I’d have written a better one this week if I’d had the right desk

D’ya like writing? Great. D’ya like desks, too? Yeah, I figured. Behold: Abraham Roentgen’s Writing Desk. Prepare yourself for two hypnotic minutes of a curator methodically revealing all the mechanical surprises tucked into one elegant piece of wooden furniture: unfolding inkwell, pop-up reading easel, banks of hidden drawers…

Abraham Roentgen, 18th-century furniture maker to the stars. Nobody did secret compartments like old Abe. I discovered him a few years back when I stumbled on an exhibit of dozens of his intricate, yet functional contraptions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kid, meet candy store. (The exhibit is long gone, but they still have a couple of pieces on display in the permanent collection.)

Somehow, I just know I’d be a better writer if I could trade my MacBook in for a priceless antique writing desk with secret compartments. Or at least a typewriter. Has anyone seen that typewriter documentary yet? I hadn’t realized you could already rent it. That’s happening tonight. What else would I watch, The Bachelorette‽ (I’m all caught up, anyway.)

The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s not exactly to Thoreau’s point, but to me this speaks to the most onerous part of the scrivener’s job: the vague unpredictable bigness of it. Before a writing session, you’re like a gladiator behind that portcullis, about to enter the arena. Ultimately, you have no idea what you’re about to face or how long it’ll actually take to bring it down. That’s where the dread comes from. For me, anyway. Even when you do complete a draft of a section or a chapter, it’s only that, a draft. Next comes revision after revision. When do we ever actually finish anything, really? Even published books get second editions. The fiddling never stops.

The beauty of writing the Maven Game is that, one way or the other, the family starts getting restless and I have to hit Send. I can only fiddle so much.

It’s easy for Writing Coaches to tell you to divide your project up into manageable pieces that you can tackle in a reasonable amount of time. Manageable? Ha! Reasonable? Double ha! The act of writing doesn’t divide into neat little buckets. Getting an idea down takes as long as it takes. So does fixing what’s broken. Sometimes, it’s a snap. Usually, it’s a bear; an hour or more can pass wrestling with a paragraph or two. And you still have that chapter due tonight!

(Side note: No, I’m not a writing coach. I’m not interested in helping anyone feel like writing. If I don’t feel like writing, why should they? I called my company “bookitect” for a reason. If you want to build a house, I’ll help you do it. If you’re not in the mood, get an Airbnb and stop worrying so much. After all, writing a book will not change your life.)

Here’s the truth about me: when it comes to writing, I can do one thing a day. That’s it. If I try for two, I’ll manage to do none. So I aim for one and I (usually) do one. The one thing might be a skeleton outline or a chapter or just a title. I go in, cue hammering and sawing sounds, I come out hours later, and somehow it’s done. Typically, I’ve got a stunned look on my face, I’m in a daze. The rest of the day is email and phone calls, if I’m lucky. Sometimes I’m just done.

Am I lazy? I’ve had plenty of full-time jobs where I’d run around doing stuff all day long—I usually went home buzzing with energy. Not so with writing. Writing burns the candle down to a nub. You use that nub to force yourself to floss. That’s pretty much all you’ve got left. At least that’s my experience.

Again, there’s no guarantee on any particular day that I’ll get my one thing done. Here’s what I do to raise the odds:

  1. Plan the one thing the night before and write it down.
  2. Enforce “time discipline”—nothing stands between the end of my morning routine and the start of my one thing for the day. (I used to have a terrible habit of running software updates before getting to work, among many other distractions. Those would always be the ones that broke the entire system. Never update your software before sitting down to write!)
  3. Set a timer for 30 minutes or so, fewer if I’m really struggling.

That’s it. Again, if I create an agenda the night before calling for two or more things to get done, chances are I’ll find myself with an overpowering urge to nap when I’m supposed to be writing. Dave can only be pushed so far. So I stick to one thing and my brain shows up for work, more often than not.

So how do you decide on one thing? The same way you motivate yourself to keep jogging a little bit longer. You pick a marker you can see from where you are. “I’m going to keep going until I reach that lamp post. No, not that one, that one.” So, “I’ll write until the next subhead.” Keep the marker close.

You never know. You might enter that mystical Csikszentmihalyian flow state people talk about. Personally, I think it’s a myth, like a round Earth or the Moon landing, but there’s no harm in believing in flow if it comforts you. If you do magically go down the flow-hole, you might go on to crank out a whole chapter, or even Jerry Maguire an entire sports agent manifesto in one sitting. You might even do two things today. Just don’t aim for that at the start. When it comes to writing, your expectations can never be low enough.

As expected, the family’s getting restless. Time to hit Send and stumble off with my candle nub…