I posted to this blog for a few weeks and then, like every other time I’ve ever tried blogging, I stopped. I stopped pretty much everything, in fact: writing, working out, etc. Right now, today, I’m working my way back. I don’t know about you, but I always want there to be a switch. When I was a kid I remember distinctly writing in a notebook that I’d had this revelation. Maybe I was thirteen. The revelation was that there isn’t this switch that gets flipped and now you’re an adult, possessed of all the knowledge and capabilities adolescent-you lacks.
You do change, but it’s slow, and it’s not always in the ways you think.
I started blogging in 2011… and 2013… and 2017. But if you look back at this site, the earliest post is from 2018. What used to happen is, I’d make a few posts, excited to be doing this… and then I’d stop. And then, after six months or a year of inactivity, those couple of lonely islands in a sea of unproductive time would fill me with shame, and I’d just delete the thing. Until, a few years later, I’d start all over again.
I was and am jealous of those folks who have a blog for a decade or more; they can look back on this mountain of work they’ve slowly accumulated. The same is true for the fiction side, as I’ve said before: I love the idea of standing on top of a mountain of stuff you made. Not just one or two things breaking through the filmy surface of distraction and laziness once or twice in your life, but regular, consistent production. It doesn’t have to be genius work, most if not all of it won’t be, it just has to be yours. In the world. Outside of your head. Made. Done.
Sometimes, always, there’s no magic switch: the tricky and terrifying thing is that you just have to keep choosing to show up. It’s true in relationships and exercise and writing, anything that slowly builds a mountain one rock at a time. I always wanted there to be a switch that flipped and then I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about whether or not I was going to do the work.
But I’m losing faith such a switch exists—or gaining clarity that it doesn’t.
What I hope instead is that I reach the place where there’s a habit, and, the same way I don’t have to wonder if I’m going to brush my teeth before I go to bed tonight, I won’t have to wonder “will I write today?” But maybe that never happens. What I’ve realized I can do, though, must do, if only to never again feel like I gave up on this, is not mind the times I fall off: just keep showing back up.
So to get back on the horse, I’m doing a three-week challenge: wake up at six in the morning and write at least one thousand words. First thing, before you do anything else. I’m on day seventeen as I edit and post this, and it’s been going pretty smoothly. I’ll say this, though: every time I get up at six I wish I was getting up at seven instead. I’m going to do an experiment when this phase is over: I’m going to try waking up at seven and writing, for, say, a week, and see if I actually feel different upon waking, or if I always feel like “it’s too early”.
I suspect it’ll be the latter: wanting to hit snooze just one more time is merely a passing feeling.
There’s a lot of talk about the importance of waking up early, and, fair enough, but I don’t think it’s magic; look, the point is to do the writing, the thing I’ll otherwise spend all day thinking about but not doing, the thing I’ll feel like shit because I didn’t do. I’ve got to do that first before the rewarding activities of eating breakfast and drinking coffee and catching up on the internet and going for a walk and playing video games, because all of those activities can and do stretch out to fill the whole day.
I still have a nagging voice telling me I’m not writing enough, but at least it’s a start. I did something, and I did it every day. If I write a thousand words a day I can work on pushing it to two thousand. If I go back to writing zero, well, I’m back where I came from.
When you do a challenge like this you have to plan. One thing I did right away was create a little three-week calendar on graph paper, and I wrote in the dates and highlighted the weekend days in red. The red is a warning that weekends are often a break in routine, they require more deliberation to wake up early and to therefore go to bed at the right time.
The red highlights were a reminder to consider this beforehand: instead of realizing it’s Friday night and I’m staying out ’til midnight but, oops, I wanted to wake up at six tomorrow, I’d have to be planning for Friday night that whole day.
Likewise, for going to bed earlier. Once or twice, I stayed up past midnight and then woke up at six. And I did get up at six, because, dammit, I was going to do this challenge. And I could always go back to bed for a couple more hours afterwards. It still feels terrible, though, so most days I started going to bed earlier. Doing this requires planning that rolls backwards through the rest of the day: I wanted to be in bed with nothing left to do but read a bit until ten and then turn out the light. That meant whatever else I wanted to do during the evening had to stop at nine at the latest. And then that becomes easier because you were up at six and you’re tired by nine anyway, and you’ve already had fifteen hours in your day, how much more do you need? When you get up after nine in the morning it’s easy to stay up til midnight; when you get up at six, it gets a lot less easy.
I talked about switches, wishing I could find and flip the switch to shunt myself from the inconsistent writer track to the writes all the time track. But maybe a more apt metaphor for how we really change is, we need to set up roadblocks for ourselves, forcing us to navigate onto the right roads. We’re not Nietzschean super-beings of unlimited and awesome willpower, it turns out: we’re creatures of habit, but that’s fine. The difference between us and, say, a lab rat, is we can become aware of the routines running our lives and change them, maybe not through force of will, but through the deliberate construction of an environment, both internal and external, which slowly molds us into the people we want to be.
That sure sounds a lot less satisfying than just flipping a switch, but my experience is that the switch is a fantasy. The other… well, I’m hoping it isn’t.