I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainable change the last few days. Human beings are creatures of habit–we fall into patterns of behavior and without some external influence or some serious motivation, we tend not to change anything. Newtonian physics in action. Look at New Year’s Resolutions. How many of us vow to lose that 10 pounds or start exercising or get organized or whatever and haven’t even managed to keep them up past February? It’s been on my mind in the context of weight loss and exercise lately–I’ve tried all sorts of diets with varying results, but none of them ever get stuck to and that 20 pounds I want to lose inevitably creeps back. Same with exercise. I have noble intentions, even start out pretty well, but then fall off. So what I’ve been doing lately is generally just trying to watch my portions food wise. And on the exercise front–well I’ve been walking Daisy every morning since Angel died, mostly because it made her happy when we were all sad–and now it’s become routine. And to that routine I’ve added in this program, which I’ve done before with some success. It’s 8 minutes. Who doesn’t have time to carve out 8 minutes to work out? I figure by the time I’ve gone through the program twice (it’s a 4 week program), Callie will be house broken enough that I don’t have to worry about her peeing somewhere or chewing on furniture, then I can get back to using the home gym we bought. So far I’ve stuck with it. Baby steps. It’s a small change and therefore one I will probably be able to maintain. The big ones I’m more apt to burn out on and quit or fall off the wagon (and really, a life with no potatoes? it’s a life not worth living).
The same principle applies to writing. There are so so many people out there who say they write. Seems like every other person has a story to tell. Many start and go for a while with a fervor, but when that inspiration runs out, the stream of words tapering off–they stop and wait for the next spurt. A few are able to actually function this way–so productive during those spurts of inspiration that they still actually finish in some span of time. My friend Sarah works this way most of the time, and she’s got her first book, The Demon’s Lexicon, coming out in June 2010. She’s incredibly talented, and I’m so proud of her I could bust a gut. But my dear Sarah is in the minority. Most people, I would hazard to say, who wait around for inspiration to strike never finish anything. And in large part, I think that’s what separates the writers from the dabblers. They finish.
I began writing when I was 12. Seriously when I was 14. Finished my first book at 15, second 6 months later, then merged the two into one book. Submitted it and had it rejected by 3 publishers (thank God for small favors). And then from the time I was 18 until I was about 27, I wrote when I was inspired, or I wrote to escape–but I never wrote to finish. Not really. And so I hadn’t finished a book since I was 16, though I’d started countless ones, ridden the crest of that first wave of excitement and inspiration to its end, and stopped.
What changed for me?
In the course of working on my Master’s degree in clinical psychology, I had to take a course in Behavior Therapy–and part of that course was to create our own program to change some behavior of our own using behaviorist principles. I think mine was getting to where I could run 2 miles (which was another of those unsustainable changes that faded away). But I learned how the system worked and in March of last year I decided to apply it to my writing. Set attainable, measurable goals, and reward yourself for sticking to the program. I wanted to get to where I wrote daily. If I was ever to finish something, this seemed necessary–a way to get into and stay in the habit of writing. The idea being to keep the gears of my mind and my craft well oiled. So my measurable goal was to write 500 words a day. That was it. About 2 pages. It was a small step and an easily measurable one. I either wrote 500 or I didn’t. As I got back into the swing of things I upped that to 750 and then to 1k a day. 1,000 words a day is about my max most of the time as I juggle 2 jobs, family, and home stuff. As for the reward part–thankfully for me, writing is a self-rewarding behavior. It’s enjoyable and fun (most of the time)–unlike running and dieting. So that hasn’t been so much of an issue. And the big reward was that my program worked. I finished HOC at the end of August.
Everybody is different. My system may or may not work for you. But if you really want to write and you find yourself on that boat hopping from one island of inspiration to the next, then give it a try. Set that measurable goal. Find something you can quantify. Start small. I’ve become convinced that you have to start small and build up in order to sustain any real change. And though it may take longer–slow and steady does, indeed, win the race –because it’s not about finishing first–it’s about finishing at all.