The 100 Day Writing Challenge – Day 1 Transcript
Hello and welcome to Week 1 Day 1 of the 100 Day Writing Challenge.
Wow. Sounds pretty intimidating when you put it like that, doesn’t it. Here we are at the foot of the mountain. I mean, it’s astonishing to me that anything ever gets written at all.
It’s like, occasionally people ask me how long my last novel was, and I say 130,000 words. And they say wow that must have been hard work. And I’m like no shit, it took me over a million just to get to the start.
And this is how a lot of the discourse around writing goes. This talk of commitment, and suffering, and this kind of machismo of effort and I wrote this many words, I suffered for this many years, I put myself through this horrible regime, etc etc. You’ve probably heard people talk about getting up half an hour, an hour earlier each morning or whatever and writing, and doing a novel that way. This idea that creative writing, and writing a novel in particular, requires this seismic effort of will, this complete rearranging of your life to make viable.
And I just want to say – well, I want to say a lot of things, actually, but primarily I want you to start noticing some of the assumptions you’re carrying around about how a novel is done, who gets to write, what a writer, a novelist, an author, whatever you want to call them, what one of those looks like. And maybe, we can start a process of gentle enquiry into whether those assumptions are a) true and b) helpful.
Because an assumption can be untrue but helpful, right? An optimist might overestimate their chances of being successful at a given task. But, because they have this belief of success, they’re more likely to persevere, they’re more resilient, they’re more likely to attribute setbacks to temporary external factors, they’re more likely to have a sense of self-efficacy and to derive meaning and satisfaction from the pursuit of that goal. All of which creates a feedback loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy which actually does mean that, in a lot of cases, optimists are more likely to achieve their goals.
Now there are some downsides to optimism. Although a 2006 study by the brilliantly-named Steptoe et al found that optimism correlated with a bunch of healthy behaviours including, quote ‘abstaining from smoking, moderate consumption of alcohol, the habit of walking briskly and regular physical activity’ endquote, a 1993 study by McKenna et al also found that smokers tend to be optimists when it comes to things like their perception of smoking-related health risks such as lung cancer.
So look, I think there are some rational reasons to choose an optimistic outlook within certain domains even when it may not be the most accurate reflection of reality. And there are other scenarios under which moderating our optimism with a slap across the chops from the wet kipper of real talk helps protect us from bad outcomes. I’m going to be adopting both strategies across the life of this course, this challenge, this marathon of mini-workshops, whatever you want to call it, because chiefly, when it comes to writing, I’m a pragmatist. Whatever rolls us over the line, whatever gets us to the next checkpoint, whatever keeps us moving, I’m in favour of.
I’ll always be honest with you, but one thing I hope you’ll start to notice in the coming days and weeks, one thing that I think is surely an essential realisation for any good fiction writer, is that there are often many mutually valid ways of looking at the same thing. The world is full of multiple truths laid on top of one another. And just because you’ve found something that’s true, doesn’t mean that it’s the truth, singular. There may be many more truths occupying the same space. And as fiction writers one of our core practices has to be developing that capacity to slide between adjacent realities and make ourselves, not objective, but omnisubjective.
But enough of my gnomic utterances for now. I sound like a stoned philosophy undergrad in the kitchen at a houseparty. Let’s get on with our first exercise. I want to honour your time and I’m a firm believer in the value of learning through doing.
On that subject a brief warning before we start. Please do not listen to this episode, nor future episodes, without doing the exercises. Please don’t think, oh I’ll listen to see what it’s like then do them later. Please don’t listen just for my bits of theory then ignore the practical. I don’t ever want to be a voice in your head putting pressure on you to write a certain way, or someone you imagine reacting with disapproval at some creative choice you make, but please please please make the effort to at least have a go at doing the ten minute exercise. At least pick up a pen, open a new file, and start.
If you have a go and stack it, that’s fine. That’s actually awesome. If you freeze up or write complete dogshit I am frankly delighted. It’s a wondrous opportunity to practise some exposure therapy, to learn about how we react to creative disappointment, to detrain our habitual, unhelpful reactions to what we think of as failure. But to not have a go? To not put yourself in that position of vulnerability to begin with?
Look, I understand why you wouldn’t. It’s the same reason I’ve done almost none of the creative writing exercises in any of the creative writing books I’ve read. Because it always feels like something you can do tomorrow. Because you don’t feel inspired or motivated or it doesn’t quite feel like the time or your laptop or pen and notebook are literally in the next room and you’re in bed. It doesn’t feel like a big deal to duck out of a single creative writing exercise, there are a hundred ways to rationalise it and fits under that wonderful piece of terminology introduced to me by procrastination researcher Dr Tim Pychyl: it has a transitive preference structure. I’ll do it later, I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll do next week, oh, I should have done it yesterday, now I’m tired.
I’ve got more to say on this, much more. But for now, I am begging you. If you don’t want to start the course today, that’s fine. Hit pause, switch off. Go enjoy the rest of the day. I and this podcast will be here when you’re ready. I’ve got literally dozens and dozens of episodes of Death Of 1000 Cuts where it’s just me monologuing or me chatting to guests and zero writing tasks for you to do. Go listen to those. But don’t just blow through this, cheating yourself. You’ll spoil the course for yourself, the tasks will mount up til they feel daunting. You just deserve better.
I’ve gone to the effort of creating this, I’m putting everything I’ve got into it. At least do me the courtesy of attempting this first exercise. If you finish it, go ugh, I hate this, fine. Perfect. You tried it out, you evaluated it, you didn’t like it. Go live your life, at least you kissed this particular frog and found out for yourself. I am not for everyone, I’m totally comfortable with that. And of course you can bail at any time in the future. That’s always open to you. But all this chatter I’m doing now is just a sideshow, it’s a nice pair of lycra pants and a sweat band. What’s going to get you fit is the exercise.
So last chance. Get your laptop open, and a new file ready, or get a notebook and pen. Cos I’m about to ask you to write. If you don’t have those things, stop the track now, go prepare yourself in whatever ways you need to. It’s cool. There’s no rush.
Right. Ok? We good? Fantastic.
So to start I want to dive in with a simple exercise but one that actually sometimes people in workshops find really challenging. And if this seems odd, please do bear with me. Some of the exercises might feel unusual but they are all ones I’ve done with writers before, I’m not this eccentric self-styled guru testing you with arbitrary demands to break down your resistance. There is a method here, it’s just sometimes it make take a few days to emerge. I promise I do very much value your time and I’ll do my best not to ask you to take too much on faith.
Right, so over the next ten minutes I’d like you to produce a list of names. Not a list of real people you know or celebrities, just. Made up names. I mean, you don’t literally have to invent new names like Bergin or Splargo – although, actually, you could, that’s also fine – I mean names of fictional characters. Not existing fictional characters, imaginary fictional characters. Does that make sense?
A list of names for imaginary characters. Could be full names. Could be nicknames. Could include titles like Mrs, Dr, Admiral. Some names might imply a Fantasy or Science Fiction setting, some might be from a variety of countries, some might not be names that have ever existed before, they might be barely pronounceable – you might not be sure how they’re pronounced. It doesn’t matter. Some might sound funny or weird, some might sound incredibly normal, they might well accidentally be the names of actual humans you’ve not met.
The key thing here is speed. I’m going to give you 10 minutes and I’d like you to aim to get at least 50 names down on the page. For that to happen you can’t filter for quality. Don’t worry about repetition or spelling or whether you’re making great art. Just a big old list of fictional, made-up names, on the page please.
Make sense? Got it? Ok, when I say go, start writing, and when you hear this noise *gong sound*, you can stop. Ok?
<10 mins passes>
And there we go. You’re done. Your first session is over. You did it. You turned up. You committed. You’ve done some writing today.
As you glance back over your list of names, you might like to reflect: what sort of names turned up? Any that particularly catch your eye? Any that make you smile? Any that suggest a character or genre to you? Are there any places where you can see yourself mining a little seam, you know, finding a particular strategy like alliteration then applying it for two, three, four names before you abruptly switch? It can be useful to just observe how our brain attempts creativity.
And if for whatever reason you locked up, you struggled, you didn’t enjoy it, that’s ok too. But whatever your experience, it’s worth reflecting on how you felt during the exercise. What things did you tell yourself before, during and after? If you met resistance, what were you telling yourself in those moments? And how do you feel now?
There’s no homework. As I said in the introductory episode I recommend you don’t do any writing outside these ten minute sessions, at least for the first couple of weeks. Go and enjoy life, take a walk, see your friends, whatever you fancy.
That’s it. Thank you for turning up, and I’ll see you tomorrow for Day 2.