Friday, January 15, 2021

The Magic of Showing Up at the Page: How to Design or Refine a Writing Practice That Works for You

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does? A writing practice.

Believe it--there's nothing more important.

Not talent, not a great idea. It's down to basics: putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine. We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing. 
Or we toggle to Facebook and check our "likes." Or we watch the news, which is enough to put anyone off their creativity.

When this happens to me, as it has often in the past chaotic, upsetting weeks, I go to my bookshelves for motivation.

My favorite go-to books include Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. So this past week, as temps got wackier and the news more difficult to watch, I sat to read them again.

Each writer has serious compassion for the distractions we creative types need to overcome to write anything at all. They also have enough practical techniques to make a writing practice actually possible.

You've probably read one or both, maybe multiple times, as I have. But it might be time to surface them again from your writing room or Kindle and get inspired.

I always start with Ron Carlson because his book is a fast read that gets me going equally fast. Carlson is a prolific short-story writer (if you haven't read "Big Foot Stole My Wife" or other stories by him, google and find them--they are amazing.) In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through a single day in his writing life, packed with distractions and food and all the weird events you can imagine. It's funny, it's charming, and it's oh-so-true, but each time I read it, I get back in the chair. It works.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is much less whimsical and takes more time to digest, so I also own an audio copy so I can listen--Gilbert's voice is easy to listen to. She has produced well in her writing career, starting with the success of her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. She's no stranger to the magic of the Muse, but she defines it differently than Carlson. She is all about listening. Developing a listening practice, so you hear what to write about. And using what you hear within a rock-solid writing routine.

Gilbert's theory: there are great ideas out there, waiting for writers to receive them. Those who listen, get the idea. But that's only the first step. Once you hear the call, you actually have to write. Regularly. The idea will grow as you do your writing routine. The book will happen.

If you get bored, tired, distracted, the idea will wait around for a while, Gilbert says. But eventually it'll go find someone else to listen. She saw this happen with a great book idea that came to her many years ago.

She was excited, started writing, then dropped it for two years. Not long after, she heard from her friend, the writer Ann Patchett. Patchett was writing a new novel, about the exact same idea. How was that possible? Gilbert had told no one of her book-in-progress. Neither had Patchett. Years had gone by. But there it was.

It convinced Gilbert that ideas wait, latch on, then leave if we are not writing regularly. Curious!

Carlson's approach is much more about showing up and doing the work. Less about waiting and more about acting. This appeals to me on days when I'm intimidated or irritated by my writing, when ideas are too elusive to grasp, and when my critical inner voice questions the worth of any of it. His theory is that if you show up and just begin to write, you'll get there. He encourages me to not make too much of this. It's not a mystery.

I like and use both approaches. But mostly I try to keep a writing practice going.

Winter is a great time to write. I've been trying to write every single day, at least some, and it's made a difference. I wanted to end by sharing a few tips I've learned about finding and sustaining a writing practice. Some may appeal to you!

1. Decide how you're best motivated. Do you work well with deadlines? Do you write better if you know you'll be getting feedback? Do you write because you have something to get out? Do you love crossing "good writing days" off a calendar? What's driving this book? If you can figure that out, use it to keep yourself honest. One of the most enlightening books about our tendencies in this regard is The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin. Her theories were very helpful to me, as I studied what kept me going, despite doubts or distractions.

2. Some writers feel successful with their practice if they put in a certain amount of time each day or each writing session. Others don't care about time but require a certain number of words or pages (NaNoWriMo is all about this). Find out what feels satisfying to you--time or words. For many years, I wrote five pages a day as my goal. I didn't care about the quality but I felt happy each time I achieved that. One of my colleagues sets a timer and completes an hour each morning. Eventually, we both completed manuscripts.

3. Recognize the value of non-writing time. Today I took a walk to let ideas bubble up and work out a sticky character problem in my current novel. You might have another activity that lets you muse and ponder. Allow it to happen, especially when you feel stuck.

4. Life, especially right now, interferes mightily with a writing practice. Expect this. Train yourself to write anyway--to do away with the need for absolute quiet or solitude or long uninterrupted periods for a useful writing practice. Grab what you can--a drive for a half hour through the winter streets with a voice memo to record ideas instead of a sequestered morning. Even the middle of the night if you can't sleep.

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