thursday thoughts

The Best Writing Process Ever

It took a while, but I’ve found the best writing process. I do it every day as part of my morning routine. It goes something like this:

6:00am - Wake up.

6:10am - Coffee.

6:20am - Head out for a run along the lake. (I think about my current writing project while I’m running.)

7:00am - Shower, eat breakfast, and get ready for the day.

7:30am - Sit down at my desk. (The top is clean, except for my typewriter. All other devices are turned off. The door is closed and the only light in the room comes from the south-facing windows.) I start writing and don’t stop until I hit roughly 1,500-2,000 words.

10:00am - After reaching my word count I start the rest of my day: e-mails, video editing, etc.

That’s how I write every single day, no matter what. After years of trial and error I genuinely believe that this is the single best writing process. It’s the only real way to get better and keep finishing writing projects in a timely manner.

If you’re looking to be a good writer or have always wanted to write a book, this how to do it. Or, maybe you’re like me and you just really enjoy writing for the sake of it. This is the best way to do it.

Trust me.

Okay…not really. I’m full of crap. I don’t believe any of that at all. What kind of pretentious, self-aggrandizing person would say “My process is the best and you need to be doing it, too!”

My writing process is more like this:

I wake up early (or late) and get right to work (or don’t). I write as many words as possible (hopefully 0-100 if I’m lucky) without any devices on (or sometimes while watching Netflix or listening to music).

I usually write on my typewriter (unless I’m using my computer) unless I’m on the road and have to resort to writing by hand in a notebook - always a moleskine (or whatever else I can find like a yellow legal pad, composition notebook, hotel stationary, or back of a napkin).

I always write in the morning (except when it’s more convenient to write at a different time) at the same place (not a chance) in the same way (yeah, right).

It’s a simple process. (Not true.)

I’ve read a ton of books on writing. (If you’re interested, start with this one. Also, check out this one or this one. For creative inspiration, you can’t beat this one. And then you can get into niche territory with books like this, that, this one, or maybe even this one.) They all talk about writing processes, word counts, your general writing environment, and more. They give you bench marks for word counts or total number of pages or a timeframe in which to finish your book. I’ve experimented with many of these approaches.

I tried Morning Pages and stuck with it for maybe two months.

I tried 10 pages a day and made it two or three days.

I’ve tried writing in the morning, writing late at night, phone reminders, timers, typewriters, computers, iPad apps, storyboards, notebooks - you name it - but I was never able to stick with any single approach for very long.

Over time, I started to get discouraged that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Since I didn’t have a process like the writers I admired I was worried that my ideas would never amount to anything.

See, I’m not necessarily trying to write a novel or a feature-length film or a memoir. For me writing is almost like therapy. It’s a way to confront my ideas and transmit them to you. It’s a way to get thoughts out of my head so I can understand them and make room for more. When I write it’s to work on my show or brainstorm new ideas or finish one of these essays. Sometimes I work on a screenplay, other times I write poetry. It’s just one more way to express myself, even if most of it will never be published.

But I still want to be better. That’s why I read those books and study my favorite authors. That’s why I watch TED Talks and take classes. That’s why I keep trying to find a writing process that I can stick with. I just haven’t found something that works for me.

I told my wife once, “I should work harder. I don’t really write or rehearse. Am I being lazy? Or, is it just not something I’m good at?” I expected her to agree with me and encourage me to make changes to my daily routine. But that’s not what happened at all.

She surprised me with, as usual, a thoughtful observation, “That’s not true at all. I think you work really hard. You’re always writing. Every time I wake up or come home or get back from the studio, you’re working on a project. And I always hear you working on your show - on the phone, in the shower, in the car. You’re always working on something new.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was absolutely right. I am constantly working on something new. It could be a script or a show or a blog post or a book, but I’m always hard at work trying to create something. I just don’t have a set way of doing it.

My writing process is never the same. And that’s okay.

Sometimes I write out loud in the shower, sometimes I write in my head on a run. Sometimes I talk out loud in the car and other times I need it to be perfectly quiet so I can get it just right. Sometimes I’ll sit at my desk all day and other times (like writing this post) I’ll move around constantly and sit on every chair/stool/couch in my apartment. It always changes.

Thinking you can study someone’s process and copy it exactly is ridiculous. What works for someone else will never work perfectly for you. You’ll try it on and it’ll fit as well as a hand-me-down outfit you found at the GoodWill. So you take the elements that suit you and discard the rest. Then you repeat, ad nauseam, until you find the right combination for your style and your life.

My writing process is a little sporadic. Sometimes I write these essays on a Friday afternoon and schedule them for the following Thursday. Other times, I write them Thursday morning and post them soon after. It doesn’t matter, I just try to fit them in when I can.

I really don’t rehearse my show in the traditional sense, but I think about it constantly. I outline it in my notebook, storyboard it, write a few parts out in full, but mainly I just say it out loud. Then I go onstage and pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t. I learn from my mistakes, get better, and keep improving show to show. That’s the best process - for me.

When I got back from spending six weeks in Pittsburgh this summer I flipped through my notebook from the start of the year. I had diagrammed out a show and never really gone back to it. But everything was there: the intention, the message, the character development, the goals, the peaks and valleys, the dramatic structure. I had accomplished everything I had set out to months ago, without even realizing it.

Here’s the best tips I’ve found, no matter what you want to do:

Consistency - If you want to get better at something you need to do it a lot. I may not write at the same time every day but I do think about it all the time. And I try to write as much as possible. Whatever you want to do, do it as much as you possibly can.

Self-Imposed Deadlines - Posting every Thursday helps me stay on track. I’m always thinking about ideas and trying to turn them into blog posts. Give yourself a timeframe so you have to keep making progress.

Prioritize - Remove other distractions from your life so you can focus on what matters. Making time for your dreams will help you find a way to turn them into a reality.

You may not want to be a writer or a mind reader or anything that even remotely resembles that. But, whatever you want to do, today’s world is full of people constantly telling you that they have it all figured out and if you would only do it exactly how they do it, then you could have a perfectly happy existence just like they do!

I’m here to tell you the opposite. What works for those people, won’t work for you. No one can tell you how to be the next great so-and-so. No one’s process will be 100% perfect for you. So, why waste your time trying to do something the way someone else does?

Go out and experiment. Make mistakes and learn from them. Try all the ways to do something until you find your favorite. There are a million ways to do something but the best process is the one that works for you.

Other Thoughts:

  • Summer is nearly over - can you believe it? That means it’s time for college shows around the country. Check out this cool 360 pic from my first college of the semester - California State University, East Bay:

  • Sign up so you never miss a Thursday Thoughts post.

  • I’m coming back to headline at the Chicago Magic Lounge next month. See here for all upcoming shows and ticket info!

No, but...

Here’s a crazy thought:

I realized this week that I’m coming up on a decade of being a full-time, professional entertainer. A decade! TEN FREAKING YEARS.

I never had another option or a backup plan; it was always going to be what I’m doing now or some form of it. So I set out ten years ago with no real plan - just grit and the desire to get paid for doing something that I’m passionate about.

It took maybe 6 or 7 of those years to even feel like I’d made any progress. Then, I started getting more creative with the show, taking risks, and exploring more outlets for performing like producing my own shows or doing fringe festivals. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to tell people I’m a professional entertainer and really believe it myself.

I didn’t really know what I was doing back in 2009, so I just started saying “yes” to everything. I figured being the person who always made stuff happen would lead to good things.

Them: “Can you do a show outdoors on the side of a hill?”
Me: “Absolutely.”

Them: “Can you do a show during halftime of a basketball game?”
Me: “No problem at all.”

Them: “Can you put a different show together for us by next week?”
Me: “Yes, of course!”

Over the past ten years I’ve said “yes” to more things then I can remember. I’ve moved across the country for jobs, driven overnight, lost money, lost sleep, and given more than I’ve received. But somehow I was convinced I would eventually get something out of it.

Many years ago I started changing my approach. I changed my answer from “yes” to “no, but…”. And suddenly, things started getting better. I started enjoying my work more and people started to take notice.

I had said “yes” to a job at the Disney World resorts but what I thought was going to be a full-time gig ended up being only a fill-in, part-time gig. After a year of being on-call and seizing every opportunity, I decided I didn’t really like a) performing outdoors and b) performing for children/families. I decided I would stop doing both of those things moving forward, so when Disney called to offer me the full-time position I thought they’d given me a year before I turned down the offer and moved back to Chicago a month later.

Disney: “Do you want to go on full-time at the BoardWalk next year?”
Me: “No, I don’t think it’s for me…but I know someone who would do a great job for you.”

I haven’t done a single gig for children/families since then and only a handful of outdoor gigs - but always on my terms. It was life-changing.

“No, but…” are real-life magic words. They get you out of things you don’t want to do. They keep you sane. They help you make decisions that will benefit you long-term.

The key is to give an emphatic “no”, then follow it up with a “but…” where you offer a detailed explanation or offer to help in some other capacity.

I get random calls all the time. People want to pay me less than I’m worth. People want me to work for free or for (oh-fuck-off) exposure. People (usually friend or family) want a favor and expect it of me.

I respond with a “No, but…” and explain my rate or my schedule or my value or why I can’t just fly across the country for a freebie. Then, I put them in touch with a friend who can do it or help them brainstorm some other options. I do about a hundred shows a year and I probably turn down about twice as many. Not every gig is for me and realizing which ones are has made all the difference. The truth is, my best opportunities have come from saying “no” to things, not from saying “yes”.

I’ve been slowly eliminating things I don’t want to do from my life the past few years and I’m nearly there. 2020 is about to be the year of saying “no” to as much as possible.

This isn’t advice only for performers. “No, but…” (or perhaps “No, because…”) works in any situation.

Your friends want you to go out for a late night bar crawl, even though they know you’re training for a half marathon? (“No, because I have to wake up early…”)

People keep taking advantage of your expertise but refusing to pay you? (“No, because I have bills to pay and can’t keep offering my services for free.”)

People want you to do a thing you don’t want to do at a certain time at a stupid place? (“No, but maybe next time.” while you’re actually thinking “No, because it doesn’t make me happy.”)

The irony of preaching “No, but…” in the city of “Yes, and…” is not lost on me. But I stand by it. Saying “no” to things you don’t want to do is the secret to having time for the things you want to be doing.

Other Thoughts:

  • Warren Buffett seems to agree with me.

  • I’ve been enjoying this lately. You probably will, too.

  • Have you joined my Thursday Thoughts mailing list? I won’t be on social media much longer so sign up so you’ll never miss a post.

  • The banner photo is from my appearance last month on Pittsburgh Today Live. Watch it here:

Why I'm Deleting My Social Media

That’s right, I’m finally taking the plunge. I’m going to delete all of my social media accounts.

Here are the main reasons why:

  • Time - I’ve spent way too much time on it the past decade or more. I want that time back. I want to spend those hours with my wife. I want more time to run and write and take road trips and travel and go to the movies and all of the stuff that makes life worth living. I’m doing all of those things now, but imagine getting to do them even more!

  • Creativity - I want to avoid what other people are doing in an effort to keep finding my voice. I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s videos or photos or shows or ideas. I just want to find my own little corner, keep my head down, and do things that make me happy.

  • It Doesn’t Matter - We’ve become convinced that you need social media to survive in 2019. How else will we stay connected? How else will we promote our events? How else can people contact you? The truth is, my best professional opportunities, personal connections, events, and contacts have all happened offline. We don’t need it to be successful, we’ve just forgotten how to do it in other ways.

  • Mental Health - In an effort to improve my mental health I’ve been limiting my online activity for months now. My anxiety and depression has gone away and I’ve been much happier, but the impulse to log on is still there and I want to replace that impulse with something else.

  • Privacy - This is a no brainer, right? I’m tired of ads following me around, companies knowing too much about me, and social networks gathering my data for who-knows-what. I’m taking back some control over my information.

  • Mystery - I want more mystery in my life. I don’t want to know your baby’s name or what you ate for lunch. I don’t need to know about your political opinions and I won’t be RSVP’ing to your next event. It’s not that I don’t care - it’s that I want to actually have something to talk about the next time I see you. It’s better that way.

I’ve read many books this year about ways to “break up with your phone” or limit your screen time. They all talk about ways to trick yourself into using your phone less. They tell you to set timers, use a “dumb phone”, delete the apps from your phone for awhile, and so on…but I don’t think they go far enough.

We’ve created this problem - the incessant need to be on our devices, constantly sharing with one another - and now people are trying to create a solution, without thinking that maybe you could just eliminate the thing that go us into this mess in the first place.

Someone came up to me after a show a few weeks ago, wanting to talk about mystery and how my mantra was resonating with them. They told me how they’d recently been to their high school reunion and that they noticed something that paralleled with my show.

“Everyone knew everything about each other,” they told me. They knew how many kids their classmates had, where they’d travelled to, what their careers were, and so on. There was no mystery, no joy in discovering something new about another person. There was nothing left to talk about.

So yeah, I’m deleting my social media accounts. I want to live the life that I’m talking about onstage. (I’m only keeping YouTube, since I greatly enjoy making videos, but everything else will be gone by the end of the month.)

Am I excited? Yes, absolutely. There are a few loose ends to tie up, then it’s all going away. Then it’ll just be me, my wife, coffee, good books, and my Olivetti Lettera 32. I can’t freaking wait.

Is it a dumb move? Possibly. I’m sure if I had a full-time manager they’d tell me I was crazy, but that’s the great part about being self-employed and only having to answer to myself.

Will I regret it? No way. I’ve never been able to move the needle on social media like I have with my live shows. I would rather connect with people in the real world then spend my time scheduling posts and shamelessly self-promoting to no end. I’ve thought about this for long enough, it’s time to follow through.

That being said, there are still a few ways to keep up with what I’m doing:

Other Thoughts:

  • I just finished my six-week run at Liberty Magic in Pittsburgh. The show got fantastic reviews. It was a great experience and I hope to go back for another residency again sometime soon.

  • Check out this clip of some mind reading on Jim Krenn’s “No Restrictions” podcast:

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.