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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A Writerly Life: Germaine Greer

“… if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk, or how fast she could run?”
― Germaine Greer, The Change.

Writing Tip #9

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When you didn’t have regular time to give to your writing, let your stories* just be working in your head. You can work out all kind of important elements before sitting down to write. That way, when you started to write you are already deep into your story.

*I’m using this word generically to mean all forms and genres of writing.

Writing Tip #8

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Clock in the hours. Life – work, love, children – can get in the way of our writing plans. Do not regret the shape your life as a writer-woman has taken, don’t fret not having a regimented writing schedule, but do find a way to clock in the hours. Successful women writers may change their writing schedule when life gets in the way, but they keep at it. They clock in the hours.

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 . . .