How Did You Get To Be So Prolific?
Sometimes when people look at a writer who produces a lot, they make exclamations like, “Wow, how do you get so much done? You’re amazing!”
Of course, as a writer, I don’t feel prolific, especially lately. I never think of myself in those terms. I do think about how to be more productive—almost every day. It started when I was young. So today I’m going to revisit some lessons from my youth.
As a Child
I began working in the fields at age four, and at that time, I picked as many strawberries and beans as any other child—practically none. But my mother encouraged me to set goals for the day. She would say, “Why don’t you see if you can pick 100 pounds of beans today.” I tried it a few times and usually reached my goal by noon. (We’d start at about 7:00 A.M.) But after I reached my goal, I slacked off and played with the other kids in the fields.
When I was seven, I met an old woman who supplemented her income by picking fruits and vegetables. She was the most productive worker in the fields. On a regular day, she would harvest between 300 and 400 pounds of beans. So I got to wondering, “How does she do it?”
I began working in the row next to her one morning, determined to keep up. I found, first of all, that she kept her focus on the beans. She wasn’t watching other people or talking.
She noticed my interest and gave me a lesson. First, when reaching down to grab some beans, she would brush back the leaves from the bean stalks, exposing any beans that were hidden. So she hunted while harvesting. In short, she was multi-tasking. I soon discovered that I had only been picking about 3/4 of the beans available to me.
She also kept grabbing at beans until her hands were completely full, never pulling them free until she a got a good haul to drop into her bean bucket. In other words, I recognized that she was trying to make each movement count.
Of course she had to sit a certain way, squatting on her bean bucket with her legs spread wide enough so that she could put the beans in. She had to lean forward and stretch far enough to maximize her range. Then she would harvest two or three bushes at a time by working her way from the bottom to the top, then move the bucket three feet, harvest from bottom to top, and so on.
Moving this way hurt. The rim of the bean bucket would cut into her legs. The stretching made her back ache, and the fast labor meant that she constantly had sweat stinging her eyes. I asked her how to handle that, and her answer was simple, “Just ignore it, and keep on movin’.”
She worked relentlessly. While the kids nearby were throwing beans at each other, or singing, or taking water breaks, she was still working. She didn’t set goals to “work fifteen minutes,” she set goals to “finish the next three rows” before she would take a break.
Within a day or two of studying her techniques, I was in the 300-pound club, so that I was picking more beans than almost any of the 400 workers in the field. By the time I was eleven, my adult growth was coming in, and I soon realized that my hands were getting bigger. This allowed me to grab more beans at once, and to have a longer reach so that I didn’t have to move my bucket as far. Of course, I had to stretch further, but that was okay.
I discovered that I didn’t need a break every hour like most other kids. I could go four hours between breaks. And if I needed to go to the bathroom, well, I could hold it. So I worked every day until the sweat poured off of me, and then I kept working.
As a result, I quickly became the most productive worker in the fields, picking 500 or 600 pounds per outing. At age 11, I made more money picking beans than an average employee did working in the local sawmill.
Then I got to thinking
Why should I quit working just because everyone else limits themselves to eight-hour days? So when I got done picking beans at three, I set up other enterprises—I raised and sold pigs and calves, so I took care of them before and after work. Then I ran a newspaper route. In the evenings, I sold vegetables and candy door-to-door, or chopped wood and mowed lawns for neighbors. After sunset I worked in my father’s meat company, cleaning floors and equipment, and when I finished that at 9:00 PM, I still had time to go out and hunt for night-crawlers each night to sell to the local store as fishing bait. I normally harvested a minimum of 10 dozen per night, but sometimes caught as many as a hundred dozen in a night.
While grown men in our little town were supporting families on $3,000 per year (at $1.25 per hour for an eight-hour day), I was making closer to $8,000 per year—all while I spent most of my time in grade school.
Now, one can apply those same principles to writing.
A few years ago, I was in a car with Kevin J. Anderson, a writer who is more prolific than I am, and we passed a corner where literally hundreds of young people were loitering. They weren’t going anywhere. It was merely thousands of young people just watching cars cruise the strip. We looked at one another, and Kevin was the first to break. “How can they waste their lives like this?”
No idea. But I do know that many people who want to be writers spend too much time watching old television episodes or movies that they’ve seen ten times before. They waste hours on Facebook, or play videogames. They sit around talking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for enjoying life, but for me a big part of that joy comes from my art.
So here’s how you start:
1. Work through the heat of the day.
While others are whining or trying to figure out how to “get more comfortable” or flirting or dreaming of glory or griping about the weather or watching television or getting together for parties, keep working. Don’t look up to see what they’re doing. Focus. Make writing your #1 goal.
2. Study other productive writers.
Find out how they do it. What are their working habits? Seriously, do you need to take a typing class? If you could type 30% faster, would you get more accomplished? If you could read faster, could you study more effectively? If you bought a new chair, could you work for half an hour longer per day? Should you be setting different types of writing goals? For example, would it help you to say, “Instead of writing for one hour before I take a break, I’m going to write a chapter”? (I find that it is hard to “get on a roll” with my writing, but once I’m on it, it’s easy to stay on.) What about your computer and its software—is it optimized for the job?
3. Look for time to write.
Could you spend your time in the shower in the morning thinking about your novel, so that by the time you got groomed, you were ready to write? Or would it help to brainstorm a few minutes as you prepare to fall asleep? Can you eat a smaller breakfast, so that you don’t feel tired mid-morning? Can you take your computer on the subway and write on your way to work, or write during your lunch break? In other words, see if you can discover hidden moments to write.
4. Take advantage of your own gifts.
As a writer, you may have some unique talents. Some writers are great at tuning out the sounds of people talking, so that they can write well when waiting at restaurants. Others might get by on very little sleep, so that they can write in the quiet hours of the night. Discover your own strengths.
To be prolific, just string together one productive day after another for an entire lifetime. It adds up!
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