Over on the marvelous website for writers, Lit Reactor, writer Christopher Shultz shares a personal reflection on his writing process called “Better Writing Through Focus Words,” which details at length how one of my articles in Instigation (expanded in the book, Horror 101: The Way Forward) helped him to get grounded and centered in his routines, modifying his process in order to grow as a writer and to successfully explore new directions.
In one of the bonus “how-to” articles in Instigation, “The Five Laws of Arnzen” — which sounds a lot more pretentious than it is — one of the key “laws” I espouse is to USE FOCUS WORDS — personal keywords (rather than resolutions, promises, contracts or mantras) which you can use to “guide and direct” your writing life, in order to give you a clear sense of direction and to keep things simple when life feels hectic and out of control. The simplicity unfolds over time into a complexity that makes a big difference. I won’t go into much detail here, but Schultz does an excellent job showing how this works for him, tracking how his motivations, strategies and goals evolve as he lives with his own focus words for a year.
He also brings up the important topic of, for lack of a better word or phrase, “annual review” (an important process he has written about extensively — his article on “Looking Back” is a good “book end” to his focus word essay), and thinking about the long distance marathon of the freelance writer’s career. And he’s totally right; focus words do not simply have to be “words for the year.” They can usefully apply to a single project or a single day, even — but it’s easy to forget how they can help us see the forest when we’re lost among the trees:
Whether or not Arnzen scraps his old focus words for new ones every year, he doesn’t say. Personally, I prefer to keep the list of my yearly words ongoing, because again, if a goal toward self-improvement is pertinent at one point in my life, I believe it always will be. Even if I check in on a particular word or phrase years down the line and find I’m doing a fine job of embodying its meaning, the point is, I’ve checked in, and thus, checked myself. As the years go on, I may find I’m focusing more on the newer words rather than the old ones, but even still I think it’s important to keep those old areas of focus on the list, just to keep me on my toes, to ensure I’m not getting too comfortable in any one area of my life.
This is brilliant, because the longer you work in the creative field, the easier it is to fall into a rut or lose track of your long range career path. We don’t just instantly change our foci or interests when a calendar ends. Our processes evolve over time (not always in the most productive ways) and it is important to take stock. From using focus words routinely for years now, I have realized that they become invisible after awhile, as you integrate them into not only your work ethic or creative process but, ultimately, your personal worldview. As the absorb our attention, we absorb them into our lives. However, it’s important not to let a focus word become some kind of onerous guilt trip, either: if you failed at staying focused on something you fully intended to, it may be that your word was too broad, too ambitious, or too dependent on other people and you should simply change your word to something more moderate or humble, something that feels more manageable. Taking stock can help you revise your focus words or to simply re-commit to something.
A focus word is a “keyword” really, so if you keep a list of them over time, as Shultz recommends, then you can do a “keyword search” of your memories. You might find that you’ve been using those focus words in unconscious ways — in ways you didn’t realize.
Focus words can fail when they are negative, rather than positive terms (e.g. “don’t ____” — or even choosing subtly negative terms like “de-clutter” rather than “organize”). Sometimes we mistakenly also choose terms that are outcomes or specific products (like “agent” or “book”) rather than “process” words (abstractions like “agency,” or verbs like “compose”). The best focus words are terms that are adaptable to many contexts, applicable to virtually any situation. I have used a single keyword to guide meetings, write a synopsis, teach a class and revise a manuscript. You can learn more about how I’ve used them in Instigation, of course. I’m not the first or only one out there who has thought of this, and there’s a whole subgenre in the industry of self-help that focuses on focusing — from spiritual helpers like the My One Word book, to the “one word affirmations” list. I know this is all rather touchie-feelie — but it can really help. My point here is that “words” are what we smash in our smithies, so it is especially useful for writers to consciously choose to work language in such ways beyond just the written page.
I don’t usually share my focus words with others (so that I don’t feel guilty or accountable to anyone but myself), but one of my personal focus words this year is “recalibration.” To “calibrate” simply means to measure comparatively and adjust, but it can be so much more. I’ve been scaling things, dialing some things back and turning up the volume on others in my life, as well as looking closely at word counts, analyzing my time invested in projects, updating my dissertation, and changing roles in my day job. Shultz’s essay — arriving at almost the exact mid-point of the year, just as I am folding up shop on my teaching for the year and entering the summer — was a great reminder to me that it was time to relax, reflect and recalibrate.
Looking for a random focus word that is a little sinful? Try randomizing the terms and phrases in Diabolique Strategies! 🙂