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Find the (Mental) Space for Writing by Micah McGuire

Walt Disney once said: First think, second believe, third, dream and finally dare.

If you asked, most people would say too many endeavors get stopped at the steps of dream and dare.

What if I told you most undertakings—including writing—don’t make it past step one? And what if I could tell you what’s holding you back? It all comes down to…

Mental space (n.): the ability to take in new information, process it, determine whether its worth acting on and acting on it.

 

In any endeavor, mental space is important. But in writing, your mental space is everything. Creative ideas can’t flow if there’s not enough space for them to bounce around a bit. Yet with the pace of modern life, it’s hard to find that mental space between constant email pings, floods of new information daily and regular old stress.

Now, you might be wondering: “How much mental space do I have for my writing?” The following quiz is designed to answer just that question.

 

How Big is Your Writing Mental Space?

Scoring: Each answer corresponds to a point value. Thus, if you pick answer five on a question, give yourself five points. If you are “in-between” on two answers, split the difference with a half point (i.e. between a 3 and a 4 would be a score of 3.5) Add all of your answers up for your cumulative score.

 

To improve your writing schedule, you would need to…

  1. “Summon a genie or a fairy to make a wish. Only supernatural help could get me enough time.”
  2. “Get some obligations off my schedule. I have so many things to do, it’s hard to work writing time in.”
  3. “Actually schedule the time and stick to it. I know I have enough time, it’s just prioritizing that time for writing.”
  4. “Refine my process. I can usually get time to sit down to write, but I waste a lot of time on research or staring at the dreaded blank screen.”
  5. “My current schedule is perfect. I don’t think it can be improved.”

 

You have to find an important paper related to your writing (e.g. a note on a draft revision, an order confirmation for proofs etc.) How do you find it?

  1. You can’t remember what you ate for breakfast, let alone where you put that paper. This results in tearing the entire house apart in a frantic search which may or may not result in finding the paper.
  2. You vaguely remember where you might have stuck the paper. You begin ripping through the piles you think it might be in, discover it’s not there and begin ripping through other piles with increasing panic. You find it on top of the washing machine, where you absent-mindedly placed it after looking at it the first time.
  3. You know where it is because all of your piles are organized in your mind. However, anyone else looking for the paper might need to hire a sniffer dog or a psychic.
  4. You know it’s one of two places. You might have to look in both spots to find it, but you definitely know it’s only in one of those two places.
  5. Martha Stewart would be proud of your system. Everything is color coded, alphabetized and cross referenced. You reach into a folder and pull it out in an instant.

 

Outside of your writing, your life is…

  1. “Unbelievably hectic. It’s almost impossible for me to keep up with my obligations from day to day, let alone whenever extra stress pops up.”
  2. “A lot busier than I would like—any kind of outside stress tends to throw off my groove and it takes me a fairly long time to get everything back to ‘normal.’”
  3. “Pretty manageable, unless I end up dealing with something unexpected like a rushed deadline. In those cases, I get things done but I definitely feel frazzled and out of sorts while doing it and for a bit after it’s over.”
  4. “Running smoothly. I can generally keep up with everything, even when I’m stressed. If I get off track, I can pull everything back together within a few days.”
  5. “I couldn’t be better. I’m usually so on top of things that even major stress isn’t much of a problem. I know how and when to take it easier to keep the stress from piling up.”

 

You receive unexpectedly harsh feedback (whether it’s attached to a rejected submission, suggestions from a beta reader or notes from an editor) regarding one of your writing projects that you’ve worked on for a long time and expected to be well-received. How do you respond to the feedback?

  1. You seriously consider throwing in the towel on your writing career. Obviously, you’re not cut out for this. You trash the feedback without even considering it and spend a few weeks (or longer) in a dreaded spiral of writer’s block.
  2. You entertain the idea of deleting, trashing or burning the draft completely. But, you shelve the project for a few weeks to a few months. When you return to the project, you hardly refer back to your feedback.
  3. You’re furious and comfort yourself by calling the feedback-giver all sorts of names (to yourself of course) because obviously, they didn’t understand what you were trying to do. However, a small voice in the back of your mind says the reviewers might have had some good points. After fighting with the project for a few days or weeks without considering the feedback, you begrudgingly pull the feedback out and work to incorporate it.
  4. You’re able to review the feedback without getting too worked up, even though it’s pretty painful. Since you’re able to stay calm, you can separate the feedback into points you really need to improve on versus feedback that’s a matter of opinion. You let it sit for a day or so to mull it over then return to working on the project with a renewed zeal for improving it.
  5. While the feedback does sting, you seize on the chance to improve your draft. You immediately begin looking at the feedback and how you can incorporate the truly useful points.

 

You have to do some research for a writing project. What does your process usually look like?

  1. Process? What process? Usually, if you’re lucky enough to get your browser open to the site you need, someone asks you to do something or another distraction arises. You promptly forget what you were researching and stare at the screen in frustration, trying to remember why you brought up this site.
  2. It starts off well-meaning and fairly focused. Yet after five or ten minutes, you get sucked into social media or the latest news. By the end of the session, you would have done fantastic research—if your research had involved cute cat videos.
  3. You start an internet search for one subject, but promptly remember another subject you also needed to research as well. End result? You have three windows open with fifty tabs each and you’re so overwhelmed that you can’t remember which tab had the facts you needed.
  4. You open up one window dedicated to your research and set a timer to ensure you don’t go off on a tangent for too long. It takes some time to find your answer because you find so much extra info after following a few of those tangents, but you file away everything else for later reference.
  5. You’re focused like a laser. By the time you’re done researching a topic, you probably know more about it than most of the experts in that field.

 

Scoring Explanation:

If you scored between five and eight on this questionnaire, your mental space when it comes to writing is a tiny house. You’re likely someone with a lot of obligations on your plate or you’re under a great deal of stress. Your focus should be just on clearing out some mental space—without stressing yourself about your writing. Taking ten to fifteen minutes a day to dedicate to some decompression time (whether that’s meditation, stretching, listening to music etc.) is your best bet.

If you scored between nine and twelve, your writing mental space is a one-bedroom apartment. You may have some difficulty focusing on your writing life, especially when you’re stressed, and your progress may not be as consistent as you would like. Your goal should be discovering a writing routine that works for you. Start by examining a typical week and see if you can find and implement a consistent time and day to write, even if it’s only for ten minutes.

If you scored between thirteen and sixteen, your writing mental space is a townhouse. Generally, you make consistent forward progress on your writing, but when life gets in the way (which it does for all of us), that progress can come to a screeching halt. Thus, your priority is making contingency plans—ways to stay with your writing even when life makes it difficult. Consider techniques like scheduling multiple potential times to write, breaking your writing time into smaller chunks or changing writing locations to avoid distractions. Brainstorm a few methods to work with common hurdles that crop up in your life.

If you scored between seventeen and twenty, your mental space is a suburban house. You’ve found ways to make writing work, even when life makes it difficult. But maybe you’d like to see your process flow a bit more smoothly or advance your craft skills even more. Your concentration should be on implementing (or refining) a pre-writing ritual to help move into a productive “flow state” as well as making time for deliberate craft practice through writing prompts or creative exercise workbooks. If you don’t have a pre-writing ritual, write a list of possible pre-writing activities to use. Don’t limit yourself—anything from listening to a certain playlist, to meditation or drinking a certain beverage can count if it’s done consistently. If you have pre-writing ritual, consider changing it up and mark out specific times to find and work on writing craft exercises.

If you scored between twenty-one and twenty-five on this questionnaire, your mental space is a mansion. As one of the very lucky few who can power through with writing regardless of your life’s goings-ons, your writing improvements may be closer to tweaks. However, at this level, it’s important to watch for burnout—especially if your writing takes up a great deal of your life. So your focus should be on ensuring you’ve taken appropriate self-care measures and breaks from writing when needed as well as keeping your inspiration fresh. Seek out new materials to read outside of your genre and consider new experiences you could try to keep your inspiration going.

 

Just a quick note regarding this scoring: your perceived mental space (how much space you think you have) can be different than your actual mental space (how much space you have in reality). Yes, reality can match perception: some people may be in the tiny house category because their obligations and stress levels are that intense.

But, there can also be mismatches. Certain incredibly busy folks may think of themselves as having a suburban house mental space. And others who might have a townhouse in reality might feel as if they have an apartment. Try to assess yourself as objectively as possible and don’t get discouraged if your mental space feels smaller than it actually is—that’s simply a chance to expand it!

 

I hope this has been a fun insight into your mental space for writing. If you’re interested in detailed ways to expand your mental space, consider enrolling in Writing in the Real World. Class starts March 11th and I would love to see you there!

Micah McGuire is a writer, American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified health coach and a self-professed productivity geek. She is the founder and program strategist for The Mind Redesign, a company specializing in helping freelancers, creatives and entrepreneurs move beyond productivity and process “hacks” to optimize their mental performance. Visit www.themindredesign.com for more information on presentations, group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

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