Elephant in the wild

How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time.

Organizing Your Mind

This is the sixth and final blog in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers Association. You can catch up with them at https://www.niwawriters.com/

Yikes! I volunteered to write this almost two months ago, and when I look at the topic again, I shudder. Organize my mind? Do you mean herding all those cats? And where am I going to put them?

As I sit here now and calm down, I realize that I actually got a head start on organizing my mind sixty years ago. At the ripe old age of fourteen, I went off to live and study in a Catholic seminary. Although I found the experience difficult (even traumatizing at times), it set in motion habits and routines that became a template I’ve used ever since. After I left the seminary, this template was reinforced and expanded by my training as a psychotherapist. Here are the specs for my template. I hope you’ll find them useful in constructing your own.

I believe that the interior work of organizing your mind, whether to write or paint or sculpt or work at whatever you do, must begin with exterior work. For me, that means organizing my environment and my daily schedule. In the seminary, everything was by the clock. We went to bed at the same time every night, awoke the same time every morning, ate meals at the same time every day. The day began and ended with prayer and meditation. As a psychotherapist, my days were scheduled hour-by-hour. I saw a patient for a fifty-minute session, spent the next ten minutes writing notes or making phone calls, then saw the next patient. I took one hour for lunch, which included a brief walk, weather-permitting. The day ended when the last note was filed.

Today, I am retired, but I still live on a schedule, although it’s more flexible than it used to be. I maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle and morning routine, eat meals at the same time every day, exercise daily. By organizing the things around me, I’m more likely to “put my mind right,” as the villainous warden said in the film Cool Hand Luke.

As a psychotherapist, I learned that patients would often seek help when they were feeling overwhelmed by life and circumstance—failing at work, at home, at relationships; burdened by bills or feelings of shame and guilt; crushed by more duties than they knew how to handle. One of the first strategies I taught them was compartmentalization by time and by task—breaking down a job into more manageable pieces. Our mantra was: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” 

Here’s an oversimplified example: Suppose you’ve been putting off cleaning your garage for ten years, and now it’s so cluttered it seems like a hopeless endeavor, too big even to begin. This is where compartmentalizing comes in. To compartmentalize by time would be something like: “OK. I will spend one hour Saturday morning from 10:00 to 11:00 working on it. At 11:00, I’ll quit and go do something else. If I like how that turned out, I’ll schedule another hour next week.” To break it down by task would be: “OK. Saturday I’m cleaning up the first half of the west wall of the garage, however long it takes. I’ll put up that peg board I bought four years ago and hang my tools. If I can get it done in forty-five minutes, great. I’ll have the rest of the day off. If it takes all day, so be it, but my tools will be on that rack before I go to bed.” Eating the elephant one bite at a time.

How does all this apply to writing? Let’s look at the environment first. You need a place to write that works for you. Some people need an office where they can be relatively undisturbed. Others like the hustle and bustle of writing at a table in a busy coffee shop (pre-COVID, of course!). In my case, I’ve commandeered half of our kitchen table. (My artist wife has already laid claim to the office and the dining room as her studios.) There’s a big bay window there, overlooking trees and shrubs. Deer often come strolling by. Once I saw a couple of wild turkeys. I find it both relaxing and stimulating (read: organizing my mind).

The timing part is different. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t write every day, but I do know that writing in the morning or early afternoon works best for me. I pop the cork on the wine bottle at about 4:00, so no writing after that. Of course, some authors do their best work in the wee hours (drink in hand), so it’s completely individual.

How do I eat the elephant when it comes to writing? I never sit down to the keyboard and think, “I want 95,000 words, and I haven’t even written one yet!” Instead, I have a contract with myself: “I will write at least one sentence, and my obligation is fulfilled. If I am so inclined, and the Muse is moving, I’ll write more.” That’s compartmentalizing by task. Breaking it down by time would mean that I look at what’s going on in my day and schedule a block of time to work on my latest project. “I’ll write from 1:00 till 2:30.” When the time is up, I log off, no matter whether I’ve written a single word or not.

What about mental distractions? How do I manage those? As I learned in the seminary and later in graduate school, I never focus on the distraction, as though I could exorcise it by force of will. I just let it go through my mind “like smoke” and return to the task at hand. I think Luther said something like, “Birds may fly over your head, but you don’t have to let them nest in your hair.” I’m also very cautious of my use of other websites while I’m writing. I may have to look up a critical detail for my plot, answer a tricky question of grammar, or find a good synonym, but I always go right back to my manuscript. And I never, ever open Facebook when I’m writing. That’s like jumping into a black hole. If I’m at a particularly important juncture in my work, I may even turn off my phone.

Other things go almost without saying. I keep on hand the stack of index cards with details of each of my characters, so I don’t give one the wrong hair color two hundred pages after I’ve introduced her. I keep open “idea notebooks” on the other side of my laptop. They contain notes I’ve jotted down over the course of the current project, and they’re ready to receive new scribblings as needed. (I’m writing Chapter 22 when a beautiful idea for the ending has just revealed itself, disguised as a distraction!)

Another part of “organizing my mind” for writing occurs when I’m not physically writing at all. That’s the piece I addressed in an earlier blog: being a sponge or an antenna—staying tuned in and ready to soak up any idea for a potential story, from something as simple as a name I like, to a news event, like the sinking of the crabbing boat Mary B. II. That tragedy became the catalyst for my latest novel, Dungeness and Dragons.

Once you have your own template, you rarely have to think about it again. A behavior practiced about five times becomes a habit. Those good habits will keep your mind organized so you can write on!

Other posts in this series by this author:

https://authorwilliamcook.com/blog/   “Reading to Impact Your Writing (And Can Watching Movies be a Business Expense?)” 

www.conniejjasperson.com   “Advice for New Writers” 

https://lecatts.wordpress.com  “My Approach to the Writing Process” 

www.joycereynoldsward.com/blog  “The Author Community” 

www.tanstaaflpress.com/news/  “Self-Editing, Grammar, and Beta-Readers”

William Cook

William Cook moved to the Pacific Northwest from the East Coast in 1989, and worked for a total of 37 years as a mental health therapist until his retirement in 2011. He splits his time between writing, babysitting for his 15 grandchildren, and sneaking off to mid-week matinees (when theaters are open!). His latest novel, Dungeness and Dragons: A Driftwood Mystery, was published on April 24. Find all his books at: authorwilliamcook.com

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