When I read about contemporary author-entreprenuers and their writing practice, I find that they almost always write several thousand words a day. Whether they write into the dark or employ a plot/outline, the one common thing among them is their ability to sit down and type out (or dictate) word after word after word.
BICHOK is a common short-form thrown around in writer circles. It means 'Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard'.
For the past year, I've been trying to nail this. Some days it's a breeze, but most days it's not.
I even see a pattern (even though a Statistics professor once told us that the human brain is primed to discern patterns even in an entirely random arrangement/sequence). It goes like this.
I typically have one or two good writing days, about 2000–3000 words/day, then on the third day, the word count tends to dwindle, maybe comes down to about 1,000 words/day, day four becomes a 500-word day if I'm lucky, and day five is then undeniably the day of the deepest, lowest funk, because I end up writing nothing, and day six is spent wallowing in and/or emerging from that misery, and on day seven or day eight, a new attempt begins. I get back to the manuscript, write a few thousand words, and wonder what all that fuss was really about! Until it happens all over again.
It's not just with writing. Some days I'm all upbeat about waking up and playing with D, and over the next few days, the enthusiasm and energy slowly wane, until I reach a point where I have no option but to check out completely. Stop. Do nothing at all. Until, a day or two later, I'm ready to get up and face my world again.
There are plenty of studies that talk about how working 9–5, five days a week is not the optimal use of our energy, which apparently does ebb and surge, maybe depending on our monthly body cycles/hormonal shifts or the phases of the moon or some other factor depending on which study you look up.
For a long time, I wanted to find an explanation, something that would help make sense of this cycle of productivity and zoning out, with the ultimate goal of turning myself into a word-producing machine.
It's amazing how many people, especially creatives, have set out on this very path of exploration and come up with all sorts of alternative explanations – mind management, cultural influences, moods – anything that can explain why some people are super-productive (able to type as many as 9,000–10,000 words/day) and consistently so (at least five days a week), and provide a roadmap for others to follow to attain the current gold standard in self-publishing: write and publish as much and as fast as you can.
In trying to follow this guideline, I have ignored what is perhaps the most important bit: 'as you can'.
My little one, D, was seven months old when we moved from Australia back to Canada and over the next six months, I had to complete five courses to finish the postgraduate degree I was pursuing at the time. I was lucky to attend one of these courses with a classmate, K, who had become a close friend, in our first year of the program.
I remember this particular course very well. It was spread over two weeks, for four hours each morning, from 8 A.M. to about noon or so. KrA had only just started to work at his new job, so he couldn't afford to take leave, but his manager had agreed that he could come in late to work for those two weeks as there was no one else to look after D. I'd rush back home after class, and KrA would promptly leave for work, arriving at office at about 2 P.M. or so.
Attending that course was another lady, whose husband was also in the same program, and they too had a six-month-old baby to look after. They were locals, so they had family in town, and they also had a nanny (her own nanny's daughter) to look after their infant, so she and her husband stayed at school from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. She was able to attend all the group project discussions that went on after class hours, while I just ran back home to relieve KrA off child-care duties, feeling I wasn't doing enough at school.
It was my classmate, K, who called me out on this towards the end of those two weeks and pointed out my very obvious logistical constraints that couldn't be bridged unless we brought in a third person to help with looking after D. With no family in town and no nanny/daycare we could budget for, this was a constraint we couldn't overcome at that point in time.
Three years later, an ex-colleague of mine had posted on FB about his experience during his four-and-a-half-month paternity leave during which his wife went back to work and he stayed at home looking after their child. And at the end of it all, he wrote about his experiences in which he said that before he embarked on that leave, a few of his friends had asked him what he planned to do with all that 'spare time'. And his response from experience was that of course he had had less 'spare time' than before, he hadn't managed to read a book or catch up with news or with friends, that when his child was asleep, he was either tidying up and food prepping or playing games on his cellphone, letting his exhausted mind drift.
It was his admission that he didn't do anything else, couldn't quite do anything else, that permitted me to look back at my own experience with a kindness I had not shown myself or KrA until then.
I think back to that time now because the situation now is quite the same in many ways. Sure, my then infant is now an almost-five-year-old, but with this part of the world only just sort of emerging from the lockdown, the same dilemmas seem to crop up.
Yet again I find myself falling into the trap of wanting to do more than I'm able to, without really giving myself the time to slowly ramp up to the abilities or level of skill that I want to get to.
This time, I only want to accept all that is for what it is.
When the funk comes, I want to be with it totally, without wishing for it to go away, without judging myself for wanting to do 48 hours of work in a 24-hour day and not being able to. When a day of good writing comes along, I want to cherish it and enjoy it in those moments, hours of writing, without desperately trying to come up with a formula by which I'd be able to replicate the magic the day after and the day after that.
I may have mentioned this before but since all my previous posts have vanished (although KrA has managed to retrieve them, and it's only a matter of putting them back up), I'll write this again here.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach talks about a meeting with an old man called Jacob who had Alzheimer's and who knew what was happening. And this is what she writes in the book about him.
During our time together Jacob and I talked about how things were going both on retreat and at home. His attitude towards his disease was interested, sad, grateful, and even good-humoured. Intrigued by his resilience, I asked him what allowed him to be so accepting. He responded, "It doesn't feel like anything is wrong. I feel grief and some fear about it all going, but it feels like real life."
Then he told me about an experience he'd had in an earlier stage of the disease. Jacob had occasionally given talks about Buddhism to local groups and had accepted an invitation to address a gathering of over a hundred meditation students. He arrived at the event feeling alert and eager to share the teachings he loved.
Taking his seat in front of the hall, Jacob looked out at the expectant faces before him ... and suddenly he didn't know what he was supposed to say or do. He didn't know where he was or why he was there. All he knew was that his heart was pounding furiously and his mind was spinning in confusion.
Putting his palms together at his heart, Jacob started naming out loud what was happening: "Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I'm failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost."
For several more minutes he sat, head slightly bowed, continuing to name his experience. As his body began to relax and his mind grew calmer, he also noted that aloud. At last Jacob lifted his head, looked slowly around at those gathered, and apologised.
Many of the students were in tears. As one put it, "No one has ever taught us like this. Your presence has been the deepest teaching."
Rather than pushing away his experience and deepening his agitation, Jacob had the courage and training simply to name what he was aware of, and, most significantly, to bow to his experience. In some fundamental way, he didn't create an adversary out of feelings of fear and confusion. He didn't make anything wrong. ~ Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
He didn't make anything wrong.
It doesn't feel like anything is wrong ... but it feels like real life.
These two statements have been my go-to ever since I've come across them. And I find that slowly, very slowly, I'm getting comfortable with all this confusion and fear and anxiety that comes up within me whenever I see this vast gulf between where I want to be w.r.t. my writing versus where I actually am.
I've actually been able to achieve this acceptance more consistently in two areas of my life. One is in parenting. The other is in the area of rest.
For the longest time, I was terrified that D was, still is, an only child, that he has few friends/playdate mates, that we don't have family or friends living near us for him to be able to enjoy a sense of family, of security, of being loved by people other than just KrA and me.
In my desperate attempts to and failures at 'fixing' these 'problems', I only made the situation worse by growing more anxious and snappy and irritated, and by not being fully present with him, I couldn't even see that this child was simply happy being who he is, where he is, with what he has, with he can or cannot do at any given point in time – all traits that I came to appreciate immensely only during the lockdown.
It's only when I opened my eyes and saw nothing was 'wrong' – this is just what our situation is, we are thousands of miles away from home, and it's ok, we are doing what we can – that everything became 'alright'.
Yes, the fear and the desire and the longing still arise, but when I'm aware, I don't feel the urge to act on them. All those thoughts that start to take root in my head at times like these, I simply remind myself of what they truly are – thought, thought, thought – and that helps me come out of that spiral and be ok with the feeling in my body, whether it's a lump in my throat, or a gnawing in the pit of my stomach, or, as is more often the case with me, a heavy heart.
I've also become good at recognising when my body needs rest and giving it what it needs. Some nights I wake up at 2 or 3 A.M. and am unable to go back to sleep, and I enjoy the luxury of an afternoon nap without criticising myself for 'wasting' that time and not writing instead.
Because, after a long period of trial and error, I've found out that when I'm well rested, I am a better human being. I am kinder. I am less anxious. I am more present and joyful. And these are the qualities I want to bring to myself and to my relationships with D and KrA.
D and KrA – my family – are more important to me than my writing. That doesn't mean writing is not important. But this is who I am. If I've lost my temper and hurt them with harsh words, I can't simply close the door and settle down for an hour or two of writing. And that's ok. That's part of me, and I no longer want to deny it or change it or wish it away. I've also seen that the art which emerges from that sensitive, caring part of me is way more sublime and pleasing than that which comes from a place of angst and fury.
I'm trying to achieve this approach of acceptance towards my writing too. I will show up every day for my craft, without demanding that the words come. I trust that as long as I keep showing up and doing the best I can at that point in time, my ability will grow.
In fact, when I look back at my writing practice now (which is what I should have done before embarking on such a long, introspective post), I find that this is yet another case of me trying to 'fix' a 'problem' that does not exist. Because, exactly a year ago I was writing about 750 words once every three days. So if I were to take a broader view, I was averaging 1500 words/week a year ago, and now that number is in excess of 4,000 words/week.
I remember reaching out in an FB group of writers last year and sharing with them that writing 750 words on one days exhausted me so much that I was unable to write for a few days after that, before getting back to it. And a kind member commented saying that I'd improve with practice. Sure, there are other aspects, such as critical voice preventing me from writing into the dark as well as I can, but I've been learning those too alongside.
I want to add here that for a long time, I tried to feel ok with all my feelings, anticipating that if I didn't resist them, they'd cease. But that very expectation of their disappearance kept this from being a fruitful exercise in the first place. It was only when I could truly be ok with it all, in that moment, without expecting or looking forward to a future moment of respite, that more lasting change has been coming about.
I'll leave you with an excerpt from one of Osho's talks to explain what I mean.
Just two days ago, a French sannyasin told me that she was confused, that she could not decide whether to go back to France or to stay a little longer. I looked into her ... something would be possible if she could stay a little longer, maybe four to six weeks. She would have taken a great step toward satori.
But if I had said to her, "Be here for four to six weeks because something is going to happen," then my very prediction would have prevented it because then she would have become greedy, then she would have started expecting. And not only that, she would have started demanding, "Why is it not happening?"
And that very idea: "Why is it not happening? When is it going to happen?" would have created a tension in her being and the happening would have become impossible.
It is the same with writing. It is the same with any endeavour.
When we create with the expectation of a reward at some point in future, even if we prepare ourselves to receive this 'reward' in a very distant future, that expectation alone can and does impede us in the present moment.
The Bhagvad Gita says the same too when it urges us to focus on our actions and relinquish any attachment to the fruits of our actions.
Truly, all there is is the here and now.
Trust existence. Without any expectation.
It is as simple as that. The only difficulty lies in keeping ourselves conscious of this every moment.