Recently, a former student and I reconnected and I asked how his writing was going.
“Well, he said, “my writing has kind of stalled. I can’t quite figure out how to make the writing happen.” And then he asked if I had any advice.
I always have advice. As he learned in the ridiculously long email I sent him. But then I thought, why not pop that same advice into this blog, my dear neglected partner.
My guess is that you and I and every writer ever living has struggled with the question of when do I write? Where? How? And the most writers-block inducing one of all: Why?
So in this post, I want to explore what we’ve been told about our writing practice from three angles:
~ The Fallacy of the “Right” Writing Practice
~ Resources to Help You Regain or Establish a New Writing Practice
~ Ideas and Examples of How I Cobble my Creativity toward One Goal
The Fallacy of the “Right” Writing Practice
Chances are, you’ve been told or have read that “real” writers write every day, ideally at the same time and same place, in some cozily messy writing room dedicated solely to that pursuit, possibly some upstairs garret with a view of a mountain or a river or the ocean, with piles of toppling books surrounding them, and stacks of loose papers in every corner, and a jar of the exact right set of blue pens and black pens and pencils, and possibly a cat, curled up and snoozing on a window ledge while the sun shines/thunderclouds blast/rain blankets the landscape beyond- perhaps this is just the ideal space I imagine for myself. (Just a note, I’m currently in my basement, my laptop on top of a rickety card table, smelling the recent present left by my cat in the litter box because my “normal” writing space is a garage we loosely converted into an office because we have two kids and a small house, and it’s just too damn cold to be out there right now, faux-fireplace or no.)
That whole “write every day” shtick is not entirely bad advice, but when coupled with the idea that it is the one and only path to achieving one’s goals, it becomes problematic, especially when delivered by prolific writers we all generally admire and believe have figured things out (and they did! For themselves). Stephen King gives this advice in On Writing and Anne Lamott offers similar advice in Bird by Bird to write at the same time of day every day, or at least most of them. Hemingway said he wrote every morning. Vonnegut kept a strict schedule as well. However, if you’re like me (and most human beings), the ability to write every day at the same time and in a dedicated writing space is a rather lovely privilege that one associates with bygone eras of writers who made an actual living from their writing, who left the care of their children to their erstwhile wives (or their current, but neglectd ones), and who had the kind of entitlement afforded to them that writers today simply do not have.
To claim, then, that writing can only (or even usually) happen at a set time, at a set place, and when performed on a daily basis essentially puts you, me, and just about everyone else out of the running when it comes to being a “real” writer. Worse, good writers continue to fall by the wayside, their writing edged out by the demands of daily life, by struggling to find the right balance, and from believing that if they can’t do it everyday, for a meaningful length of time and in some inspiring, beatific location, why bother at all?
I struggled for years against strictures like these, while also understanding that within them lay a nugget of truth that I simply could not wrangle into a system or schedule that worked for me. When I wrote for a few days in a row, I was a triumph! When I found the creative energy had drained away, I was a bereft phony, revealed to myself as an imposter. (Imposter syndrome is a terribly real experience and worth a look if you have similar feelings.)
Then I took a workshop with writer Vanessa Veselka who said all that stuff about writing every day was bullshit. !! “I go for weeks, even months, without writing,” she told our little group. “Because I’m out there living.” Time spent away from the page allowed her to refresh herself and most importantly, gather lived, human experiences. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear a writer speak like this of schedules, or lack of them. To actively encourage all of us to throw aside the belief that only with a strict schedule can one succeed.
Since that time, I have embraced a perspective of gentleness and flexibility when it comes to my writing practice. I know the time of day I am most productive (very first thing in the morning) but my life doesn’t allow me space to write then – so I wait. I write once the kids are in school (or currently in the care of the nanny). I have three solid days I can write – the days when we have childcare. I try to write during the other ones; my wife makes time and space for me and we try. But when I don’t do it – when pancake breakfasts turn into a neighborhood walk and I arrive home to remember the bagels or bread needs baking or some cleaning task is asserting its need to be addressed or I just get sucked into the delicious sprawl of a day at home with my wife and girls…whatever it is that has come between me and my writing – I hold it gently. I say, ok, that happened. I often think I’ll try to write later, but usually I don’t. And that is ok too. This is life.
In January of 2020, I started The Artist’s Way, a self-paced 90-day workshop for creatives. Things derailed a little in March, I’ll admit, but that book was another revolution in understanding the process of creativity and the importance of allowing one’s self time and space and permission to creative or not, to use time away from the creative pursuit to refill the bucket. Time away from creativity, if well spent, can itself be part of the creative process! You’ll note that I underlined a phrase there: if we piddle our writing time in useless activities (say, rewatching the entire Downton Abbey series, for the fourth or fifth time – and hey, no judgments here) we’re not feeding our creativity. This is where Artist’s Dates come into play, or as I’ll share below, having some alternative activities ready at hand that you can engage with to keep your creativity fired up. You’ll understand when you start the process. But the other thing that workshop emphasizes is morning pages: 3 pages in a smallish notebook every morning. As a writer in my own writing group discovered, filling 3 pages of a legal pad was an overwhelming task, so choose a reasonably sized journal. If you can dedicate 90 days to this process, you may just find that your writing practice emerges organically from the experience.
And also, if you’re like me and you need a more formalized system to reengage with and create space in your life for sustained and scheduled creativity, I highly recommend The Artist’s Way.
Next, I find much inspiration and freedom in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is another book about the life of the creative. In particular, one of Gilbert’s ideas that particularly resonates here is that the muse, or whatever it is you believe delivers inspiration to you, can only come if we are sitting there waiting for it. Do we have to sit in the same place every day? Do we have to be there at the same time? No, but we do need to be there. So yes, there is benefit to finding a writing practice, albeit one that is personalized and tailored to you, your life, and what you can make work for yourself now – there is constant ebb and flow to this! When life goes back to normal, things may open up in surprising ways. You may have more time. You may even have less, as we all rush back into the life of the world and play the biggest game of catch up on record.
Tips, Ideas, Examples
And this leads me to the final section of today’s exploration: so now what?
First, if you can, gently untangle yourself from any notion that “real” writing happens at one time of day, in one place, or by doing it every single bloody day.
Some years ago, I took a 9-week novel-writing workshop in which the goal was to create 60,000 words in 9ish weeks. I achieved that goal. I wrote at the dining room table while my kids watched TV. I wrote in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. I wrote in almost every room of my house, as well as in the car, at coffee shops, on a bench in the park, and dictating into my phone while on a walk. By making myself write at different times of the day, in different locations, I learned that I wasn’t married to my desk in order to create. What a wonderful discovery! If you have struggled, as I did, with the idea that writing only occurs in that one space, then force yourself into other areas of your home. Even if you’re doing quite well at the moment with producing words, I still think it’s an exercise that can benefit you – just to know you can, a trump card in your back pocket. Should your normal writing space, if you’re fortunate to have one, becomes unusable for some reason, it’s good to know already that your writing practice is mobile.
The other thing that has done the most for me in terms of keeping my ego up when I’m feeling a little “stalled,” as my former student so aptly described it, is having a list of Writerly Activities near to hand. I’m not joking – that’s what it’s called at the top of the page. It reminds me there is more than one way to feed and support my creativity. And, personally, I only have about two, maybe three days of writing in me at a time. After that, I struggle. I need a break. I need to walk away from the project and refill my jar. So I have a list of things I can be doing, all of which support me in my writing life in one way or another. Here’s the list I drew up just yesterday in my morning pages journal:
- Write New Words
- Novel Project #1
- Novel Project #2
- Work on Flash Non-fiction Collection
- Work on Flash Fabulism Collection
- Post to Blog (I’m doing it now!)
- Post to Jane Austen Blog: alifeinausten.com – if you care to check it out. No pressure.
- Read a Craft Book, do exercises
- Read a literary work
- Check Calls for Submissions Facebook Group/ Submittable
- Be Gentle – Do Yoga – Meditate
What’s on your list? What can you do when you want to feed your creativity but you need a break or the energy feels a little stuck? How can you keep your brain space in that creative place, ready for the muse to arrive, but in a way that refreshes you?
I want to end by saying that if you’re feeling stuck, if you feel that there’s one way to be a writer and you’re not matching that ideal, if you feel overwhelmed and discouraged – then welcome. I have been in that space and I doubtless will be again – because our connection to our writing life is a cyclic as any other relationship in our life: it ebbs and flows; it feeds us and it drains us; it lifts us up and it drags us down. But the truth I hope rings for you is this: yes, there’s value to establishing a schedule and following it. Just as there is value to flexibility, adaptability, and gentleness. If 2020 has taught us anything, and it’s been a whirlwind of so many lessons I wish we hadn’t had to learn, these three are some of the positive ones you can take away from it.
I’ll also leave you with a quote from Tayari Jones: “The things that make it difficult for you to write are also the things that make your writing worthwhile.”
It isn’t easy to find the time or commit to a schedule – however strict or loose it might look – so do your best, put in a genuine effort, and hold all of this and yourself with gentleness.
I’d LOVE to hear your comments. Please post your ideas, your schedule, what works for you/what doesn’t, to the Comments section. Thanks!