fitter, happier, more productive

Soooo…I’m a touch self-conscious here because I tend not to blog about writing itself. It’s such a subjective undertaking I have no idea what I could possibly say that could be useful or interesting to someone else. And on top of that I’m genuinely uncertain of the degree to which writers-burbling-on-about-writing is alienating to readers. I mean, for myself I kind of think books are like sausages: way easier to enjoy when you don’t know how they’re made. And say what you will about reviewing every Hugh Grant movie ever, at least it’s universally bizarre.

Anyway, this post isn’t precisely about writing. It’s more writing-adjacent. So, y’know, take it or leave it as the fancy takes you. But what it comes down to is this. On the 30th August 2018 I changed my life as a writer. Logistically, psychologically, totally. And the thing about writing is that you always think there are things that are going to change your life—awards, reviews, contracts, advances, whatever. But the truth is, unless you start your career with a seven figure book deal and shoot straight onto the NYT bestseller list, for most of us they don’t. I think it’s impossible to completely shake the sense that there is A Thing out there somewhere that will make a sudden and demonstrable difference to where you are and what you’re doing. But mostly (though admittedly not always successfully because I’m only human) I just try to concentrate on the bit I like best, which is the writing, make decisions that give me the most freedom to get on with that in my own way, and let the rest handle itself.

All of which meant I wasn’t really prepared—or indeed looking—for seismic, meaningful shifts in what writing could be like for me.

And then I bought a planner.

Best investment I ever made in my writing, I swear to God. Of course, I’ve long been aware that I need something in place to keep me organised, since writing involves at least as much administration as it does creativity. Besides, I have a demanding full time job and I also want to have things in my life like fun and a relationship and the option to leave the house occasionally. It’s just I’d never quite managed to crack the code of my own needs in this particular area. I worked my way through pretty much every digital solution out there before finally recognising that, for me at least, some shit just has to be on paper. Then I had a bullet journal for the best part of a year, which was the closest I got to something broadly functional.

Except.

There came a point when the very flexibility of bullet journaling—the reason I got into it in the first place—passed from advantage into disadvantage. Bullet journaling has a lot of unnecessarily complicated lingo around it but, honestly, you just draw your own planner: on an annual basis, you do a yearly overview, on a monthly basis you do a monthly overview, then you have a daily task list. And obviously you can make all of these elements look however you like. You can just write stuff down, you can draw boxes, you can be as arty and fabulous as you’re capable of and interested in being.

The thing is, though, I’m neither capable nor interested in being arty and fabulous.  Having to draw up a “monthly spread” every month pretty soon became a chore, and I stopped doing it, despite the fact that I do actually need an overview of my month so I know what the fuck is happening. My “daily log” became scrappy to-do lists that were either so long they were intimidating or so short they were unnecessary, and eventually I became less inclined to update them as well. I told myself that this was another positive feature of bullet journaling. After all, if I didn’t need a daily log that day, I didn’t have to do one. But this just meant I had no sense of progression through my tasks or my writing, and no sense of ever achieving of anything (regardless of whether I did or not). Everything felt very sporadic and half-hearted. Mainly, err, because it was.

I should also emphasise that this was a problem with me, not a problem with bullet journaling. Sort of the whole deal with bujo is—because it’s wholly customisable—any fuck ups are your own fuck ups. I suspect I could have come up with a workable system if I’d put a bit more effort into it, but by this point I’d run out of energy and enthusiasm. I wanted the workable system to be right there in front of me, rather than requiring monthly transcription from my head to a blank page. So I did what I sometimes do when a problem seems beyond the capacity of my spoons: I threw money at it.

And bought a damn planner.

Ironically, of course, planners require planning. There’s a tonne of them out there, all of them fashioned to meet a different set of priorities, which may or may not work for you. For me, the simplicity of my needs actually made it a fairly straightforward decision. My planner is for writing, and writing alone, although I do occasionally put things in it that I see as writing-relevant in the sense they cut into writing time (so, outings, social events, non-writing related appointments, and unavoidable tasks like dramatic acts of house cleaning). A lot of planners are targeted at people who want something more holistic but sections for daily goals, meal planning, gratitude logs and what-have-you are nothing but noise to me. So what that all comes down to is this: I need a planner that includes none of those things, while still having more structure than that offered by a bullet journal. The other relevant issue is where and how you use your planner geographically speaking. Mine sits squarely on my desk and doesn’t move, which means I don’t have to worry about its weight, its dimensions or its durability. I might have made different choices if I was intending to hoik the thing around with me on a regular basis. But as I’m not I could comfortably seek out the Latrice Royale of the planner world: chunky yet funky, large and in charge.

For me, this is the Erin Condren LifePlanner TM, the most outrageously over-priced over-branded, and over-American planner on the market. But, dammit, it’s exactly what I need and I love it. And although rationally I think I should probably resent the $60 I forked over for it … in practice I do not. I mean, I use the thing literally every day and it covers about 16 months. So that’s approximately 480 days of planner-ness, which is about 12 cents per day. Not that I’m telling you to run out and buy a $60 planner. Just that it’s okay to do that if you want. And I’m not specifically recommending this planner over other planners. It just happens to be the planner that works for me.

Something I struggle with a lot in writing, and talking about writing especially, is the amount of what I perceive of as gatekeeping. It sometimes feels like wherever you look someone is telling you buy this computer programme, or read this book, or join this organisation, or else you’re doing it wrong. Whereas I strongly believe that writing is something anyone can theoretically do—I mean, whether you’re any good at it is a different issue, but that should be independent of being able to afford to go to workshops, or buy Scrivener, or enjoy a view of a sunset over the Adriatic while planning chapter 8. And while I’m pretty committed to this position, it does mean I sometimes go too far the other way, in that I’m so terrified of contributing to a culture which positions writing as inaccessibly special that I often don’t believe my own work is real.

For some reason, buying a planner changed everything. I’m not saying it magic bulleted all the usual author insecurities, or the raging imposture syndrome that dominates pretty much everything I do in a writing-related sphere, but for the first time in the five or six years that I’ve been doing this I’ve been able to stop treating my writing as a peculiar accident I’m somehow involved in. And accept it, far more comfortably than I ever imagined possible, as a job.

To be honest, the $60 helped with this. I continue to believe spending money on writing isn’t, and shouldn’t be, necessary. But sometimes it really helps to be able to say to yourself: this is important to me and, therefore, worth my investment. And there’s a difference between a totem and a tool, although there’s also some overlap. To put it another way, you don’t need to spend $9599.60 on a Nesmuk Jahrhundertmesser to chop up a carrot, but if you’re serious about cooking it’s sensible to own some decent kitchen knives.

The second thing my planner does for me is that makes what I do—which mostly boils down to staring at my screen in an empty room with a funny look on my face—less amorphous. It is incredibly easy, I think, for writing and writing-related tasks like keeping up with social media, emailing your agent or remembering to scan your proofs for your editor, to seem unreal because, when you get right down to it, they are completely abstract. If you work in an ice-cream parlour and someone asks you for an ice-cream and you give them an ice-cream and they give you some money it’s pretty damn clear what’s happening and what your role in it was. As far as books are concerned, you’ll spend months and years plugging away at something. Then, if you’re super lucky, six to eight months after that you might get a contract for it. And a year or two after that it might be available to the public. No wonder it often feels like you’re doing a nothing that takes ages and affects nobody. But my planner allows me to give writing, and all the things connected to writing, a concrete reality outside of my own head. And, yes, the concrete reality is just words on a page—a record of my word count, an appointment with my agent, a deadline by which proofs are due—but, hell’s bells, at the end of the day I am a writer. Words on pages mean something to me.

And, finally, my planner is an understanding colleague. I don’t know what it’s like to write full-time. I imagine, if I did, I would treat it like any other job and try to do writing, and writing-related tasks, from 9-5 and then stop. Although probably I would not actually do this. I would end up staying up til 3 and then sleep til 2 and then wander around being confused until 3 again. But because I’m a part-time writer, writing takes place always in the margins—in the hour before I go to bed, on a Saturday afternoon before friends come round for board games. I don’t resent this at all, but it does mean there’s never quite enough time, and there’s always a sense that I could, or should, be doing more. I can remember feeling very much the same way when I was at university. No matter how much I worked, which admittedly wasn’t nearly enough because I was eighteen years old with all the self-discipline of a fruitfly, there was always a persistent buzz at the back of my brain reminding me that there was always potentially time for more.  I could always have gone to one more lecture. Stayed in the library half an hour longer. Got out of bed half an hour earlier. It’s perilously easy for writing to slip into this space. For it to become something you flagellate yourself with instead of enjoy, no matter how much you love it.

My planner forgives me for the days I scrawl “too tired” over the word count space or cover it with a “lazy day” sticker because I somehow managed 2000 words yesterday. If I look down and see a substantial list of administrative tasks, I don’t worry too much if my word count is only 500 words or 200 or none. Last week my word count was zero. But my planner was filled with pre-holiday stuff and preparations for Venice. And this week I blocked out two full days with stickers that said “recover from Venice” – and let myself do nothing. If I start to get angsty I simply turn back the pages and see the days I spent proofing. The afternoon I wrote a synopsis. The Sunday where I answered ten emails. The week where I somehow got down 14k words.

In short, my planner gives me permission both to write and to not write. Something I never realised I desperately needed until I got it. And probably what has been this wild revelation to me is searingly obvious to everyone else. But I guess I just thought I’d share it anyway. I’m not really comfortable trying to offer advice, at least not on these sort of subjects. I mean, if you want to know which Arkham Horror LCG expansion to start with or what Hugh Grant movie to avoid I’m totally here for you. But writing-wise, whether you’re published or not, I think what I’m trying to say is: it’s okay to help yourself believe in what you’re doing. For me that looks like a planner. Maybe it could look like a planner for you too. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s all good.

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