I first encountered David Allen’s Getting Things Done seventeen years ago, during a brief and not-entirely-successful attempt at being a book publicist. (Allen was actually one of the few authors I had no trouble booking; the other was Yogi Berra.) Since then, I’ve recommended GTD, as it’s popularly known, not just as a productivity guide, but as a template for approaching the creative life in general.
One of the lessons that I think might be most useful to talk about for National Novel Writing Month is Allen’s advice to get things out of your head. If there’s something you’re thinking about doing, create a to-do list, and put that thing on it. If you keep it in your head, if you keep thinking about it without doing anything about it, then it’s just going to suck up valuable “processing cycles” in your mind… and not only will you not get that thing done, there’s all sorts of other things that won’t get the attention they deserve, because your mind keeps returning to this thing you’ve told yourself you should do but haven’t.
Most of you probably didn’t start writing on November 1 from a complete standstill. You had a story idea before you opened your notebook or switched on your computer. It might even be an idea that you’d been kicking around for a while, imagining what it would be like to write it, what it would be like for that idea to be a manuscript rather than an idea kicking around in your imagination. Well, over the last three weeks, you’ve been learning what it would be like to get that story out of your head, to bring it one step closer to a point where you can share it with the rest of the world.
Let’s be honest: If this novel you’re writing is going to be a keeper, it’s probably going to need some more work in December, probably into 2019 while you’re at it. But the good news is: You’ve got pages you can revise now! Instead of an idea, you’ve got pages that you can read and mark up, and you can develop a real plan for how to fix the parts that need fixing. That’s only possible because you stopped thinking about writing and started writing.
Of course, when you weren’t writing during the last three weeks, you were undoubtedly still giving a lot of thought to what was going to come next in your story, how you would get to the scenes that you’d had in your head all along. But you might have noticed that those thoughts feel a little different when you know that you’re actually going to do something about them within 24 hours. (And if you’re really devoted to the GTD method, you’ll have a notebook with you, so you can write those thoughts down and have them at hand when it’s time to do the actual writing, rather than relying on your memory.) You might even have noticed that it’s easier to set those thoughts aside and concentrate more fully on other facets of your life that demanded your attention.
If there’s anything you take with you from this #NaNoWriMo experience, this would be a good one: When you create a regular writing practice for yourself, you’re creating a space in which your writing can flourish… and, by extension, in which you will be able to realize yourself more fully.
There’s a famous passage in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the alternative documents about Jesus that was contemporaneous with the accounts that were accepted into the New Testament. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you,” Thomas quotes Jesus as saying. “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
So it is with your writing: Once you start bringing your story out, shaping it and refining it, you’re going to learn more about that story and about what it means to you, and why it’s so important for you to share it. If you never start writing your story, though, it’s likely to stagnate inside you, and while you might not necessarily feel anxiety or frustration about that on a conscious level, it can still end up holding you back, keeping you from accomplishing everything you can in other aspects of your life. (Not to mention all the other stories you might be able to tell after that one!)
Again, the point isn’t to do a perfect job every day. Just do the best you can today, knowing that you can try to do better in your next session. No… that you will try to do better, because there will be a next session, and you don’t even have to look forward to it, because you know it’s going to happen.