Three Small Steps to Get Your Writing Back on Track

by Ambre Dawn Leffler
published in Writing

For writers rebounding from illness or a family emergency, getting back on track is challenging. My recovery from the virus-that-shall-not-be-named is going at a snail’s pace. Writing time has all but disappeared. With my lack of stamina, anything I do has to be in short increments. At times I feel discouraged, but working in small steps is proving to be more productive in getting me back on track.

The advice I’ve heard across all writing groups is to write each day with a small goal to get back in sync. Shane Doan, captain of the NHL Coyotes, was unexpectedly told he would no longer play for the team. He got through the following difficult days by sticking to his routine of making his bed every morning. No matter what else happened, he knew he accomplished one thing each day.

I teach Yang style Tai Chi with 24 forms, which are groupings of steps. If I taught all 24 forms at once, my students would feel frustrated and lost. Instead, I teach one form at a time, breaking each step into moving the arms and the feet. When I see that my students feel confident in one form, I move on to the next. It takes time, but with these small steps everyone progresses in learning the entire sequence.

I look to nature to avoid FOMO (Fear of Missing Out” with writing projects. Trees start as a seed, then send up shoots as a sapling. Layer by layer, they build strong trunks. Branches and leaves grow in proportion to the trunk and roots at the tree’s pace. 

Hummingbirds don’t think of all the pollinators they need to visit each day for nutrients. They only focus on the flight to the next flower they have memorized on their route.

Here are my approaches for getting your writing back on track:

Build a Creative Scene One Brick at a Time

Composer Eric Whitacre uses a creative process in songwriting called the golden brick. Eric felt he had something really important to express but couldn’t get there when thinking of a full score. Looking at the entire composition paralyzed his process. 

So he intentionally chose only five notes to compose a phrase. Solving the puzzle with this constraint opened the door to the next step. He then created a new brick of just five notes, building each brick until he had an entire composition.

Try writing a description with a limited number of words. This could be the characteristics of a creature, details of an important clue, or features of a historical object. The key is to keep it small. 

Draw a Picture Grid

As an artist, I like to use a picture grid when drawing a complex object. This exercise helps you take in the small details right in front of you. You only look at the one detail in the one square.

It is easy to do, even if you don’t think of yourself as an artist.

  1. Choose an organic shape to draw. For this exercise, I chose a leaf.
  2. Draw a grid of even-sized squares.
  3. Match each section of the grid with what you see in that same section of your object. Only look at that one section. Draw what you see in one square.
  4. Fill in one section at a time until the drawing is complete.

This is a great exercise for anyone overwhelmed with world-building. Instead of trying to draw the entire map, focus on just one square. Is there a forest there? A desert? A path? When you’ve filled in that square, start an adjacent one. In time, you will fill in the complete picture.

Create a Timed Soundtrack

Part of DIY MFA’s virtual writer’s retreat included themed soundtracks. Each soundtrack was timed to be exactly 30 minutes. Initially, I was drawn to the ambiance of the background sounds. Later, I found that I was more productive during that time constraint.

While listening to an ambient track, I know I have a limited amount of time. My focus sharpens and I get right to the point. Time flies by and I have to remind myself that when the music stops, it’s time to take a break.

Create a timed soundtrack that works for you, whether songs or ambient sounds. 

Or set a timer if you work better in silence. 

The important thing is to give yourself that time limit to stay focused while honoring the parameters of your well-being.

An Inspirational Book about Getting Back on Track

One of my favorite inspirational books is The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. This charming winner of the John Burroughs Medal grew from the author’s observation of a snail on a violet plant while bedridden with illness. 

With her heightened senses she could not tolerate anything above a whisper. But she could hear the snail eating, and from her bed she could track what the snail did each day, matching her pace of living.

One snail led to more snails, reference books on snails, and eventually the book she wrote about snails. It was a sequence of small events that led to a new creative path for her. 

If you want to listen to the sound of a snail eating a carrot compared to the sound of the author eating a carrot, visit Elisabeth’s website.

Be patient with yourself. And kind. You will get there, one brick, square, or soundtrack at a time.

Tell us in the comments: How do you get your writing back on track?

Ambre Dawn Leffler is a Tai Chi instructor, gardener, and weather geek who writes about vegetables, seasons, communing with nature, and the interconnections of mind/body. She loves trees and cherishes time in their presence. Learn more about her tree time, garden residents, and wellness practices at her website and seasonal inspiration from her newsletter Sky Earth Water. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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