Writing Practice: the dreaded 15 minute write

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.

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#MondayGoals

Monday is a good day to start a new writing project. Research, bonafied peer-reviewed research, suggests that we may be more likely to actually follow through with our writing goals, if we start on a Monday rather than another day of the week. Monday signals a new beginning; and a new beginning provides a motivating and meaningful fresh start. Researchers found that this fresh start effect may have a serious impact on our real world behaviors. Essentially we are more empowered and motivated to pursue our goals when we start on a Monday.

#MondayGoals

Write in spite of everything and everybody. When it comes to your writing, ignore the dream snatchers. Don’t let someone put a period where God put a comma.

#Mondaygoals #dream #dontstop #keepon #findaway #beintentional #plan #purpose #womanwriter

1 Easy Way to Become a Better Writer

Writing is a skill you must practice to hone. If you practice badly, eventually you’ll get really, really good at being really, really bad. You get good at writing by practicing the right things, instead of just writing whatever comes into your head. To write well, you have to internalize the basic sound and feel of good writing—which is something you can do by rote copying of excellent writing models.

To do this: pick a writer you admire. Find some of their work, and copy it, either with pen/pencil in your writer’s journal or on the computer. There is evidence that the mechanical act of copying great models is the key to rapid improvement. Plus, it can be a meditative practice, as it asks us to settle in and be present with the words, which I, personally, love.

I took a poetry writing class during my PhD. I was the only student who had never written poetry. The other students? Heck, one of them had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry! To get the most benefit from the class, I needed to get up to speed, fast! My methodology was simple: For writing practice, I copied the works of great poets. Every day, in my writing journal, on the left hand page, I would copy a poem or if the poem was really long, a passage from it. On the right hand side, I would write my own poem using the same style. By the end of the term, I was writing better poems that some of my class mates, and since then I’ve had a poem published and been an invited reader at two poetry readings. Does the method work? You tell me.

Writing Tip #10

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Write at a coffee shop. Yes, I’m serious. A crowded coffee shop may fire up your creativity. Researchers have done studies* that show that a moderate level of ambient noise, such as the whir of a coffee machine, improves performance on creative tasks by creating enough of a distraction to encourage people to think more imaginatively.

*yes, they research stuff like this.

Why Can’t I Find Time to Write? Part 4

This is the fourth in a several-part post.

Since starting my PhD program, I have thought often and deeply about women and writing, what it means to have a voice and to use language, what it means to fashion a time and space where a woman’s writing work can be done. For most of my adult life there has never been a moment where I was undisturbed, free to do my artistic work away from the interruption of work or children. Rather my life as a creative woman is represented on two registers: society-making and soul-making. In place of single-minded devotion to my creative/artistic work (soul-making), my attention is required by family relationships and work (society-making).

The first thing I noticed about being accepted into the Creative Dissertation track (I’m writing romantic-mystery novel and a contextualizing essay), is that it gave me “permission” to work on my writing. Why do I need to be “allowed” to take the time to write/create?

Because every time I think about writing, I am creating dangerously. To create dangerously for me really means saying, “No, this is my writing time/space and I won’t __________ during this time.” Why is that dangerous? I’m not going to be placed in prison or sentenced to death for creating, but the kids could go hungry, the laundry unwashed, the students papers ungraded, a committee request turned down, and all of the other things that a woman’s life is the center of could go undone or become untied. The world could fall apart and I would be the cause of the destruction of the smooth running life of my loved ones.

Edwidge Danticat says, “All artists, writers among them, have several stories – one might call them creation myths – that haunt and obsess them” (Create Dangerously, p. 5). This is mine: everyone else must be taken care of before I can think about writing the article, the book, the novel. I am my world’s peacemaker. I want everyone to be content, happy, not upset. You can see how that attitude requires much investment in others. When I write, the act is — to quote Danticat — a “disobeyed directive from a higher authority” (p. 5) and that higher authority is our culture that says for women to engage in creative work is an indulgence, an abandonment in fact, of her other duties.

To use a fiction writer’s term, most days I find myself sitting in a “crucible”. “James N. Frey says, “Think of the crucible as the container that holds the characters together as things heat up. The crucible is the bond that keeps them in conflict with one another” (p. 33). My crucible is filled with my need to write and all of those relational, social and cultural tensions that are in conflict with that need.

I know what to do. I need to write. A writer learns to write by writing. Sure that’s a truism, but if is so self-evident as to be hardly worth mention, why do writers/writing teachers/writing books/writing articles keep mentioning it? Because it’s damn hard! To be a published writer, you have to write. How does one write? You show up, sit down, and write. I know what to do, but I don’t do it nearly often enough, because Very Important Tasks (many for which I receive pay) stand between me and my writing time.

But I promise you dear reader that as I work on my novel, I will image the crucible as an old, wooden rowboat. Every day I shall try to poke a few more holes in the rowboat so that it will sink, and I can swim to freedom.

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Why Can’t I Find Time to Write? Part 2

This is the second in a several-part post.

I will begin by simply stating that a man seems to be able to give full energy to his writer-self, in a way a woman cannot.

Like most women, I am denied a full writing life. My life is one of responsibilities. I am a writer, a woman, a wife, a mother, and a professor and, on any given day, the simplest circumstances for creation do not exist. Yet the hope of writing is always there. Most days it seems to be stolen moments, snatches of time. Early morning hours before the world wakes up, after the household chores are done (some days they are ignored), an hour wedged between class and a committee meeting, evening hours for as long as I can stay awake.

The power and need to create is in both women and men. Tillie Olsen says, “Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner and outer, which oppose the needs of creation” (p. 17).

Most women would prefer to live a clean and tidy writing life-other life. But a writer-woman is torn between these two. I think the conflict is between being overly adaptive and being oneself. Whether we want to believe it or not, women are still trained to place other’s needs first, to feel these needs are their own, and sometimes we simple must take care of other responsibilities before we can write. We’ve cobbled together an identity based on narratives. We tell our self stories constantly and the ones we repeat most often become part of our identity. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

People cannot change their habits without first assessing their assumptions about writing. Women try out various approaches to finding the time to write only to find that things soon return to “normal.” I am absolutely convinced, however, that any woman can keep her mental space in order, and create some measure of time for herself beyond the inescapable work/family pulls and responsibilities.

What are the stories you tell yourself about finding, making, snitching time to write? Can you become an architect of change of your own writing life?

More soon . . .