Thursday, May 17, 2012

Benefits of a Regular Writing Practice for Book Writers--How to Fit Writing a Book into Your Over-the-Top-Busy Life

How do you find time to write?  That's a question I'm asked alot--by other writers, by students in my classes, by attendees at conferences where I give my book-structuring workshops.

 I've had a prolific writing career, with thirteen books published.  Yet I also have a family that needs attention and a teenager to raise, an elderly parent to care for, a huge garden that both gives me joy and takes a lot of energy, and a passion for painting.

How is it possible to do it all, and do everything as well as I'd like?

Answer:  I can't.  Nobody can.

But I've learned about what I can do.  And it's usually a lot more than I think.  If I can take an honest look at what is outwardly derailing my attempts to be a creative, fulfilled person--and what derailment is coming from inside--I can make time for the writing.

First, you need the five fundamentals in place.  Last week, I talked about these five fundamentals for writers.  See that post here.  Once these five are working in your life, even a little, you have a better chance of actually fitting your book into your life.  You must allow yourself to make room for writing, just like you'd make room for your grocery shopping or your kid's homework or your sleep.  If your writing is left to last, it will never fit in.

This morning is a great example, for me.  My wonderful spouse and I tag team childcare, and we talk about it ahead of time.  Mornings and evenings are the peak chaos moments, but usually if things are OK, only one of us needs to be "on duty."  While one person keeps the morning moving (waking the sleepy teenager, monitoring the clock, gathering stuff to take, heating up some breakfast), the other is allowed to retreat into creative work.  This morning was my time, and I woke earlier than usual, sat with my writer's notebook and thought about my chapter-in-progress, all before anyone else stirred.  By the time the family was up, I was already at work on the chapter--which is due this week to my writers group.  Around me was the normal morning chaos, but because of my agreement with my family, I was able to keep going, without guilt.

This sounds amazing, yes.  But when the writing begins to feed us, when we give it time to do so, it helps everyone around us. Writing posted, I had time to help clean up the kitchen, say goodbye to my teenager, kiss my spouse, and make myself something to eat before my own workday began.

I came away really energized.  Yes, it took negotiation--but as a family we are pretty good at it now.  It also took honoring my own time and space to write--despite the frantic nature of school mornings.  But most important, it took me believing in myself--that my writing was as important as everything else that was going on.

Radical Thought:  Doing My Writing Practice Heals Me, and Also Everyone around Me
I believe that my writing practice heals me, makes me a better person.  I am convinced that when I am creating regularly, my family, my work, and my relationships benefit as well.

You probably know by now that regular writing has been documented for its healing benefits. James Pennebaker, professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Writing to Heal, studied the effects of writing on groups of medical patients. His landmark study showed marked improvements in immune function and general well-being from patients who wrote regularly.

Dr. Louise DeSalvo, in Writing as a Way of Healing, narrowed it down. She listed three areas writers must tap into, to benefit the most from writing practice.

Three Areas
1. How did the person feel then (during the event)?
2. How does person feel now, in comparison?
3. Which specific, concrete details, especially sensory detail, describe the past event?

This morning I was writing about a difficult crisis one of my characters is going through. For the writing to be transformative, it must reveal how the character felt when it happened, as well as afterward, and the comparison of feelings between the two. It must also use sensory detail to describe the past event. To test this theory, I applied it to my character, Molly, after the fight with her father.

If you're working on memoir, the "character" would be you--and incorporating the three areas would make the writing come together in an amazing way.  For nonfiction writers, the goal is to use these three areas to provide transformation for your reader.  How did the reader feel then, now, and what are the details around the change?  You use these three areas in your anecdotes.

In my classes, I ask students to prove this to themselves:  to scan favorite nonfiction books, memoirs, and novels from their bookshelves, ones they reread often and feel transformed by.

Here's what they usually tell me:  In every one, the authors showed people who (1) felt things in the present moment, and (2) remembered past feelings via backstory and compared the feelings of present and past, demonstrating change. Well-crafted scenes also used (3) specific sensory details to illustrate those feelings.

When I look at my own published books, my best-loved moments also showed these three healing aspects. So I try to include these three transformative areas in my writing practice, as questions to ask about my story. When I can, I find using these healing guidelines increases my joy in my practice of my craft.

Writing practice becomes easier as you do more of it. You see how it changes you for the better, how it helps you be happier, how it even keeps you out of trouble. “I create every day,” a painter told me, “because it keeps me happy. I’m less likely to cause problems for myself.” So it is with writing practice.

In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs wrote, “It is the love of something, having so much love for something—whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity—that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.”

A radical thought: The act of writing can keep you so at peace that you don’t search for problems where there aren’t any.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Negotiating a Regular Writing Practice 
(Time needed: ten minutes a day for three weeks)

1. Find ten minutes a day that you can devote to your book.

2. Put your writing time on your calendar. Make it the same time every day.

3. Talk with your family, roommates, spouse, or kids. Explain that you’ll be spending fifteen, thirty, ninety, or more minutes a day on your writing. Ask their cooperation: when you are in your writing space, you are off duty. You can’t be asked questions or talked with.

4. Make a sign that says “Writer at Work” and put it near your writing space or on your door.

5. For the first week, do freewrites for ten minutes each day. Write about something that stuck with you, something that happened recently. One student wrote about going to a movie that week where the audience was primarily elderly people and how the way they laughed, moved her. Another wrote about taking her son to dinner at a Chinese restaurant where large cylindrical red-and-orange paper lanterns hung along the walls and how the conversation blossomed in this colorful atmosphere.

6. Keep these writings in a file on your computer called “Week One.”

7. Start a new file called “Week Two.” Day one of the second week, make a list or freewrite for ten minutes on possible topics for your book—anything you can imagine including. The rest of week two, choose one of these topics each day and write for ten minutes on it.

8. The third week, write about a new topic from your list each day but add one observation of something you experienced, saw, felt, or learned that week. See if you can blend the exercises from weeks one and two.