I wrote 35,280 words in December
Published: January 25, 2017
This website exists because I like to write and I like to learn. Life is a barrage of experiences and sometimes these experiences are hard to understand if I don’t reflect on them a little. Thinking is one level of reflection, talking is another, but there’s something about writing that takes learning someplace deeper. At least it does for me.
When I write, it’s easy to be both a student and a teacher at the same time. No matter the topic, when I write about it, there will be things I know about how I feel and things I learn about how I feel along the way. Almost always, after I finish writing something, I understand myself a little better than when I started. So at its core this website exists to teach myself about myself. That sounds weird, but it’s true.
That’s not the only reason this website exists though. It also exists because I enjoy sharing my experiences with others. Life can feel like a black box sometimes–opaque and impossible to understand except by those lucky few who have struggled through it already. Taxes, health insurance, romantic relationships, job hunting. Life is confusing. As someone on the outside, it’s really frustrating trying to make sense of it without help.
A black box I struggled with a lot recently was trying to get my foot in the door of an animation studio. I studied computer science in college, and when I graduated I really wanted to write software for feature animation. I couldn’t figure out how to get from point A to point B though. No one I knew had ever done anything like it, my undergraduate university wasn’t well-versed in the entertainment industry, so they weren’t much help, and unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of online advice targeted at breaking into the technical side of animation. The process was a total mystery to me that I was eventually able to unravel, but it took years of blind struggle to do so.
But now I know. Breaking into the animation industry isn’t a black box to me anymore. I’m on the inside now, and being inside brings a clarity that’s impossible to match from the outside. A frustrating cycle emerges at this point though because the moment you make it inside one of these boxes, it’s easy to forget how opaque it looked to you from the outside. It’s easy to forget the struggle. It’s easy to diminish how far a little help from someone in the know would go. I want to help. I want to make life less opaque, and sharing my experiences on this website is one way I know how to do that.
Learning new things and sharing my experiences is important to me, and writing on this website facilitates both. But I started this website back in the summer of 2013, and I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for it so far. I’ve always had an excuse for not writing more.
Making time to make things is hard
When I created this website I was busy getting ready to move to Philadelphia for grad school. Then I was in grad school and was busy trying to keep my head above water in a challenging academic environment. Then I spent a summer interning at DreamWorks and was busy trying to make every second of that experience count. Then I was back in grad school busy trying to find a full-time job for after graduation.
Then I did find a job! I landed a software engineering gig at Blue Sky, so I moved to New York and had to figure out how to live on my own for the first time in my life. I did actually manage to write quite a bit during this transition into adulthood, but that’s only because I was a shy kid living in a new city, and I didn’t have any friends yet. It’s easy to make time for your hobbies when most of your time is spent sitting alone in your apartment.
No more excuses.
I’ve been at Blue Sky for almost two years now, and I feel like I’ve got most of my life tuned the way I like it. My job is still challenging, but it excites me way more often than it stresses me out. I’ve got friends who I enjoy spending time with and hobbies I enjoy making time for. My diet’s pretty good, my exercise routines are consistent, I’m done paying off my student loans, and I regularly contribute to a 401(k).
Life is good, which means I can’t keep making excuses. If writing really is important to me, then it’s time for me to prove it.
I’m starting the best way I know how
I’m trying to make writing a daily habit. Wake up, write something, write anything, no matter how small or unimportant it feels. Just write. The process is what I care about. What I actually end up writing isn’t all that important to me at this point.
Writing this way takes conscious effort because it’s different from how I used to do things. I used to put a lot of effort into trying to produce high quality stuff all the time. I strived to make everything I wrote shareable, which just meant confident enough to let others read it. I had good intentions approaching writing this way, but it put pressure on me to make every word I wrote clever, interesting, or insightful, which led to a writing process that felt intimidating most days.
I’m running in the opposite direction now. Now, I’m trying to have zero expectations of myself when I write, and I can already feel this perspective shift changing my relationship with writing. It’s become a lot easier to sit down to a blank page every morning for instance. I’ve actually got a 59 day writing streak going, so this new strategy seems to be working. I really did write 35,280 words in December. It’s amazing how progress compounds when you consistently show up to do the work.
(Fun fact: 35,280 words across 31 days averages out to 1,138 words written per day. If I can keep that pace up for all of 2017, then I’ll end up writing 415,370 words this year, which is totally bonkers.)
Why aren’t there any new blog posts then?
Totally fair question.
It’s because I’m not writing to publish. I’m writing to write, and I’m writing to build better writing habits by practicing something called free writing:
“Free writing is a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism…Some writers use the technique to collect initial thoughts and ideas on a topic, often as a preliminary to formal writing.”
Basically, I sit down in front of my computer every morning, and I just dump my brain for 20 minutes. It’s spontaneous. It’s ugly. It’s raw. It’s really ugly. But I’m learning a lot about myself in the process, which is my favorite thing about writing, so every minute feels like time well spent. It’s a strong feedback loop actually because I’m learning a new habit while simultaneously reinforcing my favorite aspects of that habit, which has made it really easy to build momentum.
I’m 59 days in, and the process is only getting easier. Writing feels exciting now instead of intimidating. With free writing, I never feel stuck. I never feel pressure to overcome a block. When one train of thought fizzles out, I just pick up another. And there’s always another. And there’s always another one after that. I’ll circle back if that’s where my mind wanders, but otherwise I just follow my mind wherever it jumps. I like the simplicity of it.
You don’t need permission to change
We’re 25 days into 2017 now, and a lot of people have probably already given up on their New Year’s resolutions. I get it. Change is hard. If it were easy to do, then there wouldn’t be a holiday centered around it. Just attempting to improve is worthy of applause in my opinion.
What bothers me though is that a lot of people think January 1st is their one shot at introducing positive changes into their lives every year. If they fail, they’re done until the calendar flips over again, which could be months away. That’s too long to wait to improve your life. That’s like falling off a horse and, rather then getting back on that horse immediately, deciding to lie face down in the dirt for a few months instead. When you finally do stand up to face the horse again, it’s gone. It got tired of waiting for you.
Life doesn’t wait around either. You either change or you don’t. You improve your life or you don’t. But every second that passes is still one second less, so why not use those seconds to become the version of yourself you most admire?
You don’t need permission to make changes to your life. There’s nothing magic about January 1st. It really is just another date on the calendar. You have the power to change your life whenever your current situation no longer suits you.
What’s remarkable about the date I decided to change my writing habits is that there was absolutely nothing remarkable about the date I decided to change my writing habits. I started on November 28th–a totally nondescript Monday. If I had waited for the new year, I definitely wouldn’t have written as much as I did.
What I’ve learned about writing
Just like there’s nothing magic about January 1st, there’s nothing magic about the writing process either. There aren’t any secrets or shortcuts, and there’s no special mood, tool, or locale required to “have a breakthrough” or whatever. It’s all about showing up and facing off with a blank page every day.
There’s a quote I found online a few years ago that perfectly captures how I feel:
“Forget motivation. It’s fickle and unreliable and it isn’t worth your time. Better to cultivate discipline than to rely on motivation. Force yourself to do things. Force yourself to get up out of bed and practice. Force yourself to work. Motivation is fleeting and it’s easy to rely on because it requires no concentrated effort to get. Motivation comes to you, you don’t even have to chase after it. Discipline is reliable, motivation is fleeting. The question isn’t how to keep yourself motivated, it’s how to train yourself to work without it.”
–The Angry Violinist
If I waited to write until I felt motivated, I wouldn’t ever write anything. Honestly, I rarely feel motivated when I first sit down to write, but I haven’t let that stop me. I start typing anyway.
I’ve learned that there’s no correlation between the quality of my writing and the mood I’m in when I write. Obviously my mood influences the topics I choose to write about, how could it not? But it doesn’t dictate my output of interesting ideas. From my experience, quality is mostly unpredictable. Pretty much the only thing constant about it is that the more I write, the more likely I am to discover something of value buried in my work.
And that’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned during these last 59 days of writing: Writing is like digging for gold. Gold is awesome! We all want gold. But we’re never going to find gold if all we do is sit at the water’s edge and wait for it to surface. We have to go digging for it. We have to get our hands dirty. We have to scoop debris into a pan and shake the silt out. Then we have to do it again. Then again. 100 times. 200 times. 1000 times. If we keep at it long enough, one of those times we’re going to shake the silt away and see a glimmer.
The same is true of writing. We all have good ideas buried in our heads, but we shouldn’t expect our best ideas to surface on their own. We’ve got to go digging for them. Writing is how we shake the silt out. We won’t strike gold every day, but we’ll never strike gold if we don’t dig.
How to implement your own changes
Start small. Really small. Pick the habit you want to develop, and then think of the smallest possible version of that habit. Make it so easy to succeed at your new habit on a daily basis that it’s impossible to not show up.
For me, I wanted to write more. The smallest version of this habit I could think of was writing one word a day, so that’s where I started. Seriously. One word, five seconds of work. That’s all I had to do to win the day and get a hit of dopamine. It was absurdly, laughably easy, but that was the point. I set the bar so low that I had to show up every day. No amount of excuses could get me out of writing one word.
And it worked! I showed up. Every day. No exceptions. No excuses. Soon, showing up to write became automatic.
After small changes become automatic, feel free to scale them up. What’s interesting though is that you often won’t need to. Showing up is the hardest part. Writing that first word down on a blank page, driving to the gym and doing that first set of exercises, whatever. Once you’re there though, after you’ve overcome your resistance to starting, it’s pretty easy to keep going. Even though my target word count was one, when I sat down to write, I always wrote more. The low bar I had set for myself wasn’t an excuse to take it easy, it was zero pressure incentive to show up every morning and get work done.
I could have made my initial goal something bigger. Something sexier. Something like, “publish a new blog post every week.” But that’s a hard goal, and hard goals are intimidating, and intimidating things are easy to ignore. I don’t have enough time to write a full blog post. I don’t have enough interesting ideas to fill 52 articles this year. Nobody’s reading my website anyway, so why am I killing myself trying to publish so frequently? Hard goals breed excuses.
If the amount of work required to feel good about our progress is too intimidating, we’ll talk ourselves out of trying every time. Make small changes that grow over time instead. It works for me.
Good luck and happy writing!
Image credit: Joanna Kosinska