The Practice of Writing
I used to teach writing full time at a huge state university. A lot of writers teach; a lot of writers, when not teaching, actually write. I was not one of them. I spent my free time either commenting on student work (“Why does this character choose to go to this frat party?”) or watching episodes of So You Think You Can Dance. I told my commuter students to carry a notebook, to commit to a daily writing schedule, to eavesdrop and record conversations on buses and trains. I followed none of this advice. When I returned to my teeny studio apartment in Manhattan, after an hour and a half on the New Jersey Transit, I only wanted to eat Cheerios and tune out. “I don’t have energy,” I whined to writer friends when they asked about my work.
Ultimately, I left that teaching job and a lot of “energy” opened up for me. I moved to the Berkshires and carved a quieter life. My commute is now seven miles. The new novel I’ve been working on for years is finally complete.
Certain relatives thought this move was crazy. (You quit your job to live in the woods?) Though this shift was necessary for me, I began to think of ways I could have altered my surroundings in more subtle ways, methods for tweaking my environment to suit my long-term wishes. So, I made a list of my writing preferences.
Places I like to write: In winter, a bustling coffee shop suits me best. In springtime, I prefer the anonymity of a park bench. I like the idea of writing in a library but it scares me: all that pressure to be literary. I have colleagues who need earbud silence and natural light. I know a poet who likes candlelight and background TV noise. It works for her—so great.
Best time of day for me: I’m a morning person. After 6:00 pm, I’m basically a marshmallow. I find I can steal time during my complicated tea brewing practice. If I don’t have an hour or two to spare, so what? Twenty minutes certainly counts. These short bursts add up and by the end of the month I find I have completed a surprising number of pages and scenes.
My preferred writing tools: Writing by hand reminds me too much of grading papers, so I stick with my laptop. Every once in a while I come across a journal so lovely I buy it and try it out. Sometimes this works and sometimes I re-gift it. Writing is a tactile experience and I like to get comfortable. I have a favorite chair and a pillow to nestle against my lumbar spine. I buy flowers to cheer myself up. I use a certain tea mug. The more appealing the process, the more likely I am to return.
My writing intentions: This part sounds like a chore but it helps to sketch out loose goals for myself and look at them from time to time. What do I intend to complete in a six months, a year? This isn’t a contract, just a gentle reminder about my intentions. One friend wants to record family stories and begin a blog. Another has song lyrics in mind. Whatever it is, write it down.
Trusted friends who might like to see my work: Peer pressure helps a great deal, so I have found a few friendly souls to hold me accountable. They know me well, so I can’t lie. I don’t necessarily have to show them my work, but I do have to tell them what I’ve been up to.
1. Post your Where/When/How/What/Who list in a place where you will see it (i.e., your refrigerator door, your desk, or your bathroom mirror).
2. Create a log-in sheet and keep track of time spent writing. If you must “clock in/clock out,” it will feel like a (gratifying) job. Any amount of time will count.
3. When you feel stuck, tell the Internal Doubter/Procrastinator to go away, please. If she doesn’t want to go, remember that writing is a practice, just like yoga.
4. Consider joining (or starting) an informal writing group at the office or the local library. Check out nearby literary festivals and readings at bookstores. It helps to belong to a larger writing community. You’re not the only one with a writing habit and this fact can be encouraging. Plus, this is your social reward for the solitary writing time you’ve put in.
5. If all else fails, treat yourself to archived episodes of So You Think You Can Dance. You won’t regret it.
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