When I was in MFA school, a binge-writing session happened so regularly, and with such little fanfare, that to even call it a “session” seemed wrong. It seemed we were always in some cycle of binge-writing, papers or stories or poems, whatever.
But in the post-MFA life, things are very different. Yes, I write regularly because I’m working on my novel. But that often happens at the exclusion of blogging (which we already know) and also at the exclusion of other work: short stories, essays, small pieces that, ideally, someone might want to publish.
So I came up with a plan, the concept of which I stole from Facebook. At Facebook, they have scheduled hackathons. For 24 hours, people work on teams, and the only requirement is that they have to work on something completely different from their daily work. Develop a prototype, an app, a new concept, whatever – just not what you do on the regular.
And I thought, if I could apply that to writing, it would be a fun way to get some new work on paper. It would give me permission to shift my focus from my novel to a short story. And I love the challenge of a deadline.
But the thing is, I’m out of practice with such things. When I lived in Virginia, I participated in a yearly dance-a-thon, where my team and I danced for 12 hours straight. Those days always reminded me of my physical limits, of just how out of shape I was.
I didn’t want the same issue with my write-a-thon. I wanted stamina, staying power, and energy. This took some planning, some shopping, and some preparation.
When left to my own devices, I am very easily distracted by food. I like to eat well, and so I’ll immerse myself in a “quick meal” that ends up being not quick at all. I had to eliminate the possibility of that, my greatest distraction, the one most easily justified because, hey, a girl’s got to eat. So I took some time, the day before my write-a-thon started, and I prepped some chicken salad, some spaghetti and meat sauce, and some oatmeal raisin cookies.
I cleaned, so I wouldn’t be distracted by that. Not a top to bottom sparkle, or anything like that, just enough that I wouldn’t feel myself going nuts over messes around the apartment. I said no to social invitations. I planned a reward – fabric shopping – for when I was done on Sunday.
And when Friday afternoon rolled around, my write-a-thon began. I allowed myself to leave only to take walks (because I needed energy and sunshine and fresh air), and beyond that, I worked. Because I’m not in grad school, and because I’m not capable of resisting all temptation, I did call it quits in the evenings, watching TV and relaxing. But during the day, I wrote, pacing the apartment when I needed to, lying down on occasion. And as I worked, I had the gratification of seeing a short story emerge. By Saturday night, with my brain feeling mushy and my nerves raw, I had a completed draft of a story, 19 pages completed in the span of 24 hours.
Otis, in his way, helped.
When you’ve been working on a book for so long, draft after draft piling up, plots changing and characters dying or coming to life, you don’t really get to feel that gratification, that lovely moment of seeing this story you’re creating as a contained whole. A novel seems to sprawl, to loll about, like your brain exploded, and you’re trying to recover all the pieces that have scattered to the wind. But a story – a story! – that gave me, at long last, the gratification, the feeling of accomplishment. I had this contained little thing to work with, tidy (though flawed) and finite.
And I ate well, I slept well, I exercised. These are marked improvements on the way I wrote in graduate school, when, like Liz Lemon, I didn’t eat well, but I ate a lot; I slept not-so-well, and exercise? Did walking from my car to the building count?
There are things I will do differently next time. Though the goal is to write as much as possible, I think more exercise – some yoga or an extra walk around the neighborhood – would have given me more stamina, and my shoulders would have ached less by the end. I would love to have a buddy do this with me – someone I can check in with each day to share our progress and a few words of encouragement.
But the basic structure will stay the same: here’s a finite amount of time, and the goal is a finished draft of a story. Write until it’s done. And then celebrate – you earned it.