by Anne Mateer
Confession time. For all my aversion to math, I thrive on measurable productivity. A number of words written. A number of pages revised. The number of books read in a week, month or year. The amount of time spent research-or even cleaning house or running errands. It all signals productivity. A worthwhile expenditure of time.
And yet, in the 15 years I’ve been writing toward and for publication, I have learned some very hard truths.
Not all writing work is measurable.
Not all writing work appears productive.
Not all writing work involves physically doing anything at all!
Much of our writing work happens first in our heads, thinking through the possibilities, the what ifs, the nuances of character, or the dastardly twists and turns of a plot. These things buzz quickly into a story for some, even swirling about in their heads while their hands work at various tasks. But for others, like me, the thinking is a slow and plodding process, one that requires focus and a quiet solitude. The stillness and focus are not the real problem. After all, I can sit and read for hours on end. What it really comes down to is that giving myself solely to my imagination makes me feel unproductive, childish, and almost . . . sinful.
What if someone asked for an account of my day? What would I say? I’m a middle-aged mother of grown children, after all. I can’t daydream the day away. Or can I?
I am slowly learning to give myself permission to noodle. To be still. To imagine out stories and characters that might or might not get scribbled onto paper or typed into a document. To give myself to the imagination that I learned to rein in a bit as adult life took on more and more responsibility and as the business of writing encroached on the creative process. And I’m learning to count that thinking time as productive even if I can’t measure the outcome of the hours spent in my head.
If you are reading this today and can relate to my dilemma with the thinking part of writing, I hereby give you permission to block out writing time devoted solely to noodling on your next great idea. Mark it on your to do list. Schedule it on your calendar. Resist the urge to write anything at all until you reach the end of your allotted time and figure out if your thoughts are worth noting. You might feel uncomfortable with the “unproductiveness” of the time at first, but practice makes perfect, right? I’m counting on that!
Anne Mateer is looking forward to the publication of her fourth historical novel, Playing by Heart, in September as well as a contemporary Christmas short story to be included in the upcoming A Cup of Christmas Cheer II. Anne and her husband, Jeff, live in Dallas. Visit Anne on her website.
I love this! I feel this constant need to measure my productivity, like you said, in word counts and pages written and scenes completed. And honestly, that can be stifling…especially when I’m just starting out a story. I need to be better at seeing that noodling, brainstorming, thinking, imagining time as productive too…instead of feeling the need to start producing ASAP.
Good article! I noodle as soon as I wake up in the morning. I think about my characters and what they’re up to. It’s a good thing for me since it prompts me to get writing. It’s a not so good thing when I have to tell the characters to be patient because I’ve got things to do (like teach school) before I can get to them. The worst is when I noodle when I go to bed. If noodling happens then I know I can kiss sleep goodbye!
What a wonderful and timely reminder. Thank you so much for this. I needed it.
Very wise advice, Anne! I can relate. I find that I’m a much happier writer when my goals for my writing revolve around hours spent per day (or per week) instead of around word count or page count. Exactly as you say, some of most valuable time I spend is time simply THINKING and imagining. There’s no measurable output there, but it’s needed. It’s where the magic happens.
Yes, thanks, Anne! Me too. I need that noodling time before writing, otherwise my plot and characters are more likely to wander all over the place.
Great post! I’m noodling right now in preparation for my next book and I’ll have to admit to a little anxiety sometimes when I look back over my day and have nothing to show for it other than a few words in a character chart. lol
My word, Anne. This is exactly what I needed today.
Like, Patricia, I’m getting things together for the next book. I feel so guilty “doing nothing,” so I’m compiling all my character and plot notes to read through and get them all in my head. As soon as that’s done, I’m going to noodle it over. I’m adding noodling to my schedule right now. 🙂
Super post. I agree with what Marbeth Skwarczynski said–and I am a teacher too. I find my best noodling time when I’m driving or walking the dogs. I talk aloud to them (or myself) and get great ideas that way. There’s just something about saying what’s in my head.