In September 2012, Cameron Walker (bio) and I made an agreement: We were each going to write for half an hour, five days a week, on unpaid work. That simple agreement has made a huge difference to my writing life.
We were inspired by an article in O magazine, in which novelist Aimee Bender describes a contract with a friend to write every day. Christie Aschwanden, who had a similar agreement, told us about it at a conference in September 2012, and Cameron thought she’d like to try. She asked me to go in on it with her.
It sounded terrifying. I didn’t have a project to work on, like Cameron, who’s writing a novel. But I’d heard the standard writer advice—write every day—about a million times, and it seemed worth trying, and I like Cameron, so I said yes.
We wrote up a contract, sent it back and forth for revisions, and signed. She promised to work for a half hour, five days a week, on the rewrite of her novel. I promised to spend the same amount of time writing about anything, as long as it wasn’t for pay. In that half hour, there is no Facebook, no e-mail, no TV, no engaging with the to-do list, no leaving the chair. Only writing. Or, if you must, staring at the screen, but that’s so boring that it’s usually easier to write. At the end of the half hour, you send an e-mail to the other party: “Done.”
The agreement has changed over time, mostly to make me feel better by establishing a procedure for lapses: (1) Admit it; (2) Get over it; (3) Get back on the horse.
I write for a living. I even kind of like writing. But it’s incredibly hard to get started. Somehow, starting to write is so scary that my brain has a near-infinite capacity for ways to put me off course. Facebook! E-mail! Desk-cleaning! The writing gets done, but only after a lot of procrastination; it’s like I have to climb a mountain before I can start sliding down.
And that’s for writing that has to get done, because it’s promised to an editor. For optional writing, getting started can be near-impossible. I can’t make myself sit down and do work that I don’t have to do. And if I do manage to start something I don’t have to write, I’m so afraid of finding out that it’s terrible that I may never look at it again.
The contract with Cameron means I have to actually do that optional writing.
So I write. I write posts for The Last Word on Nothing a half hour at a time, rather than in desperate late-night binges. I write about my travels and odd encounters with animals. If I can’t think of anything else, I write about the junk on my mind. I even started a very poorly thought-out novel, just to have something to work on.
A less obvious advantage of the half hour is that it’s finite. I’ve always enjoyed writing blog posts for my website, but rarely do—both because it’s hard to get started, and because once I get started, I tend to get wrapped up and blow a whole morning on it. When the timer goes off, I have to stop.
After a year and four months, Cameron and I were both slacking. That’s a long time to stick with a new plan. But after a Skype conversation in January about our goals, we’re back. We recommitted to regular writing—and bought matching owl timers. Now instead of the impersonal countdown of the digital watch to keep me company, I have a bright red owl. It’s ticking noisily right now; I wrote this blog post in one session and revised it in another.
In a few minutes I’ll send my e-mail off to Cameron. “Done.” And in a few hours, after she gets up on the West Coast and gets the kids out the door, I’ll get the response: “Yay!”