Yesterday, I finished a self-created project: "30 Days of Fiction." The rules I made were simple: one story a day, 15 minutes, 100 words. I'd been inspired by a similar exercise I'd undertaken at a yoga studio: pay $158, go to yoga every day for 30 days, get a free T-shirt. I hadn't been writing as much fiction as I had been years ago, and I wanted to get back in the habit. But I kept tripping on my own feet, getting bogged down in whether or not it was good enough. This exercise, I figured, would shift my focus from quality to quantity, and, in the end, I hoped, trick my brain back into focusing on quality over quantity, and, it seemed, it worked.
Focus on what you really want
One challenge I have writing fiction without a deadline is that I overly focus on whether or not it's "good." These days, I'm more interested in does it make me happy than does it make someone else happy. Having been a freelance writer for many years, I've become overly concerned with anticipating someone else's needs versus figuring out what I need. This project was a great way for me to decide what I wanted to say and go ahead and say it. "Every Freaking Day," about a tiny tall child whose parents are conjoined twins, was a pleasure to write, and I can guarantee you that no one was going to pay me to write it.
Time is of the essence
Even the best athletes can choke. There simply isn't time to do that in 15 minutes. When I started the project, I was worried I wouldn't be able to think of and write a story in 15 minutes, so I would sometimes think of a story idea ahead of time. I thought that was cheating, so I stopped doing it. The story of a couple who see the world upside down, "Bending Over Backwards," which I like a lot and which others seemed to like a lot, took 15 minutes and 100 words.
Get in touch with your wu wei
A few weeks ago, I read "A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying," which is a must for anyone who tackles a "30 Days of ___" endeavor. I believe I was already familiar with the concept but had forgotten about it. From the article: "He calls it the paradox of wu wei, the Chinese term for 'effortless action.' Pronounced 'ooo-way,' it has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports." When I stopped trying so hard, the stories flowed better. I wrote "Balance Sheets" after reading about wu wei. I wrote that story of an accountant who has suicidal tendencies empty-headed, I guess you could say. I believe this type of writing allows the creativity to emerge from a deeper pit than the dull ranting of your conscious mind.
What're you trending
I noticed a few common themes in my work as I progressed: marriage, technology, writing. My favorites include "Couples' Road Trip," which is about a married couple who take a meandering and tempestuous road trip, and "Praying for Rust," which is probably my favorite story in the whole project and about a robot baby that gets adopted and is unwanted. Know your pastures, and you can graze therein.
Experiment or perish
Writers who have been writing a long time understand that sometimes it's hard to reinvent the wheel in words. I definitely wanted to experiment in this process, and I did. I tried all-caps ("I Believe in Drugs," starring a depressed blogger), no-caps and no punctuation ("I Am Myself Where I Am Not," featuring a strangely lonely businessman), and weird authoritarianism ("The Remanders," in which technology overrides the body). Experimenting at 100 words or less is easy because if you don't like it, you can try something else tomorrow.
Get visually inspired
Someone asked me if I found the image and then wrote the text or wrote the text and then found the image. In almost all cases, I wrote the text and then found the image. One exception is "Send Help," my shortest piece, which is about a woman who's gone insane or something like it. I made the image that I paired with it maybe six to eight years ago as part of a comic I was doing, and I came across it again the other day. Either way, the relationship between the visual and the written is symbiotic. Sometimes, I loved the relationship between the two -- for example: "Evolution," which is about the power a dog feels when its master picks up its poop.
Not every story was great. I based "All Their Glowing Faces" on something that really happened (a walk on a beach at sunset), and it's a bit corny and lacking in imagination. And "The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants" is little more than a protracted dick joke about a male porn star who can't get it up anymore.
Your excuses are your weaknesses
The fact of the matter is that anyone can do this, of course. I get it: you have kids, you have a job, you're depressed, you're busy, you're not sure you can do it, you don't think you should bother with it, and no one cares anyway, amirite? But if you have 15 minutes and an iota of willpower you can do this project. It wasn't that hard. It gave me greater confidence. And that was worth it. That was worth 15 minutes of my time every day. To do what I wanted. It's worth your time. To do what you want.