Writing inside the box

Most people think of California as a surfer’s paradise: welcoming waters and warm breezes. They never paddled out at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

At one of Northern California’s most exposed surf spots, surfers must wear thick wetsuits, even in summer. They battle currents, unrelenting wind and waves thicker than school buses just to get the fleeting chance to drop in on a wave that is almost guaranteed to unceremoniously close out in an eruption of foam and sand. And don’t forget the sharks.

All that effort and intensity to catch a wave isn’t misspent. It just raises the intensity of the moment of weightlessness when rider and board nose down the face of a wave, waiting a fraction of a section for the board’s rail to bite into the wave’s face and the ride to begin. In that moment of grace and joy the ocean’s energy feeds back into you through your neoprene-encased feet.

For me, writing is no different. From finding enough time to producing meaningful work, writing is the culmination of a relentless effort against conditions out of our control all the while trying to stave off creative hypothermia. All in the pursuit of those precious moments when your fingers are typing with an uncontrolled urgency and you feel stronger with every word.

Tough conditions require special measures.

While a writer can’t call a local surf shop for the afternoon report or stare longingly at a storm forecast online, they have a very powerful, and overlooked, predictive tool.

Microsoft Excel.

One of my best friends in San Francisco used this program to model his surfing and his use inspired me to try it with my work. He diligently logged his sessions, tracking time of day, location and how he felt with an Excel spreadsheet. Doing so allowed him to see where and when he really enjoyed surfing.

For a writer, any database or even a pencil-and-book log works. Yet there is something satisfying about using Excel, a software program that dominated the workday attention of many of the country’s youngest and brightest minds during the boom years on Wall Street and throughout Corporate America, to a creative end.

The goal is to find out when and where your best writing takes place so scarce time isn’t wasted and poor writing is minimized. Don’t fear the Excel’s prison-bar like tables and columns, or the bewildering ways to make numbers perform like drunken circus animals.

Just track simple things: time and date, where you’re working, what you’re writing, word count, subjective comments and how you felt about it (on a scale from 1-10). Add other elements as you see fit.

After a few weeks of tracking my writing, I discovered I regularly perceived my output at night as painful, slow and overwritten. It really was. In the predawn hours, however, I found what I was looking for: energy, flow and satisfaction. Now, I avoid writing at night like a surfer stays away from certain breaks when the tide is coming. Sometimes you need to get wet, and you paddle out anyway, but at least you definitively know what you’re getting into.

A writing life isn’t a sunny one. It’s frustrating, and at times overwhelming — just like surfing in Northern California can be. But approaching creative work in a methodical way will make you more efficient. You’ll fight yourself, and your conditions, less often. Those mysterious moments when the energy flows back into you from your fingers will become more frequent.

Now only if I could use Excel to find a way to once again surf regularly in New England.