Essays on Technology and Culture

On Writing Groups and Commitment

Monday night, I undertook a long, arduous journey from my new home in Jamaica, Queens. I took the subway far down Queens Boulevard to the distant neighborhood of Astoria. [1] There, I made my way up to Broadway, and over to the Astoria branch of the Queens Public Library. There, in a basement meeting room split incompletely by a divider with a stuck door, I sat with about a dozen writers wielding various implements. On the other side of the divider, a woman was teaching a class on American culture for new immigrants. Every few minutes, the room shook and thundered as the M and R trains passed below us. Under these conditions, my fellow writers and I sat, and did nothing more than bang out words for a full hour.

It was exhilarating and productive. I’d opted to use the hour to bang away at my novel, a project that has been going on in fits and starts for the better part of five years without so much as producing a complete first draft. As the room shook from another subway train, I remembered an idea I had for a scene where a character is attacked on the subway. So I wrote it—nearly 1600 words of it. Once it was on the page, I felt a great weight had been lifted from my soul. All I had to do was pack up my laptop, leave the apartment, ride the subway, go into a room with a bunch of other writers and no Wi-Fi, and then make the clackity noise for an hour. [2]

After a day of personal highs and lows, it felt absolutely wonderful to pick up this project, blow off the dust, and get back to work. A change in environment can accomplish wonders. In a room with a dozen people, half a dozen laptops, an iPad, an couple notebooks, and some scraps of paper, where all there was to do was write, I wrote. No nonsense, no bullshit, and no handwringing. There’s a reason this group is called “Shut Up and Write! NYC”. We introduced ourselves, sat down, shut up, and wrote.

Actually, we sat down first. Either way…

I picked up exactly where I had left off the last time. It felt like walking into your home after a long vacation. Everything was exactly as I had left it. The Scrivener file I keep my novel in was in the exact same spot, with the exact scene I had been working on last. As projects go, writing a novel is evergreen. As long as the file is saved and backed up properly, it’s not going to go away unless I drag the Scrivener file to the trash. My dog is not going to eat my first draft. [3] What “Shut Up and Write! NYC” did was force me to make the time for this project.

Other project haven’t been so neglected. I’ve written ten articles of various lengths for Sanspoint in the last nine weeks. I’ve been working on The Residents Project for Kittysneezes and, not only have I not missed a week since we started, I’m two albums ahead. We missed one episode of Crush on Radio since May, and that was only because two-thirds of us were simply unable to do it. But the novel… the novel hadn’t been touched in months, until Monday evening. Now it’s been touched, and it feels great.

1600 words is a great number of words to have produced. If you’re one of those lunatics who does NaNoWriMo, the required pace is 1667 words per day, which I could have done that night if I had another five or ten minutes, or just typed a little faster. It’s a respectable pace, and if I can do that amount in a mere hour, I can reach my goal of 50,000 words with eight days of one hour writing sessions. That sounds stupefyingly easy to do, assuming I make the time. I’ll be back at the Astoria Library next week for the next session, but that shouldn’t be the only time I do the work on this project.

Time commitments are difficult to make. My original plan on Monday was to try a fixed schedule of work. I added hour-long blocks to my calendar with fifteen minute breaks between: morning writing, job searching, my freelance copyediting, lunch, more job searching, more writing. On Friday, however, I received an offer to interview for a job on Monday, throwing those plans out the window. There’s nothing stopping me from putting them back on another day, however. Putting these things on my calendar is all about making the commitment to do these things in my copious free time, and get them done. “Shut Up and Write! NYC” helped make me make a contract with myself. Adding these work periods to my calendar and treating them the same way helps to avoid blue food in my refrigerator of my life.

If there’s a lesson to take away from the most productive hour of writing I’ve had on this novel since the night I started it, five years ago, it’s that making the commitment and honoring it is the only way to get anything done—and it helps when you’re surrounded by others doing the same thing. Thinking about it, this may be why many of the other creative projects I’ve been working on are going so well. They’re group efforts, and when you’re with others and accountable to others, you get fewer excuses. Public commitments are much harder to break than private ones, whether its updating a blog every week, doing 10,000 push-ups in a month, or just writing for an hour in a public space.

  1. Actually, it’s only about half an hour by subway, but it does involve switching trains, which is arduous enough considering how good the MTA is at scheduling.  ↩

  2. Well, considering the keyboard on my MacBook, it was less the clackity noise and more the tappity noise, but the point still stands.  ↩

  3. Especially since I don’t have a dog. However, this did happen to John Steinbeck’s first draft of Of Mice and Men.  ↩