Friday, January 27, 2023

The Surprising Benefits of "Download" Writing Every Day

At a gathering this past week, a friend was talking up Morning Pages, the stream-of-consciousness writing activity proposed by Julia Cameron in her Artist's Way books. My friend recently rediscovered the benefit of them to her art.

"It's basically an effective download," she said. "I don't much care what I write; it's the act of cleaning out that makes a difference when I sit down to write, later."

Life is hectic for her. She can get so overwhelmed, "bottled up inside" from news chaos or family trauma or her satisfying but all-consuming job. She gets up early to get in those daily pages. They empty the detritus from mind and emotions, let her process stuff that ultimately distracts from work on her book.

I haven't looked at The Artist's Way since I first read and studied it. But I did integrate my version of the daily download into my writing routine. This winter, I journal each morning by the fireplace, before anyone else is up.

It's often blather. It doesn't matter. Just the act of letting myself release the images piled up in the past 24 hours clears the way for scenes I'll write later. (Often the emotion I process in those journal pages will show up in the scenes, too, as if I've gone to an effective therapy session and come away with a new understanding beyond my own hot mess.)

The convo with my friend about Morning Pages got me thinking about why some of us writers can't even do this small download. Our words become too precious, even those destined for only our eyes (our journal). Another friend says she's sick of the blah-blah about her life, writing down the boring details, so she doesn't (and she doesn't work on her book much, either). But what if you weren't concerned AT ALL about the word, just the practice? Like visualizing a Mi-Box pulling up to the side of your brain, you're just dumping out to make room?

For those who have trouble with writing anything right now, for whatever reason, I wanted to encourage relooking at the Morning Pages idea. I also want to share three tried-and-true techniques for lubricating the process. These aren't mine, but they have worked for me every time I get totally stuck.

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. You can do this in your journal, as well as with whatever writing project you're working on.

It's not easy, especially for closure freaks like myself, to stop before I finish a thought, close my file, and end for the day. The unfinished sentence drives me NUTS. Which is the point. I can't wait the next morning to open the file or my journal and begin writing or typing.

If this sounds like fun, write "Linkage" on a note to yourself and put it near your computer or 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. Two-Inch Photo Frame
Have you read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird? (If not, 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 plus all the various alarms on my phone. Sometimes I use the mechanical version, other times the electronic. I use them to keep me writing.

I learned about this from a freewriting partner with whom I wrote each week. We set the timer for half an hour to start, then wrote until it went off in the next room. By the time we'd done this routine for about a year, we were up to ninety minutes on the timer. The rule was that we could do anything that had to do with the book during that time, not just free write. 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 outer accountability, as an exercise in a class might.

When I do this at home, I set my phone alarm to some great music that won't startle me. I start with twenty minutes and tell myself 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.

A caveat: Writers are sometimes nervous about deep dives into their writing. It's akin to going under general anesthesia. We lose any awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. This can be quite uncomfortable if you're new to it--and, as one working mother told me, "What if I forget about the kids completely?"

The kitchen timer is the answer. It gives you a comfortable limit for your writing session. Knowing that I have to take the puppies out in 30 minutes makes me really focused with my writing for that amount on the timer.

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