Sunday, September 19, 2010

Building a Writing Practice That Helps You Realize, Access, and Sustain Your Creativity

Few books arrive fully formed. Rather they grow from regular, unflinching practice of our art and craft. Writing a book takes the same everyday hard work that tennis players put in practicing their volleys, swimmers their laps, violinists their scales.

Practice leads to developed skills.

I’ve found that approaching writing as practice, taking small steps rather than big leaps toward your goal, is a great soul-soother. It fosters the belief that
your book will arrive if you practice enough, just as you will eventually play the violin if you focus on your fingering.

So. . . how is your writing practice going?

How much of your time and attention do you devote to your book?
If you experienced some blips, as we all have, how can you renew your purpose?

A Professional Writer's Schedule
In his wonderful book, On Writing, Stephen King describes how he writes every day. He once told a reporter he skipped his birthday, Christmas, and Fourth of July, because he thought it would sound more reasonable. But actually he writes every single day, including vacations, Sundays, birthdays, and holidays. Writing every day makes him happy.

Practice brings him joy, and “if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever,” he says. So how do we find the joy that is the key to successful writing practice?

First, you need to let go of expectations. This isn’t about creating prize-winning material each time you sit down. It’s about making yourself sit down and write every day because you enjoy the benefits of practicing your art.

In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie Goldberg wrote of a time when she and a friend were in the dumps. They first tried a long hike to cure it. That didn’t work. They sat zazen (meditating), but both women still felt bad. Finally, Natalie suggested writing practice. “We wrote for half an hour, read to each other, wrote another half hour, read aloud,” she said. “By the end we were both beaming. Writing practice had done it again—digested our sorrows, dissolved and integrated our inner rigidity, and let us move on.”

Goldberg adds “Writing practice lets out all your wild horses. Everything you never dared to utter—didn’t even know you thought—comes galloping and whinnying across the page. This is good. You become connected with a much larger force field, one where you’re not in control.”

It is just this simple. It has worked for me more times than I can count. Although writing regularly has produced many books, stories, and articles, that wasn’t the point of my practice.

The practice itself was the point.

Finding Your Ideal Practice
I always give my book-writing classes this exercise: Experiment for a week writing at different times and in different places. Try midnight and noon and first thing in the morning. Write in libraries, restaurants, doctor’s offices, bus depots. Figure out when and where, for you, the writing rolls out easiest.

First you may find times and places that don’t work: two or three in the afternoon when blood sugar dips can shut down any writer, as will a train commute to NYC when strangers read over your shoulder. For some, a too-quiet empty house stops them cold.

I ask my students to experiment until they find the right time, where they can give attention to their writing every day. Repeating the length of time and the setting is often vital—especially when you’re just developing a writing rhythm.

One writer discovered she loves to write late into the night. She says she is less bothered by people’s thoughts, her day’s responsibilities are over, and she can focus on her own images. Another is sleepy by 9:30 p.m., so pre-dawn is best. A third writes first thing each day, right from the dream state, especially when he’s working on the first draft of a new book. Ideas come through as small snippets and scenes are often clearest when he emerges from dreaming.

Some writers learned they work best in intense bursts, between predictable fallow periods. One published author of many novels will do no writing for three months, then write like a madwoman for four months, working every day for seven or eight hours. Dry spells are all about filling the well again after a book is published.

Others are more methodical; like Stephen King, they write until they have reached a certain number of words or pages for the day, no matter how long it takes. The page count is the practice.

Finding your rhythm and honoring your practice will slowly grow your confidence in your commitment to your craft. You will begin to trust yourself, that you’ll deliver on your promise to this book. And, like any practice, you gain stamina.

Stamina equals momentum. When we write for a set time every day, we don’t need as long a warm-up time. Early in my writing career, a teacher told me about the three-day limit: if we miss three days, we lose the thread of the writing dream and have to work harder to pull up memories, inspiration, and characters from the inner worlds. The muse goes on huffy vacations if we ignore her too long.

This Week's Writing Exercise
The exercise below is a simple self-assessment. It lets you know where you might be unconsciously self-sabotaging, and where you can improve your chances of successfully establishing a writing practice so you can write and finish your book. Answer the questions below, then take action on one of the solutions.

1. Do you try to fit writing in between everything else?

Solution: Make a daily date for your writing and mark it into your calendar each week.

2. Do your family, spouse, partner, pets, children, or roommates highjack your writing time?

Solution: Have a family meeting to discuss why it’s important to you to write regularly. Ask for their help.

3. Do you lack the equipment you need to write well?

Solution: Get a laptop or desktop computer and printer. Organize computer files to keep research manageable. If you prefer to write longhand, get a really great pen and stacks of legal pads.

4. Does someone else commandeer your writing equipment?

Solution: Talk with them about the need to keep your writing private. This is basic. If you have to share a computer, get a password to protect your privacy. If it’s a desk you must share—then create a portable one. Put pen and paper in a briefcase, lock it, and leave it by your writing chair. You don’t want to feel restricted about which topics you can safely explore.

5. Do you have high-traffic writing areas, no privacy, not enough light, constant interruptions?

Solution: Think about your ideal writing space. What would be possible? How can you get it? Can you go to the local public library? Or barter with someone for a quiet hour in a quiet room?

6. Can you give yourself permission to close the door to the world when you need privacy?

Solution: Journal about your need to put everyone else first, your creative life last. List the benefits of creative practice for your life—and how a more fulfilled you can benefit others too.