Unfinished business

If you’ve been reading here awhile, you may have noticed that I have a nasty habit:

I start a lot of projects that I don’t finish.

On this blog, I started a series on openness, about what I share and what I don’t and why…. Many weeks ago. On the science blog, I started a series on cancer that, thus far, has only two entries of what was going to be five or six.

I could blame both of those instances on circumstances. I planned to commit to spending more time writing instead of seeking out work for the month of November, and as chance would have it, I promptly got assigned several new students and had some new work opportunities fall into my lap, and then ended up getting a full-time job (which I started Monday! It’s pretty cool so far). And more generally, this is a blog I write in my free time largely for myself, and shit gets busy and until I got hired last week I’d spent most of the year scrambling to support myself on an inadequate mix of part-time/freelance gigs, so it’s understandable that things don’t always get done when I planned.

I could say all of that, and it wouldn’t be false, but it also isn’t really the truth. It’s a load of excuses. The fact of the matter is, I’m an epic procrastinator, especially around writing. When I have outside deadlines and criteria for my work, I don’t always necessarily thrive, but I get my shit done. When I’m writing for me though, my doubts and guilt and shame and just shear laziness and cowardice get the better of me an absurd amount of the time. This has been an ongoing problem for me ever since I first promised myself that I’d journal everyday, which was probably when I was about eight. I’ve done it with my journals, with my pre-teen poetry projects, with the handful of fiction pieces I’ve attempted, with essays and with miscellaneous other projects I have set for myself. When it comes to writing, if I don’t have a grade or a job on the line, I rarely finish what I start. I rarely follow through on any of my plans for long.

I’m deeply ashamed of this fact. In fact, the shame surrounding unfinished projects is one of my biggest barriers to getting writing work done. It’s a deeply stupid vicious cycle. Especially because I’ve gone about fixing it in entirely the wrong way. I’ll start a new project and tell myself: “This time, it’s going to be different. I’m going to [write/post/publish/submit/work-on X] every [day/week/other interval], and I’m going to stick to it.” And then the first time I screw up, I get absurdly angry with myself and then spiral into despair about it and then get defensive and decide it was a stupid/over-ambitious project in the first place and who did I think I was kidding? And then I quit.

Frankly, the only reason that I’m even still writing on this blog even semi-regularly, is because I have some readers. It’s not that I’m vain or need everyone to listen to me, it’s the accountability. Basically, now I feel (correctly or not) like I owe you all something, and that is enough to counter the jerkbrain for just long enough to get something written and posted now and then.

But while I haven’t given up on the blog as a whole—if only because I’m terrified of losing what little readership I have and then completely giving up writing again as a result—I have dropped the ball on many of my goals for the blog. I’ve never really stuck to a reliable posting schedule, and I’ve quit halfway through discussing several different topics because I got stuck or felt like I wasn’t doing the subject justice.

And I want to stop doing this. It frustrates me, it upsets me, and it’s unprofessional. If I ever want to make something of a career, even a tiny one, out of writing, I need to be able to believe in my projects long enough to finish them. And even more importantly than that… I have shit I want to say, and I’m tired of saying only a fraction of it.

So I’ve been thinking about what exactly is causing this problem for me, and how to go about fixing it. Obviously, a lot of the problem is just the bad habits that have plagued my writing life for as I can remember, as I discussed above. But I really want to change things, and I have been trying to build new, better habits—it just hasn’t been working. There has to be a better way to go about this–some factors I’m not considering.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I write to figure out what I think, so often I end up changing my mind about what I want a series/piece/post to be while I’m in the middle of writing it. On the blog, that’s often after I’ve already published about my plans for the project or pieces of the project itself, and then I feel like an idiot and panic rather than backtracking gracefully.
  2. I tend towards long-form writing, and I’m very aware that most people don’t read 5,000 word blog posts, so I try to break things up. Which is fine, except that when I realize “oops, I’m up to 1,500 words, I should probably wrap up this post and continue tomorrow”… I tend to run out of steam entirely. I lose my momentum.
  3. I don’t have a very well-established process for writing. I don’t write and re-write and re-write and edit and polish and then hit post, at least not most of the time. I may agonize over a piece of writing, but even if it takes me 6, 7, 8+ hours, I usually write things in a single sitting. Because if I walk away, I lose my nerve. I come back and I don’t believe in it anymore.

So I’m deciding to work on this. I’m not going to be too rigid, because establishing firm plans and then freaking out when I change my mind or screw them up is part of the problem in the first place. But I’m going to try to change some things, and see how it goes.

For starters, I’m going to really try to spend more than one session on any given post, at least some of the time. This will be better for my writing in general, as I really need to learn how to work in smaller bursts and how to edit more effectively. Sometimes I’ll still put things up the same day I write them… but only sometimes.

Secondly, as hard as this is to do, I’m going to try and write pieces in their entirety at the length that I feel they should be, and then edit from there, either cutting them down drastically or breaking them up into separate posts.

Third, I’m going to finally have a posting schedule, and I’m going to work on always keeping some stuff in the queue, so that I can have both some formal deadlines and some flexibility. For now, I’ll be posting one long-ish post on Wednesdays at 9am Pacific, and one short-ish post (a link round up or old journal entry) on Sundays at 9am.  As I have time, I may post other short or long posts outside of that schedule, but this way I’m committing to never being away for more than a few days at a time, which hopefully will fix the problem of shame-spirals perpetuating a cycle of not posting.

Finally, I’m going to put some thought into writing for other formats. There are so many stories I want to tell here that I’ve held back on, not because I’m not ready to share, but because they just aren’t blog posts. They’re fucking books. Or at least 10,000 word essays. And maybe I’m wrong about that, and once I get them down on paper I can trim things down to just the essentials. Or maybe I’m wrong about how much people are willing to read at one time, and I can put out huge pieces here and some people will read them. Or, you know, maybe I do need to write some epic stories/essays and find some way to put them out into the world at their natural length. Maybe I need to write a book. I don’t need to decide right now, but I’m thinking about it.

So yea. That’s where I’m at for the moment. I need a better writing process, and I’m trying to build one.

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I know some of my readers are bloggers/writers as well, so if you have the time or inclination, I’d love to hear about your writing process. Do you write drafts and then edit extensively? Do you have a schedule? Do you write daily, or at otherwise pre-set times? Do you shame-spiral about not writing like I do?

 How does your writing life work?