Goals and targets

“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.”

That’s a quote from Frank Herbert, author of the Dune saga and a self-proclaimed stranger to writer’s block. His approach to writing was apparently just to sit down and do it, when it was “writing time” to simply sit there with pencil in hand and put one word behind another. He claimed that in later re-readings of his works in progress he was unable to see any difference between sections of writing that had come easily to him and those that had been difficult. The idea seems to be that when it comes to writing (or, presumably, any creative pursuit) we really ought to just get on with it.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on daily writing word count goals that took the position that forcing yourself to write X number of words everyday is a largely empty exercise. (Incidentally, that post contains a nice discussion in the comments section afterwards that is perhaps more worth revisiting than the post itself.) I did not then state it so straightforwardly as this but one conclusion there is also that spending time daily on a project is almost certainly a good idea. In that post my position seems to have been that we will anyway obsess over what we are engaged in and so any work towards progress in that regard should be considered as worthwhile even if it does not necessarily involve writing the set X words or even writing anything at all. At this point in my writing life I think that I’d make that more explicit and say that daily work at a project – again, in whatever from that work takes – should not just be something arrived at by the default setting of a natural obsession but should be purposely stated and set. Basically, I’m agreeing with Herbert’s “writing time” though I would maybe just call it “working time”.

This is what I mean. As a premise we can take it that writing is not fun. It may be enjoyable at times if we’re in the groove and pleased with what results, but enjoyable is not fun even if fun almost always includes enjoyable within it. As another premise we can take it that time spent at writing or a writing project takes away from time that could be spent elsewhere, and often it will significantly take away from that time elsewhere as writing is such a very demanding task. We all of course have our reasons for why we write and usually they will include something along the lines of “because I must”. It is part of who we are, for better or for worse. Taking our two premises then, we find ourselves faced with an endeavor that is not fun and that requires large amounts of time to complete (and then of course there is always the next stage within the current project, or the next writing project, waiting for you and grinning suspiciously at you from around a dark corner); what could possibly be the response to this situation but discipline?

The setting of daily targets to write X number of words or edit X number of pages can be very useful in helping to structure and attain this discipline but those types of goals can also very easily be overdone. In the comments to the previous post linked to above Paul j Rogers called such “self-imposed dogma” and it is an apt and worthy label and in that also a cautionary note. But it probably still is a good idea to set them (at least roughly) if for no other reason than as motivators. The important thing is that we remember that we needn’t feel bound by law to them. What happens to us when we take breaks from a project can be instructive in this regard; after a time away do you feel recharged and ready to go or do you find yourself with a waned level of interest and in need of some reason to return? If the latter especially discipline will be important and having goals and targets will help you on a functional level. In the case of the former too though discipline will prove paramount as the feeling inevitably will not last and yet there the project will remain. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: however you arrange your writing life it will need to be formatted in some way, and maintaining that format will be important. Just waiting for the muse to strike will get you nowhere.

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2 Comments

  1. Nick Cody
    Posted November 25, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Love that quote. There are many iterations of that old idea, that kernel of wisdom, but Herbert wraps it into a pretty good sentence pair. You slip it nicely into a discussion on the writing life. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Posted November 25, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Nick! I’m currently slogging through a book edit. Necessary? Yes. Fun? No. But then no one ever said this game is easy.

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