Staying on Track

June 28, 2012

So how do we writers know what our goals are? How do we motivate ourselves to stay on track while we’re working? How do we know where we are in the process of completing our work? How do we turn our day-to-day stint at the desk into completed pieces of work? These are among the most important questions a writer can ask. And each writer must answer these questions in a way that respects her own process.

But before I starting writing my memoir Vertigo, I went to Weight Watchers. Losing weight wasn’t about vanity for me; I wanted to be in good enough shape to chase after my grandson. Weight Watchers is so successful because the meeting leaders share the reasons why the program works (if you stick to it); they share the research that has been done about weight loss. During the time I spent on Weight Watchers, I learned many valuable tools and I decided to apply them to my writing life. I lost the weight; I wrote the book. I’ve kept the weight off; I continue writing.
Determining a goal. Thinking about possible outcomes. Setting an intermediate goal. When you go on Weight Watchers, the first thing you determine is your weight loss goal. There are charts that help you figure out what your optimum weight should be based upon your sex, your age, your height and so, the amount of weight you need to lose. But you must determine this yourself, in collaboration with your leader and, perhaps, your doctor. So let’s say that you need to lose fifty pounds. That’s far too daunting a goal to think of. So the program has you determine your first intermediate goal—5 or 10%, say, of the total amount of weight you want to lose, which would be two and a half or five pounds. “Wow,” you tell yourself, “I can do that!” Too large a goal, I learned, is so terrifying to contemplate that many of us stop ourselves before we even begin trying to accomplish something.
You talk, too, about other goals—like wanting to feel physically fit; like improving your cardiac health; like wanting to fit into clothing that has been languishing in your closet. These goals, you learn, will happen automatically if you stick with the program and begin to lose weight. You can’t set a goal of feeling physically fit just like you can’t set a goal of being a famous writer. But you can set a goal that you have the power to accomplish: losing weight; writing your pages. And then you write all these goals and intermediate goals down. It’s essential that you keep a written record of your journey.

I knew that I wanted Vertigo to be 90,000 to 100,000 words. I’d written my statement of purpose about what the book would be about. Still, it felt even more daunting to have to write that many words than it did to lose weight. But I decided to use the Weight Watcher technique to set an intermediate goal 5% goal—5,000 words, or roughly twenty pages. This wasn’t scary at all; it felt was eminently doable.
How do we motivate ourselves to stay on track? At Weight Watchers, the leaders strongly urge members to track everything they eat each day. (Each member has a number of “points” roughly equivalent to the number of calories they can eat each day.) Research, the leaders tell the members, has shown that people who track what they eat lose weight more quickly, stay on track longer, and feel better about their progress than people who don’t. In fact, record keeping seems a necessary component for a successful weight loss program. And yet, many members don’t do this. These are the ones who either fail to achieve their goals or drop out. You need to know what you’re eating if you’re going to lose weight.

Similarly, a writer needs to track how much she’s written during a given day so that she can view her progress. She might want to track, too, whether she’s worked a half hour, or two hours—whatever. She can write down something about the subject of her work; she can cite whether she was generating new material, revising, organizing her papers—whatever. This record can prove invaluable to track the genesis of a book, say. It can provide a writer with a written document to review when the going gets rough. Let’s say the writer believes she’s not working hard enough on her book. If she reviews her log, she’ll know whether that’s a feeling with no basis in fact or whether that’s a feeling rooted in the reality of her not getting herself to the desk.
I believe that a writing log like this is essential to the successful completion of a project. And I always strongly urge writers to keep one. I’ve also learned that those writer who have no way of tracking their work are also the writers most likely to abandon projects or to become extremely dissatisfied about their writing journey. Keeping a log is one way we tell ourselves we’re making a daily commitment to our work, that we’re serious about it that we intend to do everything we can to reach our goal.

Weight Watcher leaders tell new members that, although you can come and weigh in and leave, that if you stay for a meeting, you’re more likely to reach your goal. There’s something about sharing your journey with others who understand what your journey is about that helps the process. In any meeting, there will be “newbies,” Life Members, people who have achieved their 10% goal, people who are just pounds away from their goal. Each member has something significant to offer every other member.
I’ve always believed that “in progress” meetings of writers are useful. Squirreling ourselves away and doing our work in private might not be the best way to reach our goals. I’m not talking about sharing pages. I’m talking about sitting with other writers and talking about the challenges of working. This kind of talk is so useful that I make it an integral part of each class I teach. We all learn from each other. The most important thing we learn is that whatever challenge we face, we’re not alone in facing it: someone in the room also has the same issue in doing the work. This makes us feel less isolated and alone.

When a Weight Watcher member reaches an intermediate goal, he is publicly acknowledged, and he gets a star, a pin, a sticker—a little something to acknowledge the achievement. The member is encouraged, too, to reward himself with, say, a dinner out or a new book—something special to mark that moment. This reward helps keep the person on track; it marks significant milestones along the way to achieving the final goal. And because losing a significant amount of weight can take a few years—about the time it takes to write a book, incidentally—periodic rewards are essential if the process is to work. This is something that writers often forget. How have we rewarded ourselves for work accomplished lately? Have we?

How do we know where we are in the process? When you’re in Weight Watchers, you chart your progress. You weigh yourself once a week. (Life Members—I’m a Life Member—sometimes weigh themselves every day.) You chart your weight loss or your weight gain. The chart is a visual indication of where you are in your weight loss journey.
In writing Vertigo, for the first time in my writing life, I began to keep a chart of where I was in my process. I knew that I had, say, 50,000 words written in my first draft, and this meant I done 50% of the work towards my goal; that I had 50,000 words yet to write. Knowing I was halfway there was very important to me. The next day I worked, let’s say I wrote 1,000 words. That meant that I’d done 51% of the work towards my goal! At the end of each workday, I “ran the numbers.” This simple act helped me keep at my work more than anything else. I could “see” the progress I was making.
I also printed out my pages each day and added them to the stack of pages on my desk. I believe that writers who never print out their work until they’re all finished deprive themselves of the significant small physical reward of taking a small stack of papers and placing them on the bottom of a larger stack of papers. Whenever I felt as if I weren’t accomplishing a thing, I could glance over at the pile of papers on my desk. That made me feel good; it made me feel like a writer at work.
It also helped me to remind myself of where I was in the process. Was this the first pass? The third? Would there be one or two more? I like to know whether I’m just beginning; whether my goal is to finish a working draft start to finish; whether it’s to revise and deepen a draft; whether it’s to proofread the work and make it ready for a reader.

How do we turn our daily stint at the desk into finished products? The answer to this question is easy. In Weight Watchers, you’re taught to think, not about the product, but about the process. You’re taught to think, not even of one day at a time, but of one meal at a time. You’re taught to get right back on track the minute you’ve gotten off track. You’re taught not to beat yourself up about what you haven’t done but to plan on what you’re going to do next. You’re taught to use a number of tools—positive self-talk, reframing the challenge, planning ahead, anticipating challenges and preparing solutions for them—to help you along the way.
But the key, really, with our writing is just sticking to the process, one day at a time, no matter how difficult it seems. It does become easier, with time. It becomes habitual. If we stick to the process, just sticking to the process makes us feel good about ourselves. Sticking to the process, in time, becomes a way of life.

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15 Responses to “Staying on Track”

  1. Kirie Says:

    What a lovely post to open as the top of my inbox this morning! I was even feeling guilty to go to gmail before writing for the day. Yet similarly to Louise, I’ve learned that to write in a healthy way–physically and emotionally–I need to walk with my dogs, meditate, do yoga, eat regularly. Self-torture about writing simply isn’t what it’s about, despite my “role models” when a young student of literature.

    Louise is my role model now, along with Doris Lessing, Ellen Gilchrist, Alice Munro, Margaret Drabble, Anne Enright, Carolyn See, and others who greet me from beside my desk each morning as I start to write.

    Virginia Woolf, too, only despite all taking care, life was too much for her.

    I set goals, break them into smaller pieces, write them down, and review them each morning, for writing as well as for health. I don’t always record each day’s accomplishments or remember to reward myself rather than wait for some faceless magazine editor (probably a graduate student, in many cases) or agent to determine my worth.

    As a young student and writer, I vowed to survive Plath, and then Woolf so others would know a writer can face life. Early on, Ms. DeSalvo’s Virginia Woolf informed a piece of that survival for me personally. Louise DeSalvo’s “Virginia Woolf ” is one of those reminder-books that sits to my left as I write.

    Now what a gift to have Ms. DeSalvo appear in my inbox to start my day. Thank you!

    Kirie

  2. Luisa M atarazzo Says:

    One thing I know for sure: Louise deSalvo keeps me going…

  3. Michael DiSchiavi Says:

    Louise’s comments spoke to me more today (the third time I’ve read them) than previously. I am about 110 pages away from completing the current draft of my new novel AND I have finally decided that its time to lose weight, not just talk about it. I have a specific amount of pounds in mind (I won’t reveal that here) but like my writing, I’m going to break the goal into smaller more manageable goals.

    Thanks as always, Louise. And please keep the posts coming.

    Best wishes.
    Michael

  4. Katie Westbrook Says:

    Like others here, Louise, I’m always inspired by you. I’ll never forget reading Vertigo during a summer creative writing class at Hunter in undergrad and then doing everything in my power to sign up for a class with you. I wish I could still be in your classes now!

  5. Peter Orozco Says:

    I’m a type one diabetic. Keeping daily logs of my glucose numbers helps me to keep my blood sugar under control, but on days that I slip, I see a dramatic spike in my levels. When I keep daily logs, I do excellent. When I don’t, I don’t do well. It’s as simple as that.

    After reading DeSalvo’s post, I can see the direct correlation with my diabetes and my writing. If I keep track, then there will be improvements. For now on, I will keep a writing log right next to my glucose log. Seeing progress calms the soul. Thank you DeSalvo for this post.

  6. Melissa Hroncich Says:

    WOW! I am simply empowered by your thoughts and ideas with “Staying on Track”. I was a member of Weight Watchers for a long time and the process of “one meal at a time”, keeping a log of what you ate in a day, attending meetings for encouragement and so forth were all part of my daily rountine too. As a matter of fact, these different requirements helped me see how important it was to stay on track. However, it never dawned on me to take the same idea and apply it to my own writing. It clearly makes sense though….. with practice everything does get easier. I will continue to push myself to write for a certain amount of time each day. In addition, I will take the next step of focusing on a specific writing goal. Currently, I am taking a memoir class and I am required to write journals weekly. Therfore, I am going to focus on doing those journal in a timely manner in addition to developing my memoir. Being an effective writer requires multiple requirements and time. Thank you for making such a strong connection.

  7. Walter Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo

    It is so refreshing to hear a goal system said so well. This is because goals have always been my week point. But it helps to know that strategies that can cut the intimidation of a big project to its knees. To allow such simpleness to get involved inspires me to rethink what goals actually are and the means of achieving them.

  8. mariham2012 Says:

    What an inspiring blog! I truly admire your signifying example of how one should and can keep track of his/her writing by following the Weight Watchers Program guidelines. As a writer, I often fail to keep track of where and how my writing is progressing. I fall into the trap of deadlines. “Keeping a log is one way we tell ourselves we’re making a daily commitment to our work, that we’re serious about it that we intend to do everything we can to reach our goal”, I strongly agree with your statement. I have experienced a similar commitment through my “to do list of the day”. I have set myself not go to sleep before having done everything that’s on my list, otherwise I would feel like the day was unproductive and a total waste. The final paragraph of this blog diagnosis my writing illness. I simply do not stick to the process. I may begin but never continue the log. However, I plan on making it a habitual act of the day, like you suggest. I am encouraged to create, begin and continue keeping a log of my writing process.

  9. Mel Sutaris Says:

    I have heard, many times, from many different people, that setting a goal is the best way to achieve success. This is my downfall: I never set a goal, and now in reading this post, I realize why. It’s because I am the person who sets the goal for losing 50 pounds instead of 5 or 10.

    Breaking down a big goal into smaller ones is definitely the answer because these goals are more realistic and achievable. Breaking up a goal into a percentage seems like a great idea, because it is a good way to track progress.

    I love the idea you’ve proposed about comparing Weight Watchers to writing. Keeping a log about my work would help tremendously and keep me on track. I know this because this semester I started writing in my first process journal ever. I felt relieved when I was writing those entries and just writing about writing. Writing the frustration out, using it as a tool. Talking about the challenges we face in our work with other writers is useful also because they may be having the same issues we have. Even better, they may have suggestions for us because they once had the same problem.

    From now on, I am going to reward myself when I finish a percentage of my work, give myself a star. I think that quite often we underestimate our work and feel that it isn’t good enough, or we hadn’t done our best job. When a project is finished, we deserve that dinner or night out. We deserve it because we have accomplished our goal: the one that only started with 1%.

  10. oneup Says:

    My sister always says that I have to set goals in life. I actually have plenty of goals. Now, I tell my friend that he needs to set goals because he’s all over the place. Nowadays he’s been very successful in life too. For better writing I think that I should set a goal for myself and it is to write for more than 15 minutes. I did pretty well before writing for 10 so if I keep writing for longer and not procrastinating like I mentioned in another post, I’ll be great and that’s the goal I need to set.

  11. Erin Van Horn Says:

    My life’s major issue has always been setting a goal and meeting it–according to the original set of guidelines. This also applies to the huge weight on my shoulders, the one I subconsciously enjoy continuing, procrastination. The surge of energy I get two hours before a deadline annoys and yet stimulates my brain in a way that is like a bad pill. I’ve always been told this is a bad approach to work, writing in particular, but setting goals and “deadlines” for myself bores me.
    I realize this all makes me sound immature and unprofessional but regardless, this method of working has yet to fail me. I feel my most abundant thought erupts when I know my brain has nowhere else to turn or escape to for isolation from this said “work.”
    Currently in Giunta’s Memoir class, goals are part of the game. Despite my usual stubbornness creating my own goals, goals are pre-set for me to follow and this time seem to be working well. I have more time to dive into my memories and remember things I’m sure I would not even touch upon if my thoughts were rushed.

    I have found an exception to the rule.

    Thank You,
    Erin Van Horn

  12. Christian Zambrano Says:

    I find it inspirational that you compare writing to weight loss. It happens that currently I am a student of both. I am learning to be a better writer as well as attempting to maintain a strict regime to lose weight but this is not about my weight loss. I am however intrigued how you explain the same. You mention that it is all about the process and I have to agree. Everything that I do has always been successful when I plan and follow through. I have began to write memoirs this year and I feel that it is one of the most difficult things that I have to do. I also noticed that it has become easier to manage and follow through by developing a plan and maintaining to this plan. I have to say that my writing has improved as I follow my plan. Thank you for these words. I find that they help and give me guidance as I continue to better myself as a writer.


  13. As always, when I read a blog entry, it seems to come at the most perfect timing. With this entry in particular, it was so easy to relate as I have been on a journey where I lost 120 lbs myself. Lately I’ve been struggling a bit with the staying on task portion of writing. I have so many projects going on at the same time, I lose track, and with so many obligations, its easy to choose yourself last. This blog post reminded me to give up on the idea of the destination, with writing, and in life; to simply enjoy the ride, and engage in it. Especially with my writing, there are portions of my memoir project where I have literally written, “I’m not ready to write this part yet”. But this served as such a gentle reminder to really be gentle and ask for help and support. Along with Edi’s reminder to not edit while I was writing, I think things may go much smoother.

    Thank you for your wisdom~namaste 🙂

  14. Veronica Santos Says:

    This post is so perfect for where I am right now. I am working on a writing piece for a class and it just seems so daunting because of the amount of writing I feel I will have to do. But I can start seeing how I can split it up into sections as I am currently working on revising and it feels like a long arduous process. I feel I could tackle one section each day for maybe an hour and see how that works. I constantly need to be reminded to take baby steps and not to jump in and ‘fix’ it all at once. Thank you!

  15. Nicole Leibowitz Says:

    Ah, if only I had been as diligent as I should have been. Perhaps, I would have come across this post earlier, instead of scrambling for the last few missing puzzle pieces. Often, I become so wrapped up in the result that I miss the process, which is so vital in any project. I seem to struggle with pacing myself. I push myself to see how far I can go without working. The pressure fuels my writing–such a bogus concept. It hinders my creativity, so I have to stop telling myself that I produce more interesting work when I’m “under the gun.” It’s a prison–a punishment of which I have to break free. Thank you for reinforcing these ideals–I needed this!


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