The Art of Writing is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair
One of the first online writing groups I belonged to was called A2S. This stood for “Ass to Seat,” and was our cheeky nod to Mary Heaton Vorse’s famous quote:
“The Art of Writing is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair”
While hunting for the quote’s origin, I came across a Suite 101 article by Vickie Britton in which she explains that:
“This quote is attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966), though there are many variations. Author Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) said, The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair. Same difference. The meaning is perfectly clear. If a person does not go about the task of writing and do it often, the book will never get written. (I once heard a variation of this quotation as apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and when you get up twenty years later you’ll be a writer) As Thomas Edison said, Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
But Sitting All Day is Bad for You
On the other hand, sitting for hours on end is bad for your health. If you don’t believe me, check out the statistics presented in this recent Lifehacker article, How Sitting All Day is Damaging Your Body and How You Can Counteract It . Scary, eh?
So what’s a writer to do? Like a marathon, writing well takes endurance. Unlike a marathon, you could be fat and unhealthy by the time you reach the finish line.
One of the first articles I ever posted on this blog (way back in 2007) explained how I balance the need to sit with the need to move. (Sadly, I don’t have access to my articles prior to 2009 – but that’s another story.)
It’s a simple routine, but it works great for me, and since I’ve lately met so many fabulous writers via Twitter, #commenthour and #ROW80, I figure it’s worth sharing again. In fact, I recently told Morgan Dragonwillow that I would blog about my “timer technique,” so here you go, Morgan, this post’s for you!
My 20on/10off Writing Plan
Each day, I create three to-do lists, side by side. The lists are titled: Online, Offline and Strategy. I don’t put errands here or anything else that will take me away from the house. Also, I don’t try to prioritize the lists. They are in no particular order. The main thing is to empty my brain of as many niggling little things as possible.
The Online list gets all the stuff I want to do on the computer.
The Offline list gets stuff that I want to do around the house and yard.
The Strategy list is where I devise my plan of attack. I add to the Strategy list two at a time, choosing one thing from the Online list and another from the Offline list.
Next, I set my timer for 20 minutes. After hitting the start button, I jump into my the Online task at the top of the Strategy column, charging into it at full speed. Having the timer going keeps me focused and gives me a competitive urge to “beat the clock.” Since I “only have 20 minutes,” I am not slowed down by perfectionism, hesitation, daydreaming or aimless web surfing. Silly as it sounds, it works for me!
When the 20 minutes are up, I set the timer for 10 minutes, then hop right into whatever Offline task I have chosen. When making my lists, I purposely break down the Offline tasks into small pieces. For instance, instead of writing, “do laundry,” I break this into smaller segments such as sort clothes, wash clothes, hang clothes to dry, etc.
If I get my Offline task done early, I spend that time dancing, taking photos in the backyard, playing with the cat, or whatever else. I never go back to the computer early, although one unexpected benefit of writing this way is that my best ideas often come while I am doing the Offline stuff. This makes 20on/10off healthy for my writing as well as for my physical body.
TOTH and Other Variations of 20on/10off
For me, different writing projects have different rhythms. Sometimes 15on/5off or 30on/10off feels better. I’m not overly strict about it. The idea is not to impose some rigid routine on myself, but to be more balanced. My main goal is to get up and move twice an hour.
That said, when I’ve got a lot of writing to do and I’m feeling deadline pressed, I switch over to my TOTH routine. TOTH stands for “top of the hour,” meaning that at the top of each hour, I leap up from the computer, take several deep breaths, stretch, drink a glass of water and hop around for 5 minutes. I know it’s not the healthiest, but there are times when it is the best I can do.
My ROW80 Check-in
I’m still plugging away on my memoir. I’ve transcribed well over 60,000 words now from my diaries. The challenge now is to figure out what to keep in and what to add from the many loose diary sheets and letters I still have from that time period. I’m treating the memoir like a novel, so rather than keep every random diary entry in (no matter how well written the passage) I’m sticking within the frame of certain story threads. To my surprise, certain story threads are emerging and so I am going to weave those elements in.
My main feeling right now, however, is OVERWHELM! I’m nervous about having a manuscript ready by May, so I’m pushing myself to work on this project in every spare moment – even writing for a couple of hours without a break. So – I plan to take my own advice and stick to a 20on/10off schedule and try to take it piece by piece.
Here’s my plan: The book covers a period of 16 months. So, for each week of February, I will concentrate on a four month period. This week, I’m concentrating on the first four months worth of diaries. By the end of February, I should have a clear sense of where the book is too heavy and where it is threadbare.
I look forward to making the rounds and getting to know more of the #ROW80 crew. See you for the Sunday check-in! :)