At my in-person writing classes, I give students more work than most people can handle. A few people manage to do everything, usually one or two people per year at the workshops. At this year’s mystery workshop, one person finished all of the writing assignments and two redoes, and (I think) all of the reading (usually on the last day).
One, out of thirteen.
Most manage to get the big assignments done. Several got all of the big assignments and the small assignments done, but no redoes and not all of the reading. This mystery workshop was unusual, and one of the reasons was that several of the students had systems for getting through a Kris Workshop because they’d been in one before.
A lot of those systems built on the structure I give out at the beginning of the workshop. I give out a sheet of paper telling the students which assignments are the most important. Those should be done first, with the others in descending order.
Essentially, that structure is writing fiction first, then other writing assignments, and finally reading, if there’s time.
Over the years, I’ve learned that students ignore that structure. They think they can handle all of it, or they throw in the towel and simply read. They still get a lot out of the workshops, but not as much as they would if they actually committed words to the page.
Long ago, I decided to structure work-heavy workshops for two reasons. First, there’s too much to teach in such a limited space of time. That’s why Dean and I also do online workshops. Dean’s the face of those because he’s so very good at explaining things (and answering email, which is another matter). Explaining things in a clear way is one of Dean’s superpowers. Combine that with another of his superpowers, which is being able to see and articulate patterns, and you have a great teacher. (If you want to see how Dean teaches, get one of our lectures along with 12 writing books at the Storybundle. The lecture will give you a taste of what we do.)
In the spoken word, I end up defaulting to vagaries after a while. I know what I mean, you know what I mean? Because I’m not as analytical as Dean is, or as articulate. But on the page, dealing with fiction or craft or assignments or getting the most out of the actual work, I excel. That’s why most of the truly evil assignments in our online courses, the assignments that reveal craft holes and expose thought processes, come from me. It’s a gift, albeit not one most people want.
The other reason I decided to structure work-heavy workshops is because of Clarion Writers Workshop, which I attended in 1985. It’s a six-week long writers workshop. I got a lot out of Clarion, including some lifelong friendships, but my greatest memory of Clarion is of being bored.
We weren’t required to do anything. We could do something if we wanted to, but we didn’t have to. (It was pretty clear that the curriculum was designed in the freewheelin’ 1960s.) We could sit around for six weeks, critique other people’s stories, and not write a word beyond our submission story. Many writers did nothing at Clarion for decades, although no one did at my Clarion. At mine, everyone submitted at least one story past the submission story.
But that boredom led me to a realization: I do not function well as a writer without external stimuli. In those days, Clarion was at Michigan State University in the summer. My year, the area around the university was being bulldozed and rebuilt, so there wasn’t much within walking distance, and we were in an unairconditioned freshman dorm instead of the usual graduate student dorms. So there was literally nothing around us.
We saw a couple of movies, invaded a MacDonald’s and ate out for lunch and dinner (because the cafeteria was too far away). For six weeks, we hardly saw anyone outside of our group.
If there had been a week seven, I might have exploded.
What’s the point of having students travel long distances and not give them anything to do? Leaving it up to them was a lot like writing at home. You could write if you wanted to, or bum around if you wanted to.
And that didn’t—and doesn’t—interest me at all. I learn a lot when I teach other people. Part of my teaching method is to give assignments, and then have the writers discuss how it felt to do the assignment. I learn what you’d expect—whether or not the assignment does the desired task—but I also learn new ways of thinking and being. I always learn something. That goes for the reading list too. One of the students this year had an insight about a book I’d been assigning for this workshop for years that seems obvious in hindsight but I hadn’t noticed it at all until he said it.
I value moments like that.
Another thing to come out of this year’s workshop for me was the way one student made it through the workload.
He described a system that divided the days into blocks of time. He didn’t think about the future, just the current block and the next block. He set a goal to be accomplished in that block, and didn’t allow himself to deal with the other goals until he was through with that block of time.
He finished every assignment and wrote three marvelous short stories. And although I know he got tired, he didn’t seem to get as tired as some of the others did.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that structure—one block here, another block there, all building toward a particular goal. The structure dovetailed with some reading I had finished just before the workshop.
I had picked up Scott Douglas’s Running Is My Therapy because I had read an excerpt in Runner’s World. The book is all about exercise and chronic depression, one of the things I struggle with. Running mitigates some of the worst symptoms, something I figured out on my own. I had known that exercise helps depression, but running is particularly good at reducing the symptoms, for reasons that scientists are only now beginning to study.
Douglas is a freelance writer, fellow depression sufferer, and a lifelong runner (who was, at one time, a competitive distance runner). While the book has a lot to say about running and depression, the surprise for me in this book was the discussion of goals.
To be a regular runner means setting goals. Daily, weekly, monthly—it doesn’t matter. And they don’t have to be getting a personal record at the next 5K or doing an increasing number of miles per week. The goals can be pretty humble, such as making 4-5 runs per week or hitting a mile nonstop or simply getting outside each and every day.
Douglas has a prescription for goals. He calls them something that “give meaning to time.” (He struggles, in his depression, with finding reasons to move forward with living; that’s not one I usually deal with. I have other issues.)
He writes on page 211 of the hardcover edition:
[Good goals] give you something to look forward to, and they directly contradict the perspective that, regardless of what you do, things are always going to be like they are right now.
He’s very strict on the idea of “good goals,” and he has a short list of what good goals are. He writes:
- Good goals are trackable
- Good goals have a deadline
- Good goals require you to push yourself (within reason)
- Good goals are personally meaningful
I realized as I read his list of good goals why I learned how to refine my own goal setting from Dean. Dean, a former professional athlete, had learned athletic goal setting just like Douglas had.
All of Douglas’s examples under that list are running-oriented. In the push-yourself range, he uses the example of a half-marathon, saying that someone who runs 12 miles in a day won’t be challenged by the 13.1 miles of a half marathon, but someone who runs six miles per day would have to train up to that longer length. A goal within reason.
But I immediately shifted those goals into the writing realm, as I am wont to do. I’ve always tracked my goals. Trackable goals in writing are hours per day at the keyboard or pages finished or novels finished. Dean sets up challenges all the time for writers that combine trackable goals with deadlines.
On my own fiction, I usually have a deadline, which is sometimes imposed from the outside. I’m such a goofy rebel, though, that outside deadlines are often something I subvert (how can I achieve this without doing the work?), so I have to be careful of that. I’m better with my own deadlines.
I write fiction, so my goals are personally meaningful in that I’m finishing work I want to finish, not work that someone forces on me.
In fact, it’s not even fair to call what I do “work” if the definition of “work” is an obligation that you struggle to get through. (Like the day job is for most people.) When I’m writing, I’m having fun. It’s getting to the writing that can be work for me, because there’s other stuff that I have to slog through to get there.
But, I realized, there’s a lot of times when I miss that third part of the four-part good goals list.
I am not pushing myself.
Okay, I do push myself in craft. I’m always testing those limits.
But Douglas is talking about goals in relation to time, not in relation to some kind of intellectual concept.
And because I’d been ill for so long, I was always pushing against my outside limits just to get an hour or two of writing done every day. I’m healthier now, and I hadn’t readjusted that particular goal.
I still managed an hour or two per day, and it wasn’t satisfying, because I’m capable of so much more. I need to figure out how to push myself against the clock, which I hadn’t done as a healthy person before.
I had just come to that particular insight when the student at my workshop mentioned carving up blocks of time. Each block had its own mini-goal. Get so many pages done per hour. Or finish a blog post in an afternoon. Or half a short story in a day.
I had been working off word count, but word count is easier now that I have a lot more energy. I needed to be more specific with my word count.
It’s as if I’d been running the same mile as a healthy person that I struggled to complete when I could hardly stand, and wondering why I felt unsatisfied with my exercise routine. I wasn’t pushing myself in my writing—against time. Time had shifted for me, and now I needed to find a new way of doing it.
I’ve been working on the block method for the past two weeks and even though these weeks have been challenging, with one crisis after another, I’ve gotten a lot more done than I would have. Because I’ve ground time down into bite-sized bits.
I find it all very helpful.
Now I have to listen to myself and do one other thing: I need to have a work order, like I do for the students at the workshop. My daily priorities need to reflect my work order priorities. Sometimes those will shift as deadlines shift, or other needs rise to the fore. But mostly, they should follow the same pattern as the one I hand out to the students: writing first, then assignments (of some kind) and then reading.
Sounds so easy, and yet, I struggle, as I’m sure you do.
I must admit, though, it’s fun to find solutions in the most unlikely of places. I didn’t expect the list of goals in this particular book, nor did I expect to hear about ways of coping that would work for me.
All good, though. And will make my life easier.
And, I hope, give some fodder for yours as well.
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“Business Musings: Good Goals,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / RioPatuca