Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, April 9, 2018

Much Ado About Writer's Block

Much has been written about writer’s block. In fact, I have spent countless hours searching online and seeking out books that will help me to overcome being blocked. Over time, I have realized that writer’s block is really another name for perfectionism. You can’t out anything down on paper, or type anything on the screen, because everything you can think of to say sounds wrong even before you’ve written it. The longer you sit in front of the blank page or screen in front of you, the harder it gets to put something down, and eventually, you just get up in frustration, telling yourself that you are blocked. 

Incidentally, I am a master at writer’s block. I spent years planning the first chapter, the first scene of a memoir that I wanted to write. This was going to be my first book, my most important book. If I didn’t nail the first scene, then the book wouldn’t come together. I never thought of writing the chapters I did know how to write, and simply putting the initial chapter in place later. Eventually, of course, I did employ that approach, and wrote other books; but because of that thinking I lost years of writing time. 

Perfectionism in writing is an insidious thing. It creeps up in the guise of “standards”. Who wouldn’t want to write well? Or ensure that they do a good job?

But there is a difference between having standards and perfectionism. Having standards means you care about quality, maybe you go over your work one more time, you take extra care while editing, you strive harder to get better as a writer. Perfectionism tells you that you have to get it right in one draft. There is no room for improvement, no room for error. With that attitude, no wonder we freeze up when faced with the prospect of having to write a first sentence. We stare at the blank page, aware of the importance of that first sentence and think - “This has to grab the reader. This has to be witty and entertaining and shed light into the mysteries of life”. No wonder we are paralyzed. 

How do you get away from perfectionism? You remind yourself that what you’re working on is just a draft. I had a professor in law who introduced our class to the concept of the ‘zero draft’. This was the stage even before the first draft, which even though it has the word ‘draft’ in it, most people including myself, associate with the final or near-final version of something. That way, having a zero draft gives you a chance to write an unpolished, messy draft. Ever since, I always started my academic papers, and later my books, with a zero draft. 

Which hasn’t stopped me from having several other drafts as well. When asked how many drafts a piece of writing might need, writing coach Hilary Rettig said, “As many as it takes”. 

I think the best way to combat the tendency towards perfectionism in your writing is to give yourself permission - permission to write something that needs to be edited. Permission to write something that isn’t quite finished yet. And permission to write and publish something that isn’t perfect, but is something better - it represents you. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Making Time to Write

Time is the one resource that you can’t renew or get back, as the saying goes. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, its how you use it that counts. We have all heard these cliches about time, and yet that is because they are true. As anyone who falls in love will testify, no matter how busy you are, you make time to call or text the person, you plan fun things you want to do together, you daydream about them all the time. You make the time for what you care about essentially. 

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert said that your relationship to your art must be like that of a secret lover, you steal time away when you can, you think about them and look forward to the next time you see them. It's exciting and passionate. 

Time is also relative. The main reason we think that we probably don’t have time to write is because we think that we need to have “large swathes of uninterrupted time, like bolts of fabric” (Julia Cameron). The reality is that you can write in snatched or stole time, like meeting your lover in the stairwell for a spontaneous make-out session. I’m writing this chapter in longhand on a crowded bus on my morning commute to my day job. In fact, I once wrote half a book longhand on the back of one-sided printed paper during my daily commute to college on the bus, while juggling a full load of classes, a part-time job and several extracurricular actives including being the editor of my college law magazine. I was busy, but I had a commission from a publisher to write the book, and as a fledgling writer, that’s all I had ever wanted. How could I let my dream slip away? With the deadline looming, I spent every spare minute jotting down sentences and paragraphs, racing to get the book done in time. 

As I write this, I am on a bus passing by Singapore’s breathtaking skyline - a picturesque grouping of iconic buildings that feature in every tourist’s photograph album. And yet no one around me has looked up from their phones to give this view a passing glance. If pressed, most people would probably respond that they don’t have the time to enjoy the view. But they are on the bus, captive, which won’t go any faster or slower than it will. Maybe what they mean is not that they don’t have the time, but that it isn’t a priority, it is more important to check that email, send that text or watch that funny cat video. Or maybe its just a habit, to do those things on the bus instead of seeing the view. 

How we spend our time then is a matter of priorities and habits. If you want to write a book (or play or short story), you have to prioritize it, perhaps over other things, at least while you are writing the book. And you have to create good habits that support your writing. 

This post is an excerpt from a book I am working on about writing your first book. I will be posting more installments intermittently on this blog. I would love comments or questions!

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Myth of the Messy Creative

We have all heard about how truly creative people are supposedly messy, and its a mark of a creative genius if they live in piles of clutter. I bought into this myth, or rather used it to justify being perennially disorganized and cluttered. Who am I kidding - I continue to use it to justify my being incredibly messy. But unlike before, I no longer buy into the myth. 

I’m not really sure whether there are studies that prove this myth one way or the other. And if you are a messy person who doesn’t want to change how you work, far be it for me to pass judgement. However, as someone who has struggled with being organized and corralling my clutter my whole life, I think there are a lot of benefits to working in a neat space. And this coming from someone who basically used a big plastic box in college to store my clothes in lieu of actually folding them or hanging them up when they came out of the wash. I dumped everything in the box, and rooted around in it every morning when looking for something to wear. Needless to say, that wasn’t a great system. 

And I used only a slightly better system for organizing important paperwork - the put-it-somewhere-and-forget-about-it method. I would dump unopened correspondence, flyers for events I wanted to attend, and even free vouchers for food that I wanted to eat in a pile on my desk, and when that pile grew larger, I would just gently push it all to the back to make more room, ignoring anything that mysteriously fell behind my desk, only to be retrieved months later when I was moving out. Its a miracle that I even managed to hand in anything important on time, and definitely missed out on a lot of great opportunities. I do not recommend this! 

In subsequent years, I have really tried hard to learn how to get better at being neat and organized. I have read books and looked up systems that promise that I will turn into Martha Stewart. While I haven’t become an expert at any of this, I have picked up tons of tips to help the organizationally challenged. 

Firstly, why even bother trying to be neater? Why not just embrace that this isn’t an area of strength and live with it? 
  • I often find that even if I let things slide while I am in the midst of a project or unusually busy with many things, neatening up helps me to close out a long and draining project, by putting away the detritus that accumulated while I was in the midst of working on it. 
  • I also find that when I’m feeling particularly challenged and a project isn’t going as well as I would like, organizing things helps to get me back on track. This might be because neatening things on the surface helps me achieve a calmer state inside me. Or it could have something to do with the energy or chi of my space. 
  • It helps reduce the distractions in my environment - seeing many different projects strewn around makes it harder to focus on the project at hand. 

So how exactly am I going to help you become more organized, at home or in your office? While I am not going to try and change you overnight into a neat freak, I will give you one huge tip that can help you in your organizational efforts: the rule of 80-20.

If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, its an economic term that basically describes a phenomena that often 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In simple English, things aren’t symmetrical or equal - a few people own a large proportion of the wealth, a few actresses get most of the Oscars and you use a few items in your home more often than the others. 

If you take the 80-20 rule and apply it to organizing your home or your office, you will realize that you wear some clothes more often than all the others combined, or some kitchen tools more than all the others, or some files in your office more often than everything else. 

How does knowing this help? It allows you to organize your space in such a way that everything you need regularly can be kept in an easy-to-access space, or kept close to hand. And the gadgets and files and handbags that you need only sometimes, can be put away - maybe in the cabinet that is harder to access, or in the top shelf of your cupboard that you need a step-ladder to get to. 

Ever since I had this epiphany of the 80-20 rule applying to organization, I realized that every room of my home violated it. I had the easiest to access drawers in my kitchen full of spices and utensils I almost never used. I kept files and papers I hadn’t touched in over six months on the table in my study. The most convenient hanging spaces in my cupboard were used for single-occasion dresses that I needed twice a year. No wonder I was disorganized - I hadn’t considered how I used my space. 

Faced with the challenge of keeping a neat dressing table, ask yourself: which items do you use most often? Put those on a pile to the side, and put everything else away. Voila! You’ve just made it easier to keep that dressing table neat. If you have a kitchen counter filled to bursting with gadgets, put away everything that is not used at least once a week. Stationery on your desk: do you really need six boxes of staples? Keep one and put the rest away. 

Why I love this method of keeping things neat - it doesn’t require you to remember complicated rules or buy special label-makers. You just ask yourself - what are my most easily accessed areas, and am I only using them to keep things I use most often?

I have been using this system myself and even converted my mum, who is much, much neater than me but still struggles with keeping everything contained. If you use this method and find it useful, email me or comment below and let me know. Better still, send me a photo! 

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