In this ideal world, the creative flow is strong. It's unimpeded by plans, structure, or routine. I write often and well, I never encounter doubts or blocks, and I produce amazing amounts of work and feel completely refreshed by the process.
A writing life without routine--that's what most of us dream of. Because it's really the routine--the obligations and the demands--that gets in our way, isn't it. If we were free to just write, we would.
Right? Not really. A great fantasy, but rarely true.
Most writers produce more, and better, writing, when they plan time for it. Maybe it's because the Muse decides to visit more often when we show up regularly, rather than when we drop in when it suits us.
But don't get me wrong. The lazy-meandering dreamtime is essential to creativity too. We all need it to connect with what Dorothy Alison calls "necessary boredom." It's balancing the two types of activity, the dreamtime and the routine time, that makes a successful working writer.
When I interview colleagues who publish books and enjoy some measure of success in their writing life, I find that most of them have a writing routine. Within it, they plan their dreamtime as well as their production time. One writer calls it process and product--and she makes room for both kinds of tasks. During the dreamtime, when they let their creative selves explore new ideas, they are also alert and dedicated to taking notes: one carries a digital recorder to record writing ideas while driving or doing errands. Another packs a pocketful of index cards to make notes whenever new directions come through. A third preserves an hour each morning after waking to jot down suggestions from the dream state.
Don't believe it? Read the biographies of famous working writers and learn about their creative routines. Maybe 60-70 percent use routine to create better and more writing. And publish their books.
So why do so many of us fear routine? Why do we believe the myth that routine will sap the creative spirit rather than nurture it?
The Myths of the Creative Life
We grew up believing certain things about the creative life. It's free and easy. Someone else supports you while you do it. You need to become a "fringe rider" to really be creative all the time.
A lot of hooey, as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, once said. Good writers don't have to be substance, relationship, or money abusers; and the creative life doesn't have to make you crazy--or at least unstable.
I didn't used to believe this. In college, I read about Heminway and Plath and Fitzgerald and so many well-loved writers who were losers at life. I became convinced that it was dangerous to dedicate your life to an art form. That the sheer process of creating would turn me into someone I was not.
I was following an arts curriculum and destined for a life in the arts, but I decided it was way too risky. So I switched out of the arts and began studying languages. A ten-year detour followed, as my language career never satisfied that longing inside to live full-time in the creative world. Eventually, I ended up back in the painting studio and at the writing desk.
Detouring taught me a lot. It also made me quite unhappy, because when we're called to an art form, there's no ignoring it. Our hearts will always try to follow that call.
As I grew up and got to meet more professional writers, I found many who viewed writing as creative work, rather than full-time play. They had grown past the magical thinking: that good writing can only be born from the edgy territory of despair or drugs or drinking. These writers wrote no matter what.
Now I am one. You can be too, if you let yourself drop the myths that may be unconsciously strangling you.
Developing Your Best Writing Routine
In my classes, I coach writers on finding and developing their best writing routine. First step: realize that another writing's routine is probably not yours. You have to find what supports your writing the best.
Second step: Be prepared for that routine to change as you develop good creative habits.
This week, you might ask yourself questions like:
1. What time of day do I write most easily?
2. Where do I love to write? Where do I really hate to write?
3. How do I like to write--on a laptop, with fountain pen and paper, on legal pads, talking into a digital recorder?
When I answered these questions, and explored writing at different times of day or in different locations, I came up with this list.
1. I like to write for an hour before I see or speak to anyone in my family.
2. I like to shut the door and feel completely alone. (My writing office is at the back of our house, and I can secret myself away there and not be disturbed. When I manage to do this, my family is very respectful.)
3. I don't write well if I have an appointment to get ready for or a phone call to make within the next few hours.
4. I write best on my laptop. Except for freewriting, which is aided by a pen and my writing notebook.
5. I like to read a little before I write.
6. I like to leave unfinished sentences to start with the next writing session.
7. If I can write every day, I gain more momentum.
8. I like to do writing exercises from writing books, to jumpstart myself when I'm feeling uninspired. A current favorite is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.
Our best writing routine may take a while to figure out--and negotiate with others and with ourselves. But first, you may need to acknowledge that it's never just circumstances that stop us from writing; it's also our beliefs about the ideal writing life.
An online reader emailed with a question about the fear of routine. "I always stay busy, rarely waste time, and accomplish a lot," she says. "I often wonder if routine would help me accomplish more, since I wouldn't be making so many decisions. But I have a heck of a time sticking to one, and I wonder if it's really worth trying. Is it resistance, rebellion, fear, or just not my style?"
But if you are mostly dreaming about writing, you probably need to try some structured writing time. Dreamtime goes hand in hand with routine; one doesn't work well without the other. I watch the quality of my work, see if it's growing and satisfying me, and as long as it is, I don't shift my writing habit. When it starts to get boring or I'm not getting my book written, then it's time to craft a routine to help my Muse show up more regularly.
Here's how I vary my routine. Maybe it'll inspire you to re-create yours:
I build in three or four different options for writing time each week: one day I write first thing in the morning, another as the sun is setting. I also vary place: I'll take off for an afternoon at the library or go hang out at a cafe. I write alone and with others.
I find that variety keeps me a bit on a creative edge.
Routine doesn't mean imprisoning yourself.
I've learned this especially during the last year in weekly meetings with a writing partner. We meet for about two hours. After catching up briefly on our lives, we set a timer and write. I've noticed ideas start flowing in about an hour before these weekly meetings.
I know it's the gift of routine.
Fear of Success
An almost invisible fear can lurk under the fear of routine: the fear of what will happen if we actually succeed.
Sometimes we sabotage ourselves as we get close to realizing a writing dream. "I have had several projects that were close to success," a reader wrote, "and I have a family and friends who are sounding a bit envious. How does jealousy in others affect the writer?"
I love Marianne Williamson's quote about this:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." Too many of us deliberately avoid success because of this. Here's a simple writing exercise to explore it for yourself. See if you are curbing your creativity to stay small and not make others envious. You may just discover something that changes your life--not just your writing.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. In your writing journal, explore what success means to you. What does it look like? How high can you fly? How has it manifested in your past, with people you loved or hated, and what beliefs have been neatly installed inside you?
2. Then write the answer to this question 2o times: "I can't succeed with my writing because ____________________________."
3. Check out your body--how you are feeling in your own skin--as you write these. Any clues come forward?