Bad Advice Wednesday: How to Get on a Roll, or, The Value of Momentum

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I’m re-posting this, one of our very first “Bad Advice” blogs, since it goes with some things I’ve been saying in the “Just Write” class I’m teaching this term.

Momentum.  I say the word so much in my classes that I wouldn’t blame students if they walked out or threw bricks.  But I’ll say it again.  Mo-men-tum. Sometimes it seems to me that the whole writing game–the whole of life?– is contained in that one word.  How do you get in movement and stay in movement?  The question.   How to get rolling and, more importantly, keep rolling?

As for the “keep rolling” aspect (which, momentum being momentum, is the easier part) many people have tricks, usually some variant on Hemingway’s habit of stopping when you know what sentence you’re going to write next.  That’s not for me.  For one thing, if I know the sentence, I’ll write it down while I’ve got it.   For another, it’s just too rational.  “If I know what I’m doing I can’t do it,” said Joan Didion.  That’s closer to it.  Momentum, whether starting it or keeping it, is about the continued thrust into the unknown.  The decision–if it even is a decision– to move forward without or beyond the aid of reason.  Momentum is the march into darkness when your sensible (and fearful) side is telling you stay put in your clean, well-lighted brain.

But this is pretty vague.  Let’s get specific.

1. You are sitting at your desk writing, or kind of writing.  It isn’t going well.  You started a long project, let’s call it a novel, a week ago and you are at an impasse.  This morning your specific problem is that you need to get your main character, Elton, down to the farmers’ market where he can meet Lorrie, the cute single mom.  But suddenly that idea seems kind of stupid.  As does the whole book.  Dark thoughts gather.  How did you ever think that you, busy you, would have the time or energy to write a novel?  Wouldn’t it be better to start next January when you’ll have more time?  That sickly feeling comes over you, that everything-I-write-seems-lame feeling.  Quitting looks more and more attractive.  If not quitting the whole project, then at least for the day.

But you don’t.  Not this time.  Instead you somehow plow through those doubts and shove Elton into the car and get him driving down to the farmers’ market.  You are typing now, though you are not initially freed from the curse of insecurity.  You’re still pretty sure what you’re doing sucks but at least you’re doing it.  So you keep moving, keep typing.  Maybe in the back of your head you now remember that you don’t have to be in a chipper mood to write well, and that, while we all improve as writers, we also pretty much write the way we write, our sentences like our fingerprints, and this is semi-reassuring becase it means your sentences come out the way they come out independent of your feelings about them.  And then Elton and Lorrie meet, and you like the description of her laugh (it isn’t half bad), and you have him say something witty and then she, with little effort from you, says something witty back and…..

….and what you are experiencing, whether you know it or not, is the writerly law of momentum.  You are in motion and you might just stay in motion for a while.  It doesn’t mean everything is perfect and that you will now write the whole novel is one great surge, like Dostoyevsky or something.  But it might mean you will write for another hour or so.  Tomorrow you might throw what you wrote away but tomorrow you might also feel a little different.  A little more solid, a tad more confident.  And, if you are lucky, you might develop a taste for this thing, this movement, this momentum, which might let you power through those doubts.

You understand, of course, that “power through” isn’t a very artistic or sophisticated term.  But you are beginning to think it is an effective one.  The thing is that this is how “rolls” often start.  You have a crappy day but then you have a not-so-crappy day that leads to a very nice average day and then suddenly some part of you (maybe not your brain) realizes that you’ve had two not-so-bad days and then you have a good day and then, before you know it, you are feeling strangely confident…. You would jinx yourself by saying you are rolling.  But you are.

2. What I described above is momentum on a small daily scale.  But for writers there is also something else, something larger, that I will call career momentum.  It involves, for most of us, the creation of a book, or, hopefully, of books.

For writers who are starting, or writers who are stuck, I always bringing up Keats and the composition of his long poem Endymion (I even drew a cartoon essay about it.)

The gist is that Keats, at the beginning of his very short career, young and clueless, decided that rather than “Sit on the shore and pipe on his flute and take tea and comfortable advice” would “dive into the sea and see where the shoals were.”  How did he do this?  He decided to put aside the short, cozy, and fashionable lyric poems he had been writing and set to writing a long epic poem. It did not go particularly well at first, but he—to use our new phrase—powered through, forcing himself to write a certain number of lines a day. Endymion is generally regarded as a somewhat weak poem, but from a psychological point of view it is fascinating. As Keats’ biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, has written, the real benefits came later, in the next poems, and in the lack of fear in front of a blank page, and in the readiness of phrase that, having trained himself in Endymion, came more easily.  Bate quotes William James: “You learn to skate in the summer.”

I am not saying that all our books need to be slammed together. You may be an entirely different sort of writer, one who composes in your head, and comes to the page with a vision, and with precision.  But for most of us, at some point, we need to put our perfect vision of a book on a shelf deep in the closet and get down to the work of writing.  Most books need to be framed out, like house, and framing isn’t precision work.  Better to get in movement now and stay in movement since, as Samuel Johnson said, activity is “self corrective.”

The strange thing is that once you are in movement, once you have momentum, you learn things you can never learn in theory.  Your reasonable brain, for instance, might have ideas about plot, but it can’t know plot in a way someone who has wrestled with a book (or two) will.  Likewise, you may have some general ideas about your own work habits but these are just ideas until they are tested in the fire of a book.  Once you emerge from those fires, you suddenly know a lot more about yourself and are able to predict how you will respond, and, more specifically, practical things like how long it might take to finish a project or, at least, this chapter.  (I am listening to Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits as I type and “Every Day I Write the Book” just came on.  Really, I swear. So I might as well go with the music and say that that’s another thing about momentum: once you get going you’re going to want to get that feeling every day.  Day after day…rolling….The song’s over now—a song called “Shipbuilding” is on.)

One final thought on momentum.  In skiing terms this might be more of black diamond tip, for experts only.  When you are starting out there is much to be said for focusing your energies on completing one project, one book.  But once you are rolling, once you have momentum on your side, there is nothing wrong with jumping around a bit, hopping from project to project.  I read a recent interview with Cormac McCarthy where he said he was working on five books at once. Why not, if you can do it?  It’s a different kind of momentum than “powering through,” the opposite of forcing, just going with the one that’s coming. There are real advantages to this sort of method.  For one thing you are rarely stuck.  Often when you are working on one project the solution to another pops up. It’s another one of those things that feel different when you’re inside it than it looks from the outside, in theory. From the outside it might seem overwhelming to have so many balls in the air, to be doing so much.  But from the inside it can actually be a rejuvenating way of working.  “A change is as good as a rest,” said Churchill, who knew a thing or two about variety.  It allows you to “rest” certain projects while keeping an overall movement.

And movement, after all, is what it’s all about.

  1. Jordan Cofer writes:

    Dead on advice and perfect timing, I’m trying to get some momentum going as we speak.

  2. Kyle Mustain writes:

    Thanks, David! This really helps me feel better about my current predicament, which is juggling several projects and having to tell myself to just power through. Crappy writing can always be taken care of in the subsequent drafts.

  3. Donna Treolo writes:

    Thanks David! I am going to a writing retreat today and can now leave behind half of the books I packed to take with me. I saw my demon in your cartoon, his name is “research it to death” his twin is “fear of getting it wrong” I will resist the temptation of buying the book you mentioned in the cartoon and just get on with it!

    Much easier to push that big rock without all those books weighing me down.


    • dave writes:

      Yes, I had a professor, a famous biographer, who said that the surest way not to write a book was to know too much about your subject.

  4. Andrea Barilla writes:

    Thanks, David. I needed this; I’m stuck in a week-long phase of feeling like a horrible writer and am trying to keep plugging away. I’m working on a book project, currently planning the book outline and having that feeling that it’s not all that wonderful whereas just a few weeks ago, it was the best thing in the world. I’m starting to learn, though, that these feelings come and go like waves. I’m trying to keep momentum by writing in spite of the feelings, which is hard sometimes!

    • dave writes:

      There is something at least mildly bipolar about most writer’s lives. But usually not clinically bipolar, which allows us to watch the down periods from a distance, but ride the high periods…….it’s very difficult, I think, but also almost as important as beign able to write a good sentence.

  5. Jason Newport writes:

    “You’re still pretty sure what you’re doing sucks but at least you’re doing it.” Dead-on and encouraging, especially for thesis writers.

    Thanks, David.

    • Wendy Marguccio writes:

      Very Inspiring!! I am glad to know that I am not the only one who struggles with “momentum”. I will take these seeds of wisdom and plant them in my brain and let them fester and grow, hopefully into something worth reading!