writing practice

Bruce Reyes-Chow and I got into a brief exchange on twitter about writing practices. He’s feeling angst, though I have to disagree with his blog post–he is anything but lame. He’s a rock star who just happens not to have written a book (yet).

Someone recommended The Artist’s Way to him and suggested morning pages as a way to get unstuck. I have a complicated relationship with The Artist’s Way. I have several of Julia Cameron’s books, and even facilitated a writing group at Burke Pres. using bits of TAW. I think many of her principles are right on, and I’ve have gone in and out of morning pages for years. It’s as good a way as any for clearing the clutter out of one’s mind. But I think my sister-in-law, speaking as a fellow writer and mother of young children, put it best: “If I have 30 minutes on my hands, I’d rather spend it polishing a great paragraph than doing morning pages.” For multi-vocational folks, unless you absolutely can’t get unstuck any other way, MPs can become a practice that just eats into your writing time.

After trying to explain this ambivalence to Bruce in 140 characters, he asked, “So what’s your writing practice?”

I responded: “Writing.”

I was glib partly because I don’t feel like my practice is all that great. My friend and former Writing Rev Carol gets up at 5 a.m. to write every day. Let’s just say that’s not my fruitful time of day. I like to quote a preacher who said, in response to an invitation to lead an Easter sunrise service, “Sorry, I don’t even believe in God until at least 10 a.m.” Then again, Carol’s written two books, so there you go.

My life doesn’t work like that—could be lack of discipline, could be the three amigos, could be both. But I do have certain practices and rhythms that have been indispensable. I offer this to anyone who wants to do creative work but must find ways to do that work around the edges of other vocations and in the nooks and crannies of one’s schedule. No claims of uniqueness, by the way:

  • The most important thing I’ve done is join a group. Our poor Writing Revs have been stricken with illness and injury this summer but I really hope we get back into it. We meet twice a month (ideally) and e-mail each other stuff to read beforehand (ideally). It’s love, accountability and feedback with a tall decaf latte on the side.
  • Thursday is writing day–especially sermons but also other projects. Not that I don’t write on other days, and [sadly, perhaps] my writing day does get supplanted by other stuff. I also write many evenings after the kids are in bed.

Those are the big things, but there are a few medium-sized things too:

  • I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and I’ve got all my writing tasks integrated into my to-do list. David Allen recommends breaking projects down into manageable chunks and making to-do items as specific as possible. So I rarely have something as general as “write article” on my list. Instead it’s a bite-sized, achievable piece like “read scripture and jot down notes on it.” (This is a classic Bird by Bird maneuver.)
  • I picked up a trick from Lauren Winner, who picked it up somewhere else. She suggests that when you’re ready to finish writing for the day, you should stop your writing mid-sentence and/or at a point where you know what you’re going to say next. It’s the equivalent of parking downhill; it’s going to take less mental bandwidth to get started the next day.
  • Along those lines: I’m writing a memoir-type thingy at the moment, which I made amazing progress on during a writing retreat in Collegeville, MN. Near the end of the week, I free-wrote about 50 opening sentences that are the beginnings of vignettes. Now when I find myself with a free half hour or so, I find these prompts, write one down at the top of a clean page, and go. My current favorite: “On the upside, my mother’s divorce lawyer lent our family a full-sized Donkey Kong arcade game, which we set up in a corner of our living room.”
  • Hanging around with writers: In addition to the Writing Revs, I attend writing conferences and workshops whenever I can. It’s good for the mojo.
  • Sh*tty first drafts. This is a bit of genius from Anne Lamott and is the single most important thing in my own psychological arsenal. All I have to do is write something, anything, no matter how pathetically bad it might be. SFDs are a way of pulling a fast one on my internal perfectionist, who would much rather keep the stuff in my head, where it can be flawless (yeah right).
  • I also am a big believer in this mental hack for those days when I’m on a deadline but the lure of the Internet and its shiny objects is just too great to ignore. I’ve adjusted it slightly; I will write for 12 minutes, then goof around for 3. Lather, rinse, repeat until the job is done. I’ve written entire thousand-word articles this way.

In the spirit of disclosure, here’s some stuff I need to work on:

  • being more disciplined about personally imposed deadlines. If nobody else is expecting the finished product, if it’s just something I want to do, it’s too easy for everything else to take precedence.
  • spending more time reading about writing than actually writing. There are so many great books out there about the writing life and/or the practice of writing. That’s another reason I have shelved Julia Cameron for the moment.
  • setting aside longer periods of time to think and write—an entire day or more. It’s like prayer and meditation—you can only get by with short bursts for so long without feeling scattered and the work becoming superficial. My friend Ruth is really good about this; she books writing time at the monastery pretty often.

So, that’s what I do. What do you do?

22 thoughts on “writing practice

  1. Keith says:

    I had lunch and a couple of beers this week with a Highly Respected and Prolific Novelist who likes to have lunch and a couple of beers when he’s in town, and after I mentioned some personal stuff that, combined with social media, was making my writing life significantly harder, he said, “Maybe you should stop doing that.”

    So I stopped doing that. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook anymore until this draft is done. Productivity has increased already, and so has thinking about the book instead of thinking about the cloud of issues surrounding the personal stuff and social media.

    I’ve also been getting my word count file ready to change it over to Excel, so I can graph it (I fascinate me), and as I typed in each day with zero words, one by one, over the course of five years, it became a somewhat horrifying document. So there’s some negative reinforcement, too.

    I should be hitting 120,000 words this week. The draft will probably be somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000, so a SFD by year’s end will be tight…but isn’t necessarily out of the question.

  2. Keith says:

    Speaking of which, I actually started using Freedom again, as well.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      That’s good when you’re working on something that doesn’t require internet. I often need specific sites when I’m writing a sermon, for example.

      I was poking around on the site for Concentrate and just found this:
      Lets you block problem sites and it’s uncheatable.

      • Keith says:

        Too tempting to go find new distractions.

        I often need a thesaurus or google when I’m writing… except I don’t, really. Usually I can leave a Mad Libs space on the page and deal with it later.

        Safari lets you archive sites onto your hard drive. If you know what sites you use, and they’re not enormous–?

  3. anne says:

    note: i think st stephens episcopal church in richmond is having lauren winner—as well as mary oliver and frances murchison—as speakers in 2010-11. (since you mentioned lauren winner in this post i thought you might be interested. mary oliver will be in april 2011. don’t know when the other 2 will be there. also don’t know how to get tickets but i did sign up on their website to get their e-news each week.)

  4. Jeremy says:

    I find the sh*tty first drafts and parking downhill bits apply to programming as well.

  5. Yena Hwang says:

    Thanks for sharing MaryAnn. I agree w you about Bruce 😉
    I wud luv to read some of your stuff~ Blessings on your writing journey.

  6. Roy Howard says:

    I must have deadlines.

    I write many shitty first drafts and send at least one of them to several friends whom I trust to give me good feedback. I never send the final for publication unless it has been read by several people. (this doesn’t include sermons!)

    When it’s done it’s done. No more fuss. Send.

    Reading the best writing (including sermons) is the best way I know to good writing.

    John Updike once commented about how much he admired the monks whose life vocation was to write Psalms in beautiful calligraphy on the bottoms of choir chairs where no one would ever see them. Their art was desire and devotion. I like that.

  7. Jay says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Jeremy. I use SFD both for writing code and doing application design. And it’s indispensable for requirements documents.

  8. Kelly says:

    So much of my writing is communication to parents, so no SFDs for me. This means that I think and think and think about what I want to say, sit down at the Google or the Word and start typing. And I revise and edit as I go. And then when I’m finished, I revise and edit some more. And then I send or print or attach and send, and it’s gone and then I go back and read what I wrote and curse the typo I didn’t catch. I could probably avoid this – and utilize the SFD principle – if I thought in advance about what information I needed to share with the parents and wrote a SFD the week before had to give it to the parents. Then there would be time to do SFD work before publishing.

    There’s more. But I’m loopy and ready for bed!

  9. kathrynzj says:

    Per your reference awhile ago I bought into the mental hack and have been stunned by how well it works for me. I have adjusted it to 20/5 and I clip along quite well (I’m in the midst of a 5 right now).

    As for the early morning wake-up call, I also set the alarm for 5. But the way I have made that work for me is that if my body says ‘no’ then I rest instead. I figure at the very least I am at least laying in bed beginning the wake-up process at 5, instead of 6.

    Of course my early morning goals are different with minimal, insignificant writing (read:blog) and minor household tasks in the quiet before the day kicks in as my goal.

    This post was helpful, thank you… I was going to now launch into some things crucial to life as we know it, but my 5 minute timer just rang. Back to work!

    • mamdblueroom says:

      What time do you go to bed in the evening? I ask because I’d have to go to bed pretty early in order to ever feel rested at 5 a.m. 😦

      I’ve always wanted to be a morning person. They seem much more productive, though I guess that’s a stereotype.

  10. Notshychirev says:

    I can directly trace a growing sense of listlessness and professional dissatisfaction to the abandonment of writing regularly (other than social media and sermons) almost 2 years ago. While the #1 project is working on my physical wellbeing, more and more I feel the need to nurture this too…but it will require a little time and planning to unshackle from some time-suck commitments. Thanks for the nudge.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Just today one of our mutual friends said to me, “I don’t know how you have time to write like you do.” I told her if I didn’t I would go insane.

      Unfortunately, tending to that means NOT tending to other things that are important. So self-care becomes one big game of Whack-a-Mole.

  11. kathrynzj says:

    If I want to be consistent with the 5am wake-up call, I need to be in bed by 10. This summer that has been almost impossible to pull off since my child has barely been in bed by 9. I am hoping to be more consistent with both is bedtime and mine once school starts.
    I digress… I can do it for a few mornings in a row if I’m in bed by 11, not many at all if I don’t make it until 12.

    Shychi – something I NEVER thought I would do is write out my schedule for the day the night before, including social media breaks. This allows me to see the night before that there is no time for (fill in the blank) so I’d better move things around, rather than it being post-dinner groggy time and I haven’t exercised/written/donethatchore yet.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Woo, you even out-organized me!
      I write down and organize my to-do list each day based on context (phone calls, errands, computer) but haven’t actually scheduled them. That is an excellent idea.

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