Life as a Writer: How to Build a Writing Lifestyle
This week, we’re going to be talking about a subject that we probably don’t talk about enough:
How do you actually build a life as a writer?
Sure, it would be easy if all you had to do was write, if you didn’t have a day job, if you didn’t have friends, if you didn’t have work, if you didn’t have vacation, if you didn’t have family, if you didn’t have hobbies…
But the truth is that the magical future we all dream of where every element of our lives just effortlessly supports our writing really never comes.
Even for hugely successful writers, there remain many conflicting needs pulling at our attention: meetings, productions, multiple projects that we’re juggling, family and experiences.
We need these things. If we lived in a total solitude where all we did was write, it would be really hard to come up with interesting ideas for a film or a TV show. Our ideas grow out of our relationships, friendships, experiences, and even out of our frustrations and problems.
At the same time, it can be extremely challenging to make room for your writing lifestyle.
How do you make room for your writing lifestyle when your life is already over-full?
How do you make room for your passion when you have so many responsibilities? How do you break through the inertia when you already don’t have enough time to get all the things you need to get done? How do you start an overwhelming passion project in the midst of all that?
That’s what we’re going to be talking about in this podcast.
Where do you start?
It’s a truth about human nature that we tend to prioritize whatever is in front of us.
Whatever message you send to your subconscious mind when you first get out of bed, it’s going to kind of take that as super important. So, if you roll out of bed and the first thing you say to yourself is, “I gotta check my email,” your subconscious mind says, “Okay, got it. That makes sense. Emails are really important. Let’s keep focused on email.”
Somehow that email checking and that anxiety that you woke up with rolls into a whole day. You never get out of your email and you never do that important thing that you really wanted to do.
As opposed to thinking “Well, what’s the big dream?” and focusing your life around that. Without a little help, your subconscious mind is just going to accept “Okay, whatever you’re showing me is probably what I actually need to focus on.”
To change this on the simplest level, and start prioritizing our writing, we need to establish a pattern that consistently shows our subconscious mind what really matters to us.
That starts by showing our conscious mind what really matters to us because often, we don’t actually take time to consciously think about it.
In a way, many of us are passive main characters in the journey of our own life. It gets really hard to root for passive main characters. It becomes really hard to feel structure for passive main characters. It feels really easy to become just as stuck about them as they are about ourselves.
If you want to actually achieve your dreams, then that begins with doing the hard work and asking, “What matters to me? What actually matters most?”
You’ve got to do some meditation and ask yourself, “What is the most important thing in my life?” That doesn’t preclude all the other things that matter to you.
You don’t have to be a narcissist or a megalomaniac to become a great writer, but everybody needs a dream.
If your dream isn’t writing, then find one that is your dream.
But if your dream is writing, then it’s important to remember that you must serve your own dream in order to serve all the other things that are important in your life.
You are going to be so much better as a relationship partner…
You are going to be so much better as an employee…
You’re going to be so much better as a friend…
…if you know that you are moving your life in the direction that you want to take it in and if you’re living your authentic dream.
The first thing you want to ask yourself is, “Is writing really the dream?”
When you think about writing, you might think, “Well, it would be nice if I were a writer.” Don’t chase that dream. Don’t chase the one that seems kind of nice.
Chase the dream that you’re excited about, that you really want to chase.
Don’t chase the one that’s practical. “Well, I really want to be a writer, but that seems really hard. Maybe I will become a legal secretary instead.”
Sure, you can become a legal secretary if you have great skills there, but everybody needs a dream.
The important thing is not whether you achieve your dream or not. The important thing is pursuing it. That’s what actually gives you the structure and the meaning.
If the dream you think you’re chasing ends up being the wrong one, that’s fine! That’s what leads you to the right one.
If you don’t know what your dream is, then you might have to ask yourself a smaller question– the same questions you would ask if you were building the structure of a character’s journey.
When we talk about the big dream, that’s the superobjective.
Sometimes we get a character like that who has that big dream.
If we think about Ted Lasso, Ted Lasso wants to inspire the people around him.
If we think about WandaVision, Wanda wants to keep her love alive.
So sometimes, we get a character with a really big dream. If your character has a really big dream or if you do, then pursue it. Ask yourself, “How am I going to put that in front of myself early? How am I going to wake up and do some small thing in pursuit of the big dream?” It does not have to be a huge thing and it doesn’t have to get you all the way there.
Put your focus on the big dream first thing in the morning, and make that the first thing you put in front of yourself before you focus on your email and your responsibilities and all the other things that are running away with your life.
When you put the big dream in front of you, just like when you put it in front of the character, your mind starts to focus on it and move towards it. Your mind starts to go, “Oh, this is the important thing.” Then your mind starts to make space for it.
If you can’t come up with a big dream, then that’s okay. Start with a little dream.
I’m watching The White Lotus right now. One of the characters’ dreams is that he wants the Palm Suite. He wants the bigger suite for his honeymoon. That’s his little dream and that’s all you need to build the whole structure of his journey.
It can be as small as “I don’t know what I really love, but I’m curious about this character,” or “I don’t know what I really want to do, but I’ve always been curious about pursuing a screenplay or a tv pilot…”
It doesn’t matter. If you can’t come up with the big dream that you want to do for the rest of your life, then that’s cool. What’s the little dream? What’s the little thing that’s attracting you or that has a genuine attraction? Pursue that, whatever that thing is. Put that thing in front of yourself first thing in the morning.
You can see that the way that we’re talking about building structure for our lives as writers is very much related to the way we build structure for our character.
We lose track of characters when they don’t have objectives. It doesn’t matter if the dream is giant—like how Neo wants to be “the one” and see reality and save the world in The Matrix—or if it’s tiny, like the character in The World’s End who just wants to complete the pub crawl with his buddies from high school.
It doesn’t need to be big, but it needs to be heartfelt. When you give your character an objective and you get clear on your objective, then it becomes much easier to build structure.
If your character is juggling 17 objectives and we don’t know which one’s important to them, we tend to zone out on them. We tend to lose track of them.
In the same way, if you’re juggling 17 dreams and you don’t know what the important one is, then you tend to lose track of yourself. Pretty soon, you’re not only passive, but you’re reactive. You’re just dealing with whatever’s happening as opposed to carving your own way.
That leads to a whole bunch of other problems that have nothing to do with art… like depression, anxiety, fear, and misery. All this stuff comes out of just not knowing what the dream is or not knowing how to put it in front of ourselves.
One of the ways that I keep myself focused on my writing lifestyle and on my dream is through a wonderful technique called Morning Pages.
I did not come up with Morning Pages. Morning Pages were created by Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way. It’s probably one of the greatest books ever on the writing lifestyle and process.
Morning Pages are my way of remembering what’s really important to me. The first thing that happens every morning when I roll out of bed– I do not check my email or check my phone. I roll out of bed and I pick up a nice, black Moleskine notebook and I write three pages. Those three pages might be three pages of a script, of random thoughts, of fury, or of dreams. It can literally be whatever comes out.
Number one, this reminds me that I am a writer. I know I am a writer because the first thing I do in the morning is write.
Number two, it helps me focus my thoughts for the day. It helps me focus my energy on where I want to actually go today and on what actually matters to me today, before I get swept up into everything else.
Now, when I say I do morning pages, I’m just like you. There are times when I lose track of what’s important to me. There are times when I forget to do my morning pages or I think, “I’m fine. I got it today. I don’t need it.”
That one day when you say that you don’t need it turns into two days where you don’t need it and then a week where you don’t need it. You’re fine for a week or maybe for 10 days or maybe even a month, then suddenly you find yourself lost and drifting and not feeling connected. You realize, “Oh, it’s because I didn’t do my morning pages. I didn’t do my routine.”
In order to build structure for yourself as a writer, writing needs to become a routine.
In fact, anything that is important to you needs to become a routine if you’re going to be successful at it. It needs to become something that you just do.
If you make it too precious, it becomes too important. You might think that you’re going to take a week off and all you’ll do is write. You need that week. Everybody would love that! But you’re not going to finish your whole script in a week. You’re going to end up feeling lost after that week because you didn’t have any preparatory time. The truth is, if you don’t have any rhythm, you’re probably not ready for that week anyway. You’re probably going to feel overwhelmed during that week, like if you tried to lift 500 pounds without ever working out. Then that week is going to end and you’ll probably be down on yourself because you didn’t do enough in that week to actually get where you needed to go.
It’s important that writing becomes a rhythm, and becomes so common to your life that it loses some of its “life and death” importance. That way, if you have a bad writing day, it’s okay, because you know what? Tomorrow you’re going to write again. If you have a bad writing day tomorrow, then that’s okay, too, because the next day you’re going to write again. If that day is also a bad day, then the following day you’re going to write again.
This is a lesson that I took from one of my great mentors. The truth is that all of us are only as good as our mentors. We’re only as good as the people who taught us and who kind of paved the way for us. I was very fortunate to have some really incredible mentors in my life. One of them is a guy named Joe Blaustein, who’s not a writer but a painter.
Joe is one of the great artistic mentors in my life. But the greatest lesson that Joe gave me was not how to paint.
It was this very simple idea: Joe wouldn’t let us paint on canvas. He insisted that we paint on paper. He said that if you paint on canvas, then you’re going to get precious with it and you’re going to think it’s really important. You want to paint on paper. You want to feel like you could throw it away. That was one of the most powerful creative lessons that I’ve ever learned.
You want to write like you’re writing on paper. You want to write like you could throw it away. It’s just a scene and you’ll make another scene tomorrow. The next day, you’ll make another scene… and you’re always going to show up and you’re always going to do it. It’s just a part of your rhythm.
Then what happens is you stop riding that roller coaster of ups and downs as the muse comes and the muse goes away. You stop having whatever crazy routine you’ve come up with that you believe is the only way you can write, and the only way you can get in touch with the muse. You can lose all that. You can let all that go. You can realize that it’s not about that.
It’s not about riding the wave of the muse. Sure, if she comes, then say, “Thank you, Muse. I’m grateful. Thank you for coming.” She may come and she may not come, but your job is to show up. Your job is to show up again and again, to remember you’re writing on paper. You could throw it away. It’s just something you do like making your morning coffee, like showing up for work or like checking your email. It’s just something you do.
This is the crazy thing about dreams. They are seductive because they’re so big and they’re so beautiful. We imagine that endpoint and we think the endpoint is the dream, but that’s absolutely inside out and backwards.
The process of moving towards the endpoint is the dream. The process is really where you live most of your life. It’s so rare to actually hit the endpoint. Even when you do hit the endpoint, it likely will be different than you imagined it.
It’s actually the process of the every day that makes you a writer. It’s not selling a script that makes you a writer. Sure, I want you to sell a script and hope you will sell a script, but it’s showing up at the page every day that makes you a writer.
How do you show up at the page?
Well, for a lot of us showing up at the page is overwhelming. My recommendation is that you break it down into the smallest possible chunk you can. You want to make it really not overwhelming.
One of the ways that you do that is to get out of the “writing well” business (which you can’t control and which, if you’re early in your career, you probably can’t even evaluate yet).
Probably if you’re early in your career, then you don’t actually know your good writing from your bad writing. I’ve seen so many writers throw out their best scenes because their best scenes make them feel vulnerable and anxious and scared. These same writers will often cling to their most cliche and boring scenes because their cliche and boring scenes remind them of things they’ve seen in other movies. They feel “right” for that reason, even though there’s none of that writer’s voice in them.
It takes some time to actually learn how to evaluate what’s working.
We’re going to get out of the “good” business. We’re going to get out of the “talent” business. We’re not going to worry if we have talent or not. Instead, we are going to get into the volume business.
Our job is to show up day after day and always be generating pages. Our job is just to keep showing up, to remember that we’re writing on paper, and to worry about making it good later.
In order to do that you want to break your writing down into nice small chunks, chunks you can’t talk yourself out of.
You want to schedule the exact time you’re going to do those chunks.
I like to write in seven-minute increments. The reason that I love seven-minute increments is that I can’t talk myself out of seven minutes. I can try. I’m a writer just like you, which means most of my life is filled with overcoming resistance. Everything that I’m teaching you doesn’t come from me being on a pedestal. Everything I’m teaching you comes from me over a lifetime finding different ways to deal with my own resistance, my own fears, my own failures and shortcomings. This is what I want to share with you, so hopefully you can get there in an easier way than I did.
I have resistance, too. How do I overcome my resistance?
I realized my resistance was usually because my goal was too big. Or to put it in movie terms, I was focused on the superobjective rather than on the objective.
It’s the same reason why so many movies and so many shows with such great premises turn out to have crappy execution, because the writer is only focused on the big picture. They’re not focused on what the character wants in this moment, what she wants in this scene.
Sure, you can create a great premise by focusing on the great dream that can be achieved by the end of the film. But to create a great movie or TV pilot, even as you navigate toward that beautiful superobjective, you have to keep your focus on the dream that can be achieved right now, in this scene that’s currently happening.
In the same way, in my life as a writer, breaking down my writing into seven-minute chunks was transformative for me and continues to be. I’m a night owl so I like to do my seven-minute chunks at night, but you can do your seven-minute chunks anytime you like. Remember, I’m priming myself. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I’m doing is Morning Pages. And the last thing I’m doing is writing. So my day is framed by the dream that I’m chasing.
I’m going to do the thing that’s important before I do the email, before I answer the phone and before I get swept up into the current of my day.
Then, just like everybody else, I’m going to attack my day. I have dreams for work, too, and I try to keep focused in the same way. They’re dreams for the studio that really matter. As I build the studio and as we try to serve our writers and our community, there are things that I have to let go in order to do the big things that will really move the needle for my writers.
I’m trying to focus my energy on what I want now, not what’s coming at me. Where do I want to focus? What is the time that I set aside for those little annoying tasks like email? Don’t allow yourself to be on your phone all day. Set your phone down. Schedule the time in your calendar. This is the time I’m allowed to play with email. This is the time I’m allowed to respond. Outside of that, I’m not going to.
You want to free up your time so that stuff isn’t coming at you all the time and so that you’re dedicating your focus to the thing that matters to you.
I have two threads in my writing lifestyle: I have the thread of the studio, my journey as a teacher and the goals I have for my students. Plus, I have the thread of myself as an artist.
I have to balance those two. In my schedule, I’m looking at what the times are for the studio and what the times are for me as a writer. Where do I want the focus to be? At different times the focus is in different places.
For many years, I made the conscious choice that the focus was going to be on the studio. My writing was going to take place for seven minutes at night after all that was done because the priority was the studio and my writing lifestyle was the secondary thread that I needed to thread around that.
At this point in my life, I’m blessed that the work that I did at the studio and the way that I set that dream paid off. I was fortunate enough to surround myself with a really incredible team and really incredible faculty, people who could take a lot of that burden off of me and who could run with our mission without me being involved at every moment. Now, my writing is able to be almost an equal thread in my life.
The way that you allocate your time isn’t going to be the same at every phase of your career. It’s important to ask: What’s the main thing and where do I thread my writing life around that?
You need to answer that question for yourself. Not forever, but for where you are right now.
We want to commit to consistency. If that consistency is every day, then that’s great. However, even G-d rested, so you may want to give yourself a day off. My day off is Sunday night. I can choose to write Sunday night, but I don’t have to.
The reason that the last thing I like to do at night is write my seven minutes is because, right before I go to bed, I don’t have anything else to do. I’m already done with my work for my students. I’m already done with my work for the studio. Lacy, my fiancée, tends to go to bed earlier than I do, so I’ve already done all my work for my relationship. My dog is asleep and I don’t have to walk my dog. Now I have time that’s just for me.
It’s late at night and I’ve done a lot of work, so generally, my first thought is, “Wow, I’m tired. I should skip this tonight.” Then I say, “No. Just seven minutes. You can do seven minutes! No matter how tired you are, you can stay up for another seven minutes. You take seven minutes to brush your teeth. You can do seven minutes. So, I’m going to write for seven minutes.”
If you want to use this technique, then you can’t allow yourself to just sit and think for seven minutes. You’ve got to sit down and you’ve just got to immediately start writing nonstop for seven minutes.
Sometimes I’ll reread a little bit of the last scene I wrote the night before so I can keep that in my mind, but you’ve just got to launch it. You only have seven minutes and you’ve got to move it forward. So, this is my technique. I live an extremely busy life. I work many hours. I’m very passionate about my job. I’m very passionate about the work that we do, but I know that if I don’t serve my writing dream then I don’t feel fully myself. I don’t feel like I’m in control of my own story. So, I set a timer for seven minutes.
Here’s the crazy thing. It’s so rare that I only write for seven minutes! Usually what happens is that I write for seven minutes and then suddenly I’m into something. Then I’m suddenly following that thread and suddenly the seven minutes becomes 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then an hour, then two hours and then three hours.
Suddenly, time opens up in my life that wasn’t there before. Suddenly, I start to think that I’m going to stay up late tonight, so I guess I’ll wake up late tomorrow. I start to think that I want to stay up late and write this tonight. This errand that seems so important that I had planned for tomorrow, maybe I’m just not going to do that and instead stay up late. That email that I was just dying to perfectly compose, maybe I’ll have to send the crappy version of that tomorrow.
What I’m doing is I’m actually prioritizing the real dream.
On other days, I have what are called bad writing days, where that seven minutes frickin’ hurts. It’s hard to get that seven minutes out. It’s hard to just show up for that seven minutes.
I love that, after seven minutes, I can close my laptop and I can go to bed. I can close my laptop and I can play my guitar. I can close my laptop and I can go binge-watch some TV. I can close my laptop and I can go read a book. I can do anything I want. As long as I’ve written those seven minutes, I am a writer today.
Reviewing everything we’ve spoken about: Number one, you’ve got to decide what the dream is. Not forever, but for now.
You’ve got to focus yourself on that dream in some way when you wake up in the morning so that your subconscious mind knows that it’s important, that this is the dream.
If you’re a morning person, you could work on your script first thing in the morning. I like to do my Morning Pages in the morning, but you could also do your screenwriting for that first seven minutes.
You could just take seven minutes to meditate in the morning and think about your script.
You could take a walk and think about your script.
You could walk with a little voice recorder and record little notes to yourself about your script.
But you want to do something in the morning that reminds you that you’re doing what really matters.
Number two, you want to schedule exact times that you’re going to work on your screenplay.
I do it last thing, but you might want to do it at lunch or you might want to do it in the morning or you might want to do it right after you get home from work. You might want to do it right before you pick the kids up from school, but you want to do it at an exact time, because a Pavlovian response starts to happen. You get used to writing at that time. Suddenly it’s three o’clock and you remember, “Oh! It’s time to write.” Suddenly you sit down and you don’t have to get the juices flowing. The juices are already flowing. You’re used to writing at this time. That’s when it starts to get really exciting.
A lot of people think, “How is it possible to write a whole script in just seven minutes?”
Here’s the amazing thing. Once you turn it into a rhythm and once you realize how much you can write in seven minutes, once you realize what a great scene you can create in seven minutes, once you realize how much you can actually drive your story forward in only seven minutes, you start to realize how many seven-minute chunks you actually have in your life. You start to realize, “Oh, you know what? I finished lunch early. I have seven minutes. Let me jot that scene down.” You start to realize, “Oh, I’m sitting in the doctor’s office. I have seven minutes. Let me jot this scene down.” You start to realize that you have all these seven-minute chunks in your life.
This magical thing happens because we all feel like we’re out of time. We all feel like we can’t possibly do the things that matter to us.
The truth is, we have so much more time than we realize. It just goes to the worst stuff. It goes to email. It goes to social media. It goes to Amazon shopping. It goes to mundane, menial tasks that are important but not urgent, or that sometimes are urgent but not even important. It goes to all these deprioritized things that all end up getting in the way of the real dream.
Once you start to realize that you can actually do your real dream, that you are doing your real dream, that you feel good about yourself because you’re living your real dream—once it becomes a rhythm and a process—all these other chunks start to open up.
Once you realize that you can open up seven-minute chunks, other magical chunks start to open up, too. Once you realize by saying “no” to that one stupid email, by not fighting that stupid $7 charge from Verizon that you know is wrong and will take you three hours on the phone, by actually prioritizing the things that are important to you and letting some of the smaller things go, you start to realize that you can open up bigger chunks. You start to realize that you can actually say “no” to bigger things. You start to realize that you can actually make stronger choices that serve the things that really matter to you.
Suddenly, you start to realize that you’re not achieving less in the same time, but you’re actually achieving more.
You’re moving all these different threads that matter to you forward in less time because you know you have less time to do them and because you know you need to make room for these things that matter to you.
Once you build the rhythm, so many of these other steps will actually happen all on their own.
The last piece to building your life as a writer is recognizing that writing can be a very isolating job. For that reason, we need community. We need feedback. We need mentorship.
One of the reasons we built our ProTrack Program the way that we did is to build exactly this kind of rhythm ,where you’re meeting with a professional writer every week or every other week on a consistent basis. It’s not like grad school. Grad school is the “I’m going on vacation for two years” dream. ProTrack is “I have a job. I have a life. I need to be able to support myself, but I have a dream that matters to me.”
What if instead of crunching a lifetime of learning into two years, you could experience the lifetime of learning over a lifetime? What if you had somebody who was expecting pages from you every single week or every other week? What if you were getting a little bit of feedback every week or every other week to help drive your writing forward?
It’s the same with our Master Classes. Instead of doing an immersive film school where you will have to generate $300,000 of debt and be left with so much weighing over you that you can’t actually pursue your dreams, what if you could get a film school education one Sunday a month, not over two years but over a lifetime? What if you could learn in a community of writers, getting the information in The Master Class and then practicing it in ProTrack? So, we have programs to support you.
We also have free programs to support you. If you need some community and you’re not yet ready to commit to the bigger dream, commit to the little one. Show up on Thursday night. It’s free! Every single Thursday you come and you connect with our community. There are hundreds of writers there. We learn about the writing lifestyle, we do writing exercises together, we hang out and we connect.
If you can make a donation, we’re grateful. We donate it to our scholarship fund. We will match your donation and we’ll use it to help students who otherwise couldn’t afford our mentorship program or our masterclasses to actually attend those programs. If you can’t afford to make a donation, then come for free. Bring a smile or a friend. Have a good time. You’re going to need that community. That community is part of the celebration of what you’re doing.
This is the thing that I actually want to leave you with: It is not enough just to have success. It’s not enough just to achieve your goals, show up every day and do it. You also need to celebrate your success.
Celebrating your success can be doing a little dance, giving yourself a gift, introducing yourself to somebody and saying “I’m a writer,” or celebrating with us on Thursday nights and saying “Hey, I’m a writer today.”
You showed up at the page. This week, you carved just a little bit of space that turned into just a little bit more and just a little bit more, until that little drip or trickle turned into a stream and then a brook and then eventually a mighty river of creativity driving you not just toward a future, but through a really awesome present where every single day you are not pursuing your dream, you’re actually living it.