I’m pleased to welcome Kristy Harding to the blog today to talk about discipline, writing, and the inevitable burnout that we as writers sometimes experience. Frankly, sometimes the standard advice of “just showing up” doesn’t work. Sometimes it downright sucks and our work suffers as a result. When faced with creative burnout, Kristy followed another path to get her motivation back, her production on schedule, and the words out: the end result? A little project she calls, “Writerscopes.”
How giving up on “Butt in Chair” saved my writing: Kristy Harding talks Writerscopes
When I first started writing fiction, BIC HOK was my writing community’s answer for everything. Tired? BIC HOK. Blocked? BIC HOK. Depressed? BIC HOK. Day job? BIC HOK. Migraine? BIC HOK. Run over by a herd of stampeding hippos and stuck in the hospital in traction? BIC HOK (carefully). BIC HOK stood for “butt in chair, hands on keys,” and it was supposed to be all you needed to get a story out the door.
For years, BIC HOK was my battle cry. I set myself a daily word count goal and glued myself to my chair for as long as it took to meet it. I got a lot of work done under the BIC HOK system, and I definitely believe in the importance of discipline and momentum like Kira wrote about recently, but BIC HOK just didn’t work for me.
Things usually started out well, but after a few days or weeks of forcing myself to sit down and write no matter what, I inevitably started to slow down. Once that started, failure was inevitable. My pace got progressively slower until writing a thousand words (or less) was a tedious all-day affair, and I eventually lost all motivation.
While I’ve since learned that writers come in all shapes and processes, at the time, I was surrounded by writers who swore by BIC HOK. They set ridiculously high word count goals for themselves and knocked them down with a smile. I wondered why I couldn’t do what everyone else could do. Was there something wrong with me? Was I not really meant to be a writer after all?
Answers to these questions came from an unexpected place.
I’m a fantasy writer, and about three years ago, when I wasn’t letting my eyes glaze over in front of the screen, I was researching real-world magic. In the process, I stumbled on a blog (now retired) called Virgo Magic by the astrologer Emily Trinkaus.
I’d always been suspicious of astrology. I’m an ox in Chinese astrology and a bull in Western astrology and never really took well to being called a cow. Pop astrology also says I should be lazy, which I’ve been called exactly once by an English professor who then (ridiculously) lectured me on how Keats died at 25, so “hop to.”
Emily practiced a different kind of astrology than anything I’d encountered before, though. In Virgo Magic, she mapped the moon’s cycles to the cycle of birth and death, beginnings and endings, manifestation and release. Each of her bimonthly posts ended with encouragement to get more insight into “what this New/Full Moon means for YOU” by looking up the location of the events she talked about in your birth chart and meditating on where in your life you might be feeling these events and how. It was an astrology that told you what time it was. It asked questions to help you figure out what to do with that time on your own. Emily encouraged her readers to think instead of cowering in fear of the gods, to figure out their own internal rhythms, listen to their hearts and bodies, and go with what works.
Charting a Path Through the Sky
I wondered if understanding how my personal emotional cycles worked would help me figure out my trouble with writing, so for several years, I used Virgo Magic to help me track the moon through the sky. I guessed that if there was anything to this theory, my cycles would roughly follow the growing cycle: planting, growing, harvesting, fallow. There would be days when I struggled to meet my word count goal and days when meeting it came easily, and if I cleared time to get a lot done on the good days and cut myself some slack on the bad days, I might be able to break out of the cycle of burnout.
My guesses were mostly right, but as my study of the moon took me deeper, I found a pattern that is much more complicated than anything I anticipated. In addition to cycles of waxing and waning there are alternating periods of introversion and extroversion. When the moon is in Aries I desperately want to hit the road, and when the moon is in Cancer I don’t want to leave the house. When the moon is in my House of Long Term Relationships I want to spend a lot of time with my spouse, and when the moon is in Capricorn I want to be alone.
Some of these insights into my moods came from learning about the signs themselves. Everyone tends to feel more aggressive and adventurous when the moon is in Aries and more sensitive when the moon is in Cancer, for example. Mostly, though, the signs and houses hinted at where to look. Insight came from observing my own internal workings as non-judgmentally as possible, being open and kind to whatever came up.
Knowing that my productivity has peaks and troughs and how to maximize them to get the most done in the least amount of time is interesting, but knowing how I work is most important when I’m up against one of the really difficult decisions, the ones when I think that I can keep going, but I want to quit, and I’m not sure if quitting for the day would be flaking or not.
Recently, I found myself in one of those situations. It was four in the afternoon. I had a couple of hours before I had to stop work, and I still hadn’t written a blog post that was supposed to go out the next day. I had a topic. I knew what I had to say about it, so the decision should have been a no-brainer, right? I should have gotten on Squarespace and knocked out that post.
I have no doubt that I could have written the post, and I would have written it if I had some kind of formal commitment instead of an informal intention to post on my blog once a week. Instead, after a moment of consideration and a note that the moon was in Sagittarius, I closed my browser and played Minecraft instead.
The reason I made this decision was because of what generally happens when the moon is in Scorpio, which is the stage of the cycle before the moon goes through Sagittarius. Scorpio has a lot of dark imagery. Its symbols are the scorpion and the phoenix, and it is associated with the house of sex, death, and the occult. In general, people tend to get more brooding and suspicious when the moon is in Scorpio. Since I have Scorpio in my House of Home, most astrologers would tell me that I’d probably be happiest brooding at home when the moon is in Scorpio, binging horror movies or reading mystery novels.
Through experience, though, I’ve learned that on nights when the Moon is in Scorpio I am more likely to have nightmares. After several nights of nightmares, when the moon is in Sagittarius, I tend to need to ease up on work a little bit to recover, but I can usually afford to slack off a little on those days because, after the moon leaves Sagittarius, I have a few days of intense focus when the moon is in Capricorn, if I am kind to myself after the nightmare days of Scorpio and go easy, using my emotional energy strategically.
I’d had a bout of particularly bad nightmares while the moon was in Scorpio, so I knew I was unlikely to regret quitting early. The true test of a decision, though, is how you feel about it later, and, in retrospect, I’m glad I quit that day. For one thing, after several weeks of wandering around in Minecraft, I found cows, which means I can finally get around to building that library I’ve been scheming about. More importantly, after a few days of percolating on how I was feeling, I realized that the problem had nothing to do with motivation. It was the project itself. My blog had been, frankly, getting kind of boring. My procrastination about that deadline was actually a sign that I needed to pull back and reassess my approach, a realization it would have taken me much longer to reach, if I’d kept plowing ahead and nailing my deadlines.
I’ve been using astrology to study my own personal cycles for three years now. I’m not sitting proudly on a stack of bestsellers, but I’m starting to find peace with how I work as a writer. Wanting to share what I found, I started Writerscopes on my blog in December 2015.
Writerscopes is a weekly horoscopes for writers. Every Friday, I look at what’s going on in the sky and write about the kinds of things I wonder about when I’m planning out my writing schedule, such as: What are the peak times for work and rest? Am I likely to write a lot of words this week, or is this a better time to focus on research or revision? What major themes should I be aware of (such as the tension between cosmic Neptune and pragmatic Saturn that is happening in 2016)?
With ten standard astrological planets, a few new and controversial planets like Ceres and Eris, and zillions of asteroids, it’s impossible to track everything that’s happening, so I focus on the planets that are most closely tied to writing and creativity: Mercury (which is associated with writing and communication technology), Venus (which is associated with art), Mars (which is associated with motivation and ambition), and, of course, the moon.
Given my history with astrology, the moon is, not surprisingly, at the center of Writerscopes. I talk about the other planets more or less depending on what’s happening, but I always provide a list of the moon’s void of course periods (which correspond to rest times in the emotional cycles) and track the moon’s movement through the sky and its likely effect on the emotional weather.
Most importantly, I ask questions that I hope will help you figure out for yourself what all of this “means for YOU,” as Emily would say, so I’ll leave you here with some questions.
Where in your life lately do you feel tension between discipline and the mystery of creativity? How do you decide when to write when you don’t feel like it and when to do something else? Have you noticed any patterns in your writing practice? Are there seasons, days of the week, or times of day when you write best or most prolifically?
If you want to share, I’ll be hanging out in the comments.