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.