How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair


How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

Often, what keeps us from writing is not a lack of things to say or stories to tell, or the skill to tell them, or even the courage. It is sometimes as easy as keeping your bum in your chair. To keep writing even if you have the irresistible urge to throw in a load of laundry, play with the cat, or re-organize your cupboards.

So this post are some fairly simple-minded but I have found, effective, ways to keep going when these other siren calls intrude.

Keep your bum in chair with mantras

This isn’t at all new age. I don’t know why it works, but even if nothing is coming to you and the urge to check your Twitter account sweeps over you, just keep typing. Doesn’t have to further the story. Doesn’t have even to make sense. But the act of keeping your fingers typing seems to eventually force your brain back in gear.

I do have some mantras which I type when I’m just trying to keep my fingers moving.

Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to

Sometimes, I’m straining for the next idea, the next scene, the next sentence. By writing this phrase, over and over, it reminds me to have faith in myself. That it will come if I am patient. Perhaps not today but it will come. Just let it come on its own timetable.

Process not product

I can inadvertently get into a production mode. This has to get done. I need to finish this story. I focus on the end product and forget that the magic of writing is in trusting the process. You let yourself be immersed by that special cloud that comes to you when writing and allow its flow to direct you. Rather than trying to push it to the finish line. Process not product.

Fierce and bold

I won’t bore you with the story but suffice it to say that I have a rubber duckie with a pirate scarf and a machete under his little wing which reminds me that I need to be fierce and bold in my writing. No matter how weak or dull my writing machete feels right now, I can swing it with ferocity and bravery.

So, not rocket science but it works for me. Here’s what I wrote one time when I was being tempted off the chair.

Just do it but don’t reach for it. Impossible state. Magic state? Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to. Process not product. Fierce and bold. Fierce and bold. Keep the fingers moving. Keep the fingers moving. Don’t reach for it. Just let it come. Don’t try to shape it as it comes. Let it come. Let it be what it’s going to be.

Start your engines please

At other times, an almost opposite approach works. Sometimes it might feel right to put yourself under some pressure.

Then, I literally write: Start your engines, please, gentlemen (sic). It’s 10:32. I will write until 11:02. No stopping. No on-line.

Doesn’t have to be half an hour. Can be five. But set a timer and stick with it. This is the time to stop communing with your inner angst and get something on the page.

I use both approaches, mantra and engines, choosing the one which fits my mood at the time. Doesn’t matter what you use as long as it keeps your bum in the chair.

Role of Talent


Role of Talent

I vacationed with a group of friends, one of whom took tennis lessons from the resort pro. Although a complete novice, she stepped into the moves as if she had been doing them her whole life. This was athletic talent on show.

I think it is sometimes assumed that writers have or need to have the same level of talent to write.

I would be the last to deny that talent at anything allows you to learn faster and sometimes better than others. It might even give you an edge on how easily your imagination transforms into something magic on the page.

But talent is not enough over the longer term.

The role of skill

If my tennis friend had turned pro, she’d need to learn the moves and strategies more likely to promote winning; she would have to practice obsessively. What she ate and how much she slept would no longer be only her business.  In short, she’d have to acquire the skills of a professional tennis player.

Similarly, with writing, there is a huge body of craft that needs mastering. It is essential to learn how to move easily around the page, employing the techniques that help create the continuous dream for your readers. Without control of your craft, you won’t be able to produce the kinds of effects which best serve your story.

Even more is needed

Unfortunately, as with all things worth doing, there’s more. Here are a few.


This is tough for writers because they seem to discourage so easily. Ten positive statements are outweighed by a single negative. Even if you know your friends have not a literary bone among them, it still hurts if they aren’t encouraging. It can be hard to keep the faith.

But it is important to remember a line whose author I forget but whose wisdom I constantly rely on:

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Hard work

Making the time to write is a bugaboo for all writers. But serious writers, like serious tennis players, set up their lives to have the time. They forego some pleasures to leave space for the greater joy of writing. They constantly work at being in control of their craft. And write and write and write.

Profit from feedback

Not everything will spring from your imagination, whole cloth and perfect. In fact, the earlier on in the journey you are, the more the feedback is likely to be instructive rather than rhapsodic.

This is hard to bear. But you cut yourself from ever improving if you don’t listen to criticism without automatically assuming any negative comment confirms your lack of talent. Cultivating an inquiring rather than a defensive stance is more productive. I have spent several posts on working well with feedback because I think it is critical.

The farther you advance in the field, the more you will find that those whose self-belief has faltered, who never made the time, or whose defensiveness prevented improvement have fallen away. Who is left? Those who have persevered, worked hard, and were open to criticism. You need to be among them.

But what if I really don’t have any talent?

News—there is no fairy godmother who taps some of us on the head with the blessing of writing talent. Like all artistic endeavors, you’ve got to put the work in before you know whether you’re successful. Work hard, keep learning, welcome feedback, and write, write, write.

Ridiculously Small Targets


Ridiculously Small Targets

What a year this has been! A pandemic, no less. However you have been affected by it—whether it’s worrying about your safety or mourning the loss of a loved one—no one has escaped unscathed. In particular, I think we are targets for higher level of tension and stress than pre-pandemic. Goes up and down, isn’t always top of mind. But always there.

This continued stress is not conducive to writing and may even make it feel irrelevant. But if you, as I do, enjoy the moments of escape which writing provides, then I would encourage you to take a few moments over the holiday season to give yourself that relief.

However, this is often a busy season and is certainly a weird one this year. Doesn’t feel as if you could take the time.

You can with ridiculously small targets

The lack of time is a constant challenge for writers. And exacerbated over the holidays. What claims our attention may be different this year—staying connected rather than planning huge get togethers—but it is still likely to take time.

So, to keep your escape available, aim for ridiculously small targets. Rather than a lengthy session of concentration to turn out a substantial piece, why not decide on a five or ten word limit a day? An idea, a moment, a feeling, a grasp at your soul for a fleeting moment. Write them down.

This is one time when carrying around a small notebook might work best. You can of course use your phone as the repository if you won’t feel the urge to keep it short to save yourself the nuisance. Because, although you might set your minimum at ten words, the trick is to continue beyond that if the spirit moves. If you feel comfortable on your phone doing that, use it by all means.

Why bother with small—shouldn’t I be going big?

Of course, if you have the time over the break, by all means set the time aside. Even regularly if you can. But holidays often pull you this way and that, so planning for major time which isn’t realistic, will just lead to a sense of failure.

And by the by, if you aim incredibly low and meet your objectives, please congratulate yourself rather than thinking, “Well, it wasn’t much. I should have done more.” The point of aiming low is to create a sense of success. Don’t sabotage yourself by denigrating the goal itself after the fact. Instead, bask.

Using these minor moments

One of two things will happen. Either one of the ten word moments will inspire you to make time to expand on the idea that just hit you or you will end the holidays with a list of interesting notions.

After the holidays, you can use something from the list to kick start a longer writing session. Since writers often have trouble knowing where to begin, this will give you a built-in source that could last you for months.

Either way, you win. A little holiday gift to yourself.

There’s a Book in Everyone. Isn’t There?


There’s a Book in Everyone. Isn’t There?

Is there a book in you?

Absolutely. I think that everybody’s life has the thrilling components of a book. Think of the timeworn stories you drag up when you’re with family and old friends. Aren’t they funny, poignant, inspiring, exciting, nostalgic, etc.? Otherwise, why do you tell them? The possibility that you are a repetitive bore I will ignore since I know none of you are.

And, in the quiet moments of life, on a long car journey or just before you fall asleep, don’t reflections on life lived or should be lived come to you? Wishes, aspirations, wisdom, regrets and longings—all the stuff of novel or memoir.

So why does Carol Shields believe that it is a myth that there’s novel in everyone[1]?

Because she knows about people like Amanda.


This is an honest-to-god conversation I had with a would-be author (given artistic license, of course).

“So, you’re interested in writing?” I asked. “Fiction or non-fiction?”

Amanda passed a hand through the recently revamped blackness of her hair. “Oh, either one.”

“Oh, well…articles or a long piece?”

She shrugged. “Novel, articles, whatever.”

“What are you working on now?”

Her eyebrows went up high. “I’ve got a full-time job. I couldn’t do anything now.”

Of course. “Have you ever taken a writing course?”

“Do you think I should?”

I made a deprecating little noise. “Writing takes a lot of craft.”

“Oh, really? Well, maybe I’ll do that.” She smiled. “So, should I get an agent first or go directly to publishers?”

“Ah…I think you need to write something first.”

She waved that away. “Of course. That’s not a problem.” She tapped the side of her head in a significant way. “It’s all up here.

Great. When wordless novels are the new wave, she’ll be ahead of the curve.

She continued. “Should I publish through a regular publisher or on-line?”

“Actually, I think you need to write it first.”

“Can you deduct research trips?”

“I suppose, although the tax department needs proof that you’ve written—”

“What about car expenses? Mileage, gas, repairs, car washes?”

“Well, writers aren’t in cars a whole lot. They’re usually at a computer.”

“But you must have to meet with your agent and publisher—”

“It’s mostly done on-line—

“On-line…” she seemed disappointed but took it well.

I make one last effort. “Amanda, I think you can deal with all of this once you’ve written something.”

She waved it and me away. “But I need to be prepared. Because it’s all up here.”

Do you know how to bring it out?

So that’s why Carol Shields calls the book-in-everyone thing a myth. We all have the stories but sadly, that’s not enough. As it turns out, the skill of writing things down in an interesting way is completely different from those of a good raconteur.

You need the ideas and stories, yes, but you also need to master the craft of writing enough (ADV for this blog) to shape them into compelling reading. You also need the perseverance to stick with a lengthy and sometimes frustrating process. And, unlike our friend Amanda, you need the courage to begin.

If you need a bit of encouragement or nudging, you might want to read my posts, Do I Start the Story at the Beginning? Or How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir. To address the stick-with-it-ness that you will need, read The Muse and the Piano Tuner.

And for daring and audacity, don’t take my word for it but Winston Churchill’s

Courage is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006