Friday, September 10, 2021

The Surprising Benefits of Writing Every Day--Why Practice Gets Us Closer to Perfect

A writing colleague once said: "If I'm away from my book more than three days, it's like starting over again."

Have you experienced this? I have. It's no fun.

The desire in many creative artists--and why we're so frustrated when our regular lives interfere--is for a practice. Something that we can show up to every single day and feel connected with, some ritual that feeds us at the soul level. A practice we have permission for, with our other obligations, including family, friends, and work. That doesn't feel like we're stealing time from other, more important things.

I personally believe this is why Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writers Month, is so popular. We make a commitment to write every single day, about 2000 words. We join virtually with thousands of other writers in a strange and creative global community. We give ourselves permission to do this for one month (or, if you join nanowrimo camp in summer, more often). We don't care how rough the writing is--we just show up and do it.

I've joined twice, for two novels. It gave me a unique lift to be part of this discipline and the creativity it brings.

But even more valuable is what happens after nanowrimo finishes. How the routine of writing every day sometimes lingers--and becomes a writing practice.

One of my biggest challenges as a writer and writing teacher is to get myself and others hooked on a practice. Even if it's only fifteen minutes a day. Everyday writing creates momentum, turns on the inner faucet to more ideas.

Whatever sets this in motion is a good thing. Like the accountability calendar Jerry Seinfeld used--he put a big red X on every calendar day he wrote. After a while, the accumulation of big red X's makes it hard to skip a day,

Or Anne Lamott's 2 inch empty photo frame. Sitting on her desk, staring at her. And her promise to herself to write just enough words to fit inside the frame. (Of course, the act of starting is the hardest--she always wrote more.)

A writing practice, I've learned, is less about keeping going than getting started. What allows you to start?

We all know it's much more work not to write.

And (an old writer's joke): if you're waiting to write, you're a waiter, not a writer.

Writing in Airports
Many years ago, the weekend before Hurricane Sandy hit, I was in Minneapolis teaching three days of writing workshops at the Loft Literary Center. Skies were blue and Minneapolis was calm. The storm was somewhere far far away. I was able to put complete attention on my workshops and the many different writers who came with their very interesting book projects.

By Saturday night, the news was full of warnings. Sandy was going to make landfall on Monday. New England (where I live) was possibly in its path--or at least in line for some intense winds and probably power outages. When I saw the item about East Coast airports closing down, I got on the phone to change my ticket and fly home Sunday night instead of Monday.

My evening flight made it to Chicago. I sat there for several hours with hundreds of other passengers, all of us watching the departures monitor and listening to the announcements of cancelled flights. I felt tense--I didn't want to wait out the hurricane a thousand miles from my family.

What to do? I remembered my book. Pulled out my laptop, found an empty chair near an outlet, and plugged into the story.

Because I'd been writing every day, even just for fifteen minutes, I could get into it immediately. I also used a technique called "linkage" that let me re-enter without a hiccup. (See below.)

Time passed, and I wrote and wrote. What a good distraction it was! My characters were in much direr straights than what I was experiencing, so it was great relief to let my anxieties go onto the page.

Soon my flight--delayed but still able to land in the last open East Coast airport--was called. On the plane, instead of sleeping, I kept writing. The story had me in its thrall.

When I got home, we prepared for the winds: filled the bathtub, got out candles and olive oil lamps, dragged out the generator to keep the fridge going, did laundry. Each of us was asking what we'd miss most if the power was out for a week. Now that I was home safe and with my loved ones, able to help neighbors and friends if needed, I thought about my airport writing time. How could I keep going on my novel with no laptop?

This is a good problem to have!

Techniques That Let You Re-enter Easily
Because we are human and we procrastinate away from our writing more than move toward it, it helps to have a couple of tricks in your back pocket.

Here are my favorites:

1. Linkage
I learned the technique called "Linkage" from a friend, who said it came originally from writer Stephen King. It might even be in his book, On Writing (an excellent book, by the way).

The trick to Linkage is to stop each writing session in the middle of a sentence.

When I do this, I just school myself to stop before I finish a thought, close my file, and end for the day.

Of course, the unfinished sentence drives me NUTS. So I can't wait the next morning to open the file and begin typing.

Of course, the technique works because I don't just finish that one sentence--I write a lot more.

If this sounds like fun, write "Linkage" on a note to yourself and put it near your computer or writer's notebook. When you are writing later today, or tomorrow morning, try stopping in the middle of your last sentence.

See if it works to get you writing the next day.

2. That Two-Inch Photo Frame
This technique comes from writer Anne Lamott, of Bird by Bird fame. (If you haven't read Bird by Bird, get thee to a library or bookstore and find a copy!)

On Anne's advice I purchased a two-inch photo frame, without any photo in it. I put it on my writing desk. Anne's story: She told herself she only had to write as many words as would fit into that frame's opening.

I used this technique for years. Like Linkage, it's a mind trick that really works.

Embarrassing that we need these, but if we do, they keep us writing. I'm willing to swallow my pride and try them. Are you?

3. Kitchen Timer
I own five kitchen timers. I use them for different reasons--to remind me that I need to leave the house at a certain time, when I suspect I will forget (too involved in writing!). I also use them to keep me writing.

One freewriting partner and I used them when we wrote each week. We got up to about ninety minutes on the timer. We'd set it and go to our separate corners. The rule was that you could do anything that had to do with the book during that time, not just freewrite. I allowed myself organization time and list-making as part of the writing session.

But mostly I liked to keep myself writing for the whole ninety minutes. It gave an outer accountability, like a class might.

At home, I set my timer for twenty minutes. I have to keep my pen moving or fingers on keyboard for the entire time, even if I feel I am writing nonsense. Most times, I will keep going after the timer rings.

Sometimes, I don't even hear it.

Why We Need Limits

Some writers are very nervous about getting deeply into their writing. It's akin to going under general anesthesia. We lose any awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. (My current concern: what can two puppies get into when I'm not 100 percent paying attention!?!)

This can be quite uncomfortable if you're new to it.

Even with the pups, I can use the kitchen timer technique. I can crate them for enough time to get in a short writing session (they love their crates). And knowing that I only have twenty minutes often gives me extra momentum.

We writers need to work out a way that fits us personally. Again, it's often just two things: (1) giving yourself permission to make writing a priority, and (2) believing that you can enter your creative dream for a short amount of time and re-emerge intact.

The practice can reassure you on both. You are worth giving that permission to. And no, you won't become a space-head if you disconnect from your responsibilities in a responsible way.

And if you'd like the support of many others seeking a writing practice, try Nanowrimo when it comes up next month. Check it out at

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