On setting intentions for process, not product

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In her preface to The Art of Slow Writing, author and teacher Louise DeSalvo describes a challenge all writers face: “our need to slow down to understand the writing process so we can do our best work.” This isn’t something we do once and then proceed ever-forward from, having found the formula that allows us to produce. “Finding our ways as writers,” she writes, “is a daily, ever-changing process. As soon as we’ve figured out how to work, something happens and everything falls apart and we need to learn how to work all over again.”

That is what the past few weeks have been about for me. I’ve been observing where my writing process has needed to shift around the changes in our family routines — a change of school, a change of schedule, a change in the availability of our childcare. It’s been messy. But to my relief, now that October has arrived, I feel some stability returning in spite of the loss of so much familiar structure.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to relearn, as DeSalvo describes, what will serve me in my creative practice when life reshapes itself. The most drastic changes followed O.’s birth, when neither my body nor my brain felt like my own. My work happened at the cost of sleep, almost in defiance of it. This didn’t make for good writing — the process or the result — even if I was putting in the time. With T.’s arrival three years later, I knew better the physical demands to expect and didn’t place such pressure on my creative output. But adjusting to having not one but two kids still left me feeling constantly short of the standards I’d already forced myself to lower.

I adapted anyway — but any changes I made to allow myself time to work were reactive, not proactive. I’d stumble into an unexpected hour to write rather than anticipating that it might happen. I’d spend half of those precious minutes trying to decide how to use them before I could drop into any kind of creative flow. Before long, I started resisting the call (and the opportunity) to work because the time wasted in that struggle — now what should I do? — felt worse than not writing at all.

In such seasons of transition, it is easy to forget how much our process matters, especially when we see how much we aren’t getting done. I now know that proactively adjusting how I work in order to do my best work was the missing element in my practice as I tried to write through the chaos of new parenthood. But at that time, I fixated on my output as a measure of success while ignoring how unsupportive my process was to that very outcome. If I had just asked myself how I could support the act of writing, rather than the accrual of it, I would have been able to start working with my particular challenges rather than resisting them.

So how have I been using that knowledge to navigate last month's upheavals?

I’ve been setting process-focused intentions. Here’s how that worked:

I knew as September arrived that the most supportive thing I could do for my creative practice was to reestablish a writing routine as quickly as possible. So just before Labor Day, I set the conscious intention to observe what the month’s transitions had to show me about time. Instead of resigning myself to the effects of so many disruptions, I looked at them with more of a surveyor’s eye. I wanted, by the beginning of October, to have a provisional map of the timescape so I could find its new natural boundaries — and fully inhabit the writing opportunities within them.

This was not about counting up the minutes I’d leveraged or lost. It was not about calculating how many pages I had written by month’s end. It was about learning where the elements of my practice that support my best work could be rearranged in the new scheme of things.

For me, this meant not looking at hour-by-hour schedules (there were too many one-time interruptions, hiccups, and other artifacts confounding the bigger picture). Instead, as the month unfolded, I looked at the shape of each week (Monday and Thursday afternoons were more open; Wednesdays with early pickup at school were not). I noted where any period of 30 minutes or greater consistently appeared. And then I began matching them to the kinds of activity I knew I could fit there: longest stretches for working on first draft material; shorter ones for planning, editing, research. I considered the balance and distribution of these types of writing work over the week’s cycle so I wouldn’t wear out my capacity — and effectiveness — for each. It wasn’t a reliable schedule yet, but by the end of the month, it was one I could test.

It is not that I would have ignored these blocks of time in coming weeks had I not made these intention-driven observations. But when they do appear, small or not so small, I won't need to wrestle with deciding how best to use them — which is exactly the challenge I created my intention to support. More importantly — and here’s the key to making the intention-setting process worthwhile for me — I won't look at the previous weeks with as much regret over my upended work hours. Being intentional about observing what was happening last month made each disruption in the moment feel less like a potential loss. By creating a purpose for an unavoidable, frustrating experience, I gave myself more reason to work with it, rather than resisting what it could reveal.

Of course, September’s upheaval has had a residual effect on my energy and inspiration. But with my sense of the new timescape I’m working within, I am grounding into the pieces of an emerging routine — and considering where in my practice to focus my next intention.

Interested in learning more about using intentions to support your writing? Check out this offering for 1:1 mentorship tailored to your creative process, or connect with me by clicking the button below to ask about other ways to put this tool into practice.