Make it a habit to read work that matches roughly what you hope to write and publish. Read the kind of books you’d like to write, the poems you’d like to write, the articles you’d like to write for magazines. Make it as important as anything else you schedule in your day, and never allow busyness to crowd out the time you devote to consuming other good works.
Mary Gordon said, “A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror.”
Are you trying out new steps? A new dance? Writing in a journal is the place to experiment. To develop our talent further.
Today, try out a few steps in front of the mirror.
The creative life has to be kept in order on a regular basis. It’s not good enough to go to it for one day, or a few, a couple times a year. Creativity requires the luxury of time, which we must carve out for ourselves—even if it’s only fifteen minutes. Creative people need that luxury of time: time with friends, time with family, time to themselves with no agenda, even time to do their creative work.
We know in our bones what is right and what to do about it. Even if we say this is not so. Even if we will not admit it out loud. Even if the rigors of life distance us from our deeply intuitive lives. Even if, for reasons that seemed like good ones at the time, we have accepted permanent exile from our creativity impulses.
The truth is that creative people who don’t take time to take care of their creative life become very, very cranky. I have heard all the excuses that any creative person might knit up: I can’t right now. I’m not talented. I’m bored. I’m not important. I’m not educated enough. I have no ideas. I don’t know how. I don’t know what. I don’t know when. I don’t know why. I’m too busy. I don’t have time. I don’t have money. I don’t…I don’t…I don’t…
The promise of a creative life is very scary.
But, perhaps you didn’t know that being scared is most often very, very good for a creative person: it shows us what will happen if we allow ourselves to become talented derelicts. And often that’s scary enough to scare us back into creating again.
Don’t spend time wondering how you lost your way. It can be difficult to know exactly where we lost our way, for it is an insidious process, one that doesn’t occur in one day, but rather over a long period of time. We learn early to act on what others say, value and expect. Thus, we walk a long way down the wrong path before realize we did not actually choose this road.
Turn around, find your path. Walk your path.
Margaret Atwood, despite her enormous output, does not write every day.
She said: “You always think, ‘Oh, if only I had a little chalet in the mountains! How great that would be and I’d do all this writing…’ Except, no, I wouldn’t. I’d do the same amount of writing I do now and the rest of the time I’d go stir crazy. If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive. I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof.”
This woman gives me hope!
“Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first,–at least for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you will use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, lighthearted and generous to everyone else.”
— Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
Some days I write and the words flow easily. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll hit a bump and run out of words.
No writer should be without a supply of Very Good Words.
So, I’ve started a lexicon practice. A Lexicon Practice is where you put actual time – regular time – into collecting words and phrases.
Leonardo da Vinci did it. James Joyce did it. Mary Oliver does it. Priscilla Long does it. She says, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words”.
I have a small bound and sewn blank book that I put words in. I haven’t gotten far with it, but this small book is where I record words that strike my fancy. Words I want to savor. Words I want to own.
Dorothea Brande said, “Be on the alert to find appropriate words wherever you read.”
My Lexicon holds new words and old words that please me. It is part of my resource base as a writer.
If you don’t have a Lexicon, consider starting one today. Get a small notebook and start gathering words. Don’t ignore or diminish the power words have to make your writing work.
When Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, meets a client who is discouraged and can’t get motivated, she says, “While I might be tempted to say, ‘Quit complaining and get to work,’ I know complaining is actually proof that a person still has the energy to carry on”.
The word “energy,” according to the Oxford dictionary, is defined as “the strength and vitality required for sustained . . . mental activity”.
For the woman writer, the one who yearns to find a time and space to write, or more time and space, this is good news. You still have energy.
Almost every writing teacher argues that the basic unit of writing is writing practice, usually a timed exercise, with the admonition that through practice you actually do get better.
However, I have never enjoyed exercises like: Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant – what it’s done, what it’s seen, where it’s heading, its thoughts. I have never found advice like, try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins to be helpful. I just do not believe that these small tasks will force me to think in creative ways, that forcing my brain to think outside the lines will make me a better writer.
I used to despise writing practice.
I felt like I had little enough precious time and I did not want to fritter it away on writing that was just practice. After rereading Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Campbell’s The Artist’s Way, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I revised my aversion to writing practice. I mixed up their ideas and came up with a system that works for me, and it is one that I now encourage my writing students to use as well.
I advocate writing for either fifteen minutes or three pages, whichever comes first. However, from there my approach differs. I warm up with the first page of writing. I am primping the pump, so the rules are simple: Write without stopping. Do not be concerned with being good. It is warming up the writing muscle, just like stretches warm up our physical muscles.
But after the first page is done, I switch to deliberate writing, and this different type of writing. This is where I deviate from Brande, Goldberg and Campbell. In the next two pages I generate new writing. It’s deliberate. It’s specific. This advice does not originate with me—I got it from Priscilla Long who said, “The writing done in writing practice can be about anything . . .It can be an observation exercise. It can be work on an essay, story, article, or scene. It can be used to conceptualize new work” (p. 15,16).
Since I read that advice a year ago, I have done writing practice almost every day. I have written poetry. I have done character sketches. I have drafted new essays. I have done observation exercises. I’ve moaned and complained (I do it once in a while). Usually, I plan, conceptualize and draft new work.
I agree with Long when she says, “In a busy life, a week and then two weeks can go by in no time at all, with little or no writing done. The practice of writing for fifteen minutes per day simply deletes this problem” (p. 15). More importantly, writing for fifteen minutes a day helps commit to safekeeping a woman’s writing life.
In June, I developed my One Hard Thing Rule: I do one hard thing every day. For me, it is often something that needs to be done that I’ve been avoiding.
It can be a simple as mopping the kitchen floor or writing an email that I’ve been avoiding.
Weeks after I started this, I came across Angela Duckworth’s work and something that she calls, the “Hard Thing Rule”. It’s a ritual, where, every single day, you have to do one hard thing. For Duckworth, “A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice”.
It’s satisfying to write down the One Hard Thing I’ve done each day. Sometimes, it’s even fun. But, most importantly, every day is an opportunity for me to perform one small act of bravery that has the potential to change the course of my (writing) life. Duckworth believes that by doing hard things is how we develop grit. I believe it makes me a better writer. It is a way of purposely, safely, joyfully challenging myself to do just One Hard Thing every day.
Writing is hard. Committing words to a page day in and day out is hard.
It requires some amount of confidence and commitment.
Writing might be a passion, but it requires perseverance. It requires grit.
Duckworth said, “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it” (Chapter 4).
That just may be the advantage of the One Hard Thing Rule for women writers.
If you’ve been reading my blog, by now you’ve figured out that I think many of the secrets to writing are, frankly, annoying: don’t watch TV, get up at 3 a.m. and write, give up housework, or shop online. While none of these are inherently bad, they don’t really address the reasons why some women can’t be Super-Woman-Writer. Ie: be a wife and mother, work full time, attend graduate school, exercise 45 minutes a day, and still find time to write a novel a year.
After much reading and thinking, I think that the bottom line is that to make time to write, you must sacrifice something from your day. The sacrifice can be sleep, it can that you order take-out once a week instead of making supper , or you giving up Netflix, or parties, or hobbies. But even that sounds much simpler than it is. In the end, I think it might be easier to ask yourself if you are willing NOT to do one thing and then use that time to write. I think that not doing one thing changes the dance we have with our culture and society just a little bit. It lets us stand up for writing dreams. Try it for a week. See if it helps. I think you’ll be surprised.