Writing flagging? Try writing flags

Everyone who wants to write will have heard the advice that writers write.  Every day.  That writing is a muscle which develops with use.  I’ve spent my first ‘year to live a little differently’ working towards developing a daily writing habit.  Back in February, I was very happy to finish a 67,000 word manuscript of a children’s novel in time to send it off to a competition.  I allowed myself a little break, to do some blogging and plan another book.  Then I set off on a week’s holiday in Cromarty, promising myself I’d start writing the new novel as soon as I got back, regardless of whether I felt ready.  Two weeks later it was the end of April and I was annoyed with myself.  Every passing day, there was a litany of important things I ‘had’ to do before I could embark on a new novel.  Yeah, right.  There was no hiding from the fact I was procrastinating, for all the usual boring reasons… What if the idea isn’t strong enough, or interesting enough, to last 100,000 words?  What if I’m no good at writing and it’s a rubbish book? and so forth ad nauseam.  Even though I’d told myself countless times the answer to these questions was ‘It doesn’t matter.  I’m going to do it anyway.’

On the last Saturday of April, the weather was terrible and I was sitting by the stove in our cosy sitting room, listening to the rain battering off the windows and watching a contented greyhound snoozing by my feet.  I decided, well, I’m letting myself off until Monday, but if I don’t start then, there is no way I’m going to achieve what I wanted to do by July.

For motivation, I read some blog posts on writing and came across this, in which Kara talks about those days when you have the stuck feeling and would rather do anything than write:

Instead of fighting it and avoiding what had to get done, I just sat with it, whether I liked it or not. This ‘like it or not’ mentality was used by Jerry Seinfeld when he was working as a touring comic. He had a special system, which forced him to write every single day. He believed that if he wrote daily, he’d create better jokes. His system involved a big wall calendar for an entire year. He placed a big red “X” when he wrote that day. Over time, this created a pretty impressive chain of big Xs. […] The other bit of advice that I found helpful, is this – skipping one day makes it so easy to skip the next, so that’s why it’s important to make that commitment and write every single day. It doesn’t have to be something that you finish and press publish on. Think of it as practice, like working out.


You can read the full post by Brad Isaac about Jerry Seinfeld’s writing productivity techniques here.

From my infants’ teacher perspective, I instantly understood the appeal of a visible chart showing my daily progress.  I didn’t need a whole year’s wall calendar to try it out, though.  I nipped through to the kitchen, got a sheet of scrap A4 from the dresser drawer, and wrote out all the days from Monday through till the end of June.  I didn’t like the idea of big red crosses so much, but it was already late and the dog was giving me doleful looks, wanting her bedtime walk, so I set the paper aside.

The next morning, I looked at the A4 sheet of dates again and thought ‘I need something more positive than red crosses like the ones teachers used on my maths mistakes when I was a wee girl.’  Inspiration struck when I looked out our bedroom door and saw the prayer flags that hang along the corridor wall.  It’s the only part of our spacious, light house that feels gloomy and narrow, so we hung the flags there to cheer it up.

Photo credit: thecareyadventures.com

Perfect!  I drew chains of flags, one for each date, and allocated colours to a writing code.  Real Tibetan prayer flags are rectangular, so I made mine more like bunting, although I used the same colours as prayer flags.  Red would be the book: the colour of passion and danger seemed right for the writing I was scared of throwing myself into.  Blue would be for my blog posts, green would be for yoga teacher training homework (i.e. essays – counting my brief daily practice journal entries would be cheating).  Yellow would be for any other writing, such as a short story, or morning pages (google Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron and you will find a ton of stuff about ‘morning pages’, should you wish to!).  White would be the empty flag, breaking the chain and signifying no writing at all.  If I did more than one kind of writing in a day, I could have extra fun doing a multi-coloured pattern on that day’s flag.

I found and sharpened four pencils and stuck the flags sheet onto our bedroom mirror at eye level, where I would see it many times a day as I walked round the room.

Here’s the first A4 sheet I did:

writing flags

It’s a rough-and-ready design; I know lots of you could make a much prettier one.  If you do, please link back to me here, let me know how you get on, and maybe even make the template available for anyone to use?  But if you do one on a computer, keep in mind that the actual physical act of colouring in a flag each day feels like a satisfying and significant part of the process!

I found it very effective – I wrote on lots of days that I’d have otherwise excused myself from.  I kept it going from April until I went to Orkney at the start of August.  Just by looking at the completed flag sheets, I learned stuff about myself: the more disrupted my normal routine was, and the more people who were hanging round the house during the day (even if they weren’t directly making demands on me), the more blue and green appeared, red dwindled and white crept in.

My intention had been to resume in September, when the house settled into term-time routine.  But I’ve been overwhelmed (in a good way) with all the things connected to being in the final year of my yoga teacher training, learning about the business side of being self-employed, and the unexpected level of demand for my yoga classes.  So, although I’m keeping a daily practice journal and maintaining a yoga website and facebook business page, I am itching to get back to fiction writing and more frequent blogging.  This post is my first step.  Set the intention, declare it in writing…and now I’m going to sharpen the red and blue pencils!

What writing techniques and tips have worked for you?  Please share them with us!

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11 thoughts on “Writing flagging? Try writing flags

  1. helenmackinven

    Great idea! I’m sure the flags would help maintain a writing routine. I’m not as organised as you and write when I can between ‘day job’ commitments etc. I used to beat myself up about not writing every day but realistically it’s not always possible for me. As you say, he danger is that you fall out of the habit of writing and lose focus. To compensate for a non-writing day I tell myself that sometimes you have to get out there and do stuff and see things to have more fresh material. I go to lots of reader events and hearing other writers also feeds my inspiration and my own writing. I’m always thinking about my WIP at the back of my mind too so I think that counts as mental writing (or maybe I’m deluding myself to ease the guilt!). But what I always do without fail every day is read. This to me is just as important as writing. All the best with seeing more red and blue flags on your chart! :)

    1. braith an' lithe Post author

      Thank you!
      I don’t think I could claim to be more organised than you, especially since it was an April to August experiment that I’m yet to get back to! I was just so aware I was making excuses, and also skirting around the writing that I was most insecure about. It has taken me a long time to develop a daily yoga practice – building new habits does just take time, whatever the habit – but I have one now, though I have some days off. And I love it and know it’s now not at risk of dwindling away to nothing if I take the odd day off. Whereas I haven’t really built that writing muscle (yet). There’s a tangible difference, I think, in having a well-established daily habit that allows for days away from it…and making excuses for not getting round to something. My sense is that you have a pretty well-embedded passion for and commitment to writing in place already, which allows more scope for cutting yourself slack as needed!
      Like you I can’t imagine a day passing without reading. But attending some reader events is something I keep meaning to do…

  2. Photography Journal Blog

    Your little key symbol looks like a stick figure standing in tree pose, that kind of fits doesn’t it? I’m thinking about the template thing, like an online version. Not sure how you would add in the colors for the days as you were going along. That might be beyond my design skills. :)

  3. Yoga for Calm

    Thank you! This is a great idea, and I’m going to give it a try with my meditation practice. Meditation is something that I want to do because I know it benefits me, but I put it off and find so many other things that seem to be more important. Having come back from a meditation retreat in Snowdonia last week, I’m full of good intentions, but I know that it will be difficult to maintain a consistent practice. One of the things a teacher suggested was to ‘just light a candle’, then say to yourself, ‘well, I might as well sit here for a moment or two’, and then the moment or two might stretch to five. Have the intention, take the first tiny step and take it from there. If the mind and body thinks it has to ‘do nothing’ / write for 20 minutes that immediately seems too hard and resistance kicks in.
    Co-incidentally, I’ve never had aspirations to write creatively, but the meditation retreat cleared my mind enough for me to do some free-style writing, which was an unexpected benefit, and gave me the courage to put it on my blog!

    1. braith an' lithe Post author

      Yes, I think it could work for building many daily habits. I’m finding keeping a practice journal is really helping me embed a daily yoga practice. Coincidentally, our homework Nov/Dec is actually to build a daily meditation practice. We’re to report back in January, which also helps me with sticking to the intention I set :-) I am exactly like you about meditation – I know if I do it regularly it helps me in all sorts of ways, but I more often than not find lots of reasons not to. Particularly as I’m not naturally flexible, it’s all too easy to devote most of my home practice to asana because I feel that’s an obvious priority for me. Good luck with your own tiny steps! I’ll try to read how it’s going at your blog over the next while…I’m not getting as much time as I’d like on WordPress recently, with various other new demands on my time.

  4. Sheila

    Thank you for that idea! I’ll have to give it a try. You could also add some sort of a reward at the end of the week if the writing goal of however many days is met. I don’t really have any writing tips other than to schedule a writing time and stick to it, even though I don’t. :) Glad to hear you’ll be trying to blog more too – I’ve missed you!

    1. braith an' lithe Post author

      Yes I think a scheduled time could work well for me – that’s helped me establish a daily yoga practice anyway, looking at my diary the night before and thinking ‘I’ve got to do it so when will I fit it in’. And maybe a big chocolate reward…Hmm…still working on that sugar issue!
      Might have to start ‘scheduling’ for my blog. Very nice to hear you’ve missed me, thank you :-) I am missing all the lovely time I had last winter to read my ‘regulars’ and browse around too. Hopefully things will quiet down over the xmas school hols and I can indulge!


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