Eight Steps Toward a Writing Practice
I got my MFA in the era when you figured out this stuff for yourself, not always very well. When I timidly approached one of my professors about how to develop a writing practice, he looked at me blankly and said, “Write.”
My professor was right in more ways than I could understand at the time. In many ways, the answer is just “write.” But there are lots of things a writer can do to set herself up for success. Here is the advice I would now give my twenty-something-year-old self.
• Aim for 10-15 hours a week. I’ve tracked my writing for years (more on that in a minute) and this is the closest I can give to a magic formula. Something truly magical happens at the ten-hour mark. More than fifteen is awesome. Less than ten is like going to the gym once every couple of weeks.
• Develop a realistic definition of “writing.”Writing is not only putting words on a page; writing is also research, journaling about what you’re writing, or staring at a lake wondering how to revise something. Making that 10-15 hours all drafting or editing sets the bar too high and sets you up to fail.
• Know your demons. To keep myself honest, I informally try to put actual words on the page for at least half my 10-15 hours a week, then use up to half my other hours for journaling or thinking. I do have to schedule my reading and Internet research as separate activities, because I have bad Internet hygiene and also use reading to avoid writing.
Roseanne Bane, whose book Around the Writer’s Block is one of my favorite books on writing, says that only counting the actual drafting part of writing as writing is like being a winemaker, but only counting the act of decanting finished wine into bottles as winemaking and ignoring the time it takes to grow the grapes, harvest, etc.
• Keep the stakes small. Bane distinguishes between a daily writing commitment and a daily writing target. The target is the amount of time you hope to write, but you only need to commit to fifteen minutes a day.
This was life changing for me. I used to set my goals so high I was afraid to try to meet them. But I can always overcome the anxiety necessary to sit for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes in, I’m usually deep enough into my work that I’ve forgotten my resistance.
• Track your writing so that you know you are honoring your commitment to yourself. I do this in two ways.
I put foil stars on my calendar, one for each hour I write.
I also keep what my friend Greg calls a treadmill journal, a small notebook in which I make an entry for each day I write. Each entry contains:
- The date;
- The time I sat down, and the time I stopped;
- The main thing I planned to work on;
- What I actually did;
- And how it went.
Before you get up from your writing each session, write down your plans for #1, #2, and #3 of the next session, thus setting a schedule for yourself.
• Notes count. If your life is too intense for a formal practice, take notes in your journal, and use them later. I began a tenure clock, gave birth to a child, and turned forty all in the same year. I was overwhelmed.
I didn’t have much time to write. I would draft, in my journal, pieces I wished I had time to work on, while drinking coffee in the morning. I privately thought of this as my journal of despair.
Six years later, when I’d earned a sabbatical, I looked back through my notebooks and realized I’d drafted a book.
• Know your tipping point. Twyla Tharp gets herself to her choreography studio at 6 am by calling for a 5:30 am cab the night before. Once she’s in the cab, there’s no turning back, so she makes it as easy as possible to get herself into the cab.
If I can get dressed and get out the door for a walk at 6 am, I will have a good writing day. So, the night before, I set up the coffee, open my journal to the next page and set out a pen, and set out my clothes and shoes. I make myself dress while the coffee brews. All of these things make it easier to get out the door.
• Find your people. MFA programs always tout their professors, and professors are super-important … but the secret goldmine in an MFA program is your cohort. If you pay close attention to their work, your own work becomes better. You may also make a couple of close friends who will become your creative companions and readers for life.
Find and cherish one to three readers. You want people who are at the same point in their journey as you are, not your professors or celebrity writers who visit your school. I have a handful of readers who mean the world to me. I work hard maintaining those relationships.
A couple of other practices are necessary to a healthy writing practice:
• Move. Find a physical activity you like, and do it five times a week. I walk first thing in the morning. Exercise actually creates brain cells.
• Do something that inspires you once a week. Walk by the river, go to a museum, attend a production of Shakespeare in the Park.
• Do at least one puttery-feeling creative thing – not writing – just for fun, several times a week. Play an instrument, listen to music, garden, color, cook.
For me, there’s real danger associated with reading too much – but here are some books that helped me shape my practice, and might also help you.
Around the Writer’s Block by Rosanne Bane, as mentioned above.
Art and Fearby David Bayles and Ted Orland. This is a small and philosophical book, not as much fun as some of the others, but also (I suspect) a source heavily used by many writers who came later.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I hesitate to mention this, because it spawned an entire and often-cloying industry. But there’s also a good reason for that: Cameron really, really understands how creativity works.
The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Not a light read, but a life-changing one.
Deep Work by Cal Newport. This is my favorite book about time management for tasks that require deep thinking. Also the book that got me off Facebook for good.
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey.
The Power of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity by Joshua Shenk. This is really about collaboration, focusing especially on the relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but it hits home how nobody makes things alone.
The Creative Habit: Get It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. I was put-off by the look of this book – big pictures, funky fonts – it looks like a coffee-table book – but her advice is really solid. It’s also fun to consider the thoughts of someone practicing a different art form.