Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writing is a Muscle

By Scott D. Parker

Summer’s almost over and, with it, I sometimes suffer a feeling of loss, of things promised but not fulfilled. Do you get that way? It’s easy to remember back in our school days the eager anticipation of summer. Most of us left school in May and we didn’t have to go back till friggin’ September. Three whole months to do whatever we wanted. The list started growing in the last days of May and it seemed like we had limitless time to do everything.

I haven’t had a true summer in over fifteen years but I’ve never lost the Summer State of Mind. There are just certain things you should do only in the months of June, July, and August. Big giant popcorn films at the theaters belong in the summer. Same goes for blockbuster books like Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me or the adventures of Gabriel Hunt. There’s certain music (old Chicago, Springsteen, Hendrix, Alejandro Escovedo) that sounds better when blasted out of your car speakers as you fly down the highway, windows open, arm extended into the wind. Certain foods soak up the summer heat and taste better when it’s hot, especially when taken directly off the grill and into your mouth, juices dripping down your chin. There’s just a certain “summer” feeling that permeates in the air during the middle of the year that you don’t get at any other time. It’s tangible and, yet, ephemeral. You feel where I’m coming from?

Good. Because for the longest time, I considered writing to be like that: ephemeral, atmospheric, mystical, muse-driven, zen-like, all touchy-feely. I easily envisioned myself *having* written stories, a overflowing portfolio of pastiches, short stories, and always, a novel in progress.

Ah, the ease of the summer state of mind. Ah, the ease of calling yourself a writer. Then the reality: I ain’t got a friggin’ portfolio. And I realized why a few weeks ago: I don’t have the writing habit. I did, once, when I wrote my first novel and then on into my second. I had a clear plan, well-focused, a goal on the horizon.

This summer, I didn’t. I achieved none of the writing goals I set for myself. These past three weeks, as my frustration level rose, I started questioning myself. I started analyzing my life, my habits, my focus. I realized that I have some bad habits that impede my writing life. I’ve got an entire list of things that are obstacles to my writing life and I’ll write about them in future columns here and on my crime blog.

One idea that’s so fundamental and so simple in its vision that I never saw it is this: Writing is a Muscle. All muscles have to be exercised or they will atrophy. I have allowed my writing (not my imagination for I’ve been writing stories in my head the entire time) to atrophy. And there’s only one way to tone the muscles: exercise.

Like a lot of people, I rarely exercise. I sit on my ass all day in front of a computer then, at home, I watch TV, movies, or read. I’ll also log on at night as well. I’m lazy. My exercising muscles atrophied. One night, when our local pool was closed, I made a decision: I’ll start running. I did and I ran two miles. Next night, two more. That was three weeks ago. I haven’t run every day but I’ve run regularly. I’ve already achieved that wonderful internal feeling of *missing* the run on the days off.

Now I’m applying that mentality to my writing. I’ve started writing again (listen to me: I sound like I’m in an AA meeting) and I’ve tied it to my running. I'll expound more on the how at another time. Suffice it to say, I've started to exercise the body muscles and the writing muscles. Together, they’ll take me where I want to go: published and healthy enough for that book tour.

Are there things you tie your writing habit to in order to keep you moving the cursor forward? How do you get back on the writing wagon when you’ve fallen off?


David Cranmer said...

I write everyday. After a workday I make sure it's an hour or two in the evening. That can be tough and sometimes it turns into only a paragraph accomplished. If I'm really pooped then I spend that hour polishing up or reading an old story that needs tweaking. (Of course, as an Ed sometimes part of that time is devoted to my zine.) Anyway, you're right about it being a muscle.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

This post is so relevant for me, believe it or not, for the physical exercise part! I've gotten so mushy into the writer's life, that my physical body is going back to its pre-exercise formation. Not a pretty sight. I love the feeling of tight muscles and flat stomach. Thanks for the inspiration, Scott. I'll be both writing AND going to the gym today thanks to you.

Barbara Martin said...

A timely post, Scott, as I have returned to complete my second novel and outline the third. It was languishing while I blogged.

Neil said...

I also heard a teacher say that "Interest is a muscle". So not just the physical writing, but the necessity of being curious constantly.

Scott D. Parker said...

David - Question for you David: is your hour a solid block of time or spaced out throughout the day? When I wrote my first book, I wrote every night at 10pm.

Debra - Glad I could inspire. I ran 2.5 miles this morning and, for the first time, barely got winded. Now, later, I'll be writing and, like you, will make it a good day to exercise both sets of muscles.

Barbara - I have a whole other post on blogging but that'll be another day. Like you, I'm going back to my half-finished 2nd novel and looking at it with fresh eyes. In addition, I'm writing a novel featuring my cowboy detective, Calvin Carter. It's amazing what happens when you get things straight in your head.

Neil - That's the one thing that hasn't left me: my curiosity. I'm constantly wondering how things work, how people do their jobs, and, of course, what would make a good story. I keep a Moleskine notebook with me that I've hacked to be a day planner. I also jot notes in it and have found it to be the perfect place to record my ideas.

Mike Dennis said...

Excellent post, Scott. Writing is indeed a muscle that needs to be worked on a regular basis.

I also liked your passage on summer. Summer has always been my favorite season, even though I've lived in a warm-weather climate for over half my life. Nevertheless, there's just something in every summer that suggests unbridled freedom. Maybe it's our fondness for summer vacation from school. A high point for me is that it's as far away from winter as you can get.

Winter, of course, in most areas of the country, is the pits. It's stamped with naked trees, the dreary cold, and long, dark nights, while we all struggle to stay warm. Spring is nothing more than winter trying desperately to hang on, while autumn is the hurried swan song to summer, as well as being winter's opening lines.

Your post is an inspiration to everyone to get off his/her ass and resume writing.
--Mike Dennis
Las Vegas

Jay Stringer said...

It's definatley a muscle, or at least a habit, that needs to be maintained.

Not even necesarily by a set goal each day of x amount of hours. At least not for me. Some days that would be counterproductive.

To quote the great screenwriter Chris McQuarrie;

" those days i tried to write ten pages a day. Nowadays i just try to move the curser to the right of the page."

I'm in no position to be giving advice for how other people should do things, but for me i need to take a look at what i'm working on every day. Somedays i'll take a look, and my brain will click, and i'll write a few thousand words. Other days, i'll read it then go do something else.

PokerBen said...

Scott, excellent post, and great blog. Glad I was turned onto it.

I too have fallen off of the writing wagon, and although I miss the feeling of "having written" it's damn hard to get back on track.

I like you, write the stories in my mind, but they never make it to page.

Thanks for the great post, hopefully it will motivate me to get things together.


Scott D. Parker said...

Mike - Glad I'm not the only one who feels that summer is something special. I live in Texas and if someone defines 'summer' as days with heat, then our summer goes from April to October. I was born in December so I do like that month as well. "It's the most wonderful time of the year." But summer... ahhhh

Jay - I agree that X words per day is probably counterproductive. I think I'm going to start X words per Week. That'll allow some flexibility.

Ben - I have found it Extremely difficult to get back on the wagon. Like my running, I'm following the simple mantra: just do it. Easier said than done. Glad you stopped by and keep on reading (and writing!).