annie Dillard or Rick Bass, you realize they’re not just noodling on paper to put some random writing together. They’re working – and hard.

It feels like the essays I’ve written thus far have been a fluke – a fortuitous coincidence of personal interest, lucky wording, and smooth sailing. But now I’m stuck, and am finding that pushing through when the going gets tough is one of the harder aspects of writing.

It’s not that I’m not interested in the topic. That I don’t have the words to explain it. That I don’t have the time to put something on paper. It’s that I don’t have my thoughts fully organized. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say – I just know it wants to get out. Like a sculptor working with a piece of wood, I know there’s a shape in my mind that needs to form itself on paper, but the gap between the mess in my head and a finished product seems a wide chasm to cross.

I’m no stranger to discipline and hard work. Anyone who’s trained for anything for a long time – to make it to the Olympics, to become a certified electrician, to get a tenured faculty position – knows the work required to get there. As a scientist, I didn’t start off being good at it. In fact, my supervisor almost cancelled my candidacy exam because he thought I wasn’t ready. I had to practice. Defining research questions. Getting funding. Writing papers. It didn’t come naturally, it was stuff I learned. The thing is, I’m not sure why I thought that writing would be any different.

Perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t take writing seriously is because it’s come naturally. I haven’t felt the need to push myself because the ability to write – and write well – was always there. But what’s sufficient in science or for blogging isn’t going to cut it for good non-fiction. And that’s where the discipline comes in.

So I’m following Debbie Millman’s advice and setting up for some serious writing this month, working with these two essays. I’ve identified sections that need more and those that need less. I’m freewriting on the sections that need more and cutting down from there. I’m paragraph re-planning (this is a very cool technique that turns your writing on its head) to make sure everything flows. I’m reminding myself that discipline doesn’t have to be rigid, and can flow with the bad days (of which I know there will be quite a few) to gain ground on the good days. And I’m counting on my cabin-mates in Camp NaNoWriMo to keep me on track and in good spirits along the way.

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