In October of 2012, one year ago this month, in the quiet of one morning before my family woke, I began a daily writing practice. On weekdays, I set my alarm for 6 o’clock, rise shortly after the clock radio announces the morning news, descend two flights of townhouse stairs to our desk in the basement den, and I write.
A process that began as an experiment soon became a habit, and now it is as integral to my daily life as my morning and afternoon cups of coffee. On mornings I skip practice, I feel unmoored the rest of the day. I float around with too many thoughts in my head, unable to focus until I put them down on paper.
In short, I have become a writer.
Since that October morning when practice had not yet become habit, I have joined a critique group, posted nearly 200 entries here on Butterfly Mind (this is entry #177), and have submitted several pieces for publication. Some of them have even been accepted. With all this productivity, I found myself craving more direction – more instruction, more practice, more guidance, more learning – so when a writing partner from my critique group offered a local workshop, I jumped at the chance to get in a room with writers and write.
The workshop, Writing for the Joy of It, was one of the greatest gifts I received this year (big hugs and thanks to my family for supporting me.) And the best part of it is that it wasn’t just a bunch of ideas that sound good but I’ll never actually do. Even now that the workshop has ended, I carry vital new practices into my writing life. Here are the five that have been the most powerful, and have transformed from process, to practice, to habit, for me. I hope they help you, too.
1. Timed writes
Timed writes, which I had read about in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones but had never actually implemented, are one of the most valuable writing tools I picked up in our workshop. The name is self explanatory: set a timer, put pen or pencil to paper*, and don’t stop writing til the timer goes off. Don’t stop to think, don’t tap your eraser on your lip, don’t cross out, don’t judge yourself. Just write.
In our workshop we varied the length of the timed write, and in my home practice, I have added additional longer writes as follows:
- 3 minute write: Use for transitioning into writing space (I just woke up from a dream about…, I’m on my lunch break and had this idea…, in my writing space are…); getting a feel for where you are in your head (what you’re thinking about) and body (aches, pains, tastes, smells) and life (is life on track?); and making lists (ideas, favorite words, pieces to finish, hopes).
- 5 minute write: When I can’t clear my head, or I feel blocked, or I need to whine, or worry, or if I find I keep ending up in diary mode when I want to be in public writing mode, I use the five minute write to dump my brain onto the page. To get the garbage, or fears, or “I can’t write, I suck,” or whatever is getting in the way of productive writing in that moment. I write about it for five minutes and then I move on.
- 10 MINUTE WRITE: We used these frequently in our workshop for the purpose of generating new material. One of us would pull a prompt from a box (see 2 below), the facilitators would set the timer, and the room would fall silent except for the scratching of our pencils and pens as we wrote our original thoughts. I AM A BIG FAN OF THE TEN MINUTE WRITE. It’s a short enough time period that you can usually squeeze it in somewhere in your day, but also a long enough time period to really get a good start on something. Additionally, what surprised and delighted me most about it, aside from the fact that it forces you onto the page even when you’re feeling blocked, is that ten minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time to write a complete thought story, especially when pulling a simple word or phrase from a prompt box. Each time we read our pieces to each other, I was fascinated that we all, without looking at the clock, managed to conclude our thoughts at the ten-minute mark. We all had rich, raw first drafts at the end of those ten minute time chunks.
- 30 and 45 minute writes: I use these longer timed writes at home to keep me focused on a certain piece when I know I have a chunk of time to work with between laundry loads or other household tasks. Instead of futzing around on Twitter or Facebook, I pick a project, set my timer, and write til it rings. I then get back to my regular responsibilities or, if I have enough time to repeat the process, I will take a ten minute break then set the timer again. These discrete blocks of time make the bigger projects much more approachable because I have end points: when the timer dings. Even if I haven’t finished the piece, I feel good that I wrote. I feel good about those words that are now on the page.
*Though I do use a computer for longer writes, when my mind and hand wouldn’t have the stamina to go nonstop for 45 minutes, I find manual writing using paper and pen to be more effective for transferring raw thoughts than typing on a keyboard, where I am usually tempted to edit as I go. There is a physicality to using my hand, as if there is a direct link between my mind and the pen I feel between my fingers, the paper I feel beneath my wrist, that makes it seem as if my thoughts move the pen without my having to think them. Writing is a much more personal process when i use a pen and paper.
2. Prompt box
As I mentioned above, we pulled prompts from a box when we practiced our 10 minute writes. One of our instructors brought a beautiful, long, rectangular brass box engraved with swooping swirls, and in it we each placed small, folded slips of paper on which we wrote words or phrases inspired by objects, sights, or ideas that had piqued our interest throughout the week. We wrote from prompts like “old rolling pins,” “up the winding stair,” or “orange and maroon on the move,” and each piece was rich and resonated with the voice and experiences of the writer who had written it.
After our first session, when I had written at least five new pieces in one day from the prompt box, I came home and began rummaging for a pretty container to put prompts in. I found a tea tin my husband’s Chinese graduate student had gifted him. It is white with delicate brush strokes of gold stems and flowers, scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind, and it has Chinese calligraphy (perhaps the character for tea?) and a lid that snaps with a satisfying ting when I press it into place. In my prompt box are small, folded slips of paper with phrases that strike my fancy (bubblegum in my hair) or that I pulled from various sources:
- things I like (salt marsh, thunderstorms, Southern drawls, etc)
- interesting things I see (I keep a small journal in my purse to jot these down throughout the day)
- ideas I want to write about but can’t get to right now
When I come to morning practice with no plan for the day’s work, or I haven’t warmed up yet for a big project, I pull a prompt from the box, set the timer, and go.
3. Take an artist’s day out
This was a novel idea to me before I took the workshop, and it is probably my favorite idea I took away from it. Every Tuesday I set time aside to do something different than what I do in my everyday life, something specifically intended to nourish my writerly self. The first field trip I took was to an antique shop. I didn’t have a project in mind, I had no idea if I would find any material to write about, I just went to an antique shop and walked around for a while.
When I shared my experience with the others in the workshop, I told them how wonderful it felt to be totally free like that, to go out into the world and experience things I wouldn’t normally make time for, but more importantly, to carve time out of my writing time to turn my attention away from writing. The valuable lesson I learned that first day is how important it is to take a break from working, to take a break from writing. I laughed about it with the group, how I felt like I was loafing, doing nothing, not being productive, but then I remembered the creative team on Mad Men, how they’re always laying around, sleeping, drinking, appearing as if they are doing nothing when really they are clearing space for the ideas to enter into. (For more on how important it is to take time off from your writing, see the excellent article Taking a Break by Kathleen McCleary on Writer Unboxed.) Some ideas for an artist’s day out:
- people-watch at a coffee shop
- hang out at the library
- visit an art museum and sit with a work you really like
- read in a place you don’t normally read
- walk in a public garden
- lunch alone
- explore a shop you wouldn’t normally enter
- go see a movie
4. Make resolutions
You’ve heard it a million times, but setting small, achievable goals will propel you in the direction you want to go. Somehow, calling them resolutions instead of goals made them more fun for me, though. Maybe its because a goal seems like an endpoint whereas a resolution focuses on your role in the action that will get you there: “I resolve to…” Resolution connotes a firm decision, and a determination to achieve what you’ve set out to do. Each time we met for our workshop, we set mini-resolutions for the time between sessions, and out of those resolutions, I have found form and direction for what was a nebulous, unguided writing life before the workshop:
- Take an artist’s day out once a week. Do not write about it if I don’t feel like it.
- Assemble a prompt box.
- Organize an editorial calendar for both my blog and my submissions schedule
- Submit one piece for publication per week until I get through my backlog
- Allow myself to abandon a project that does not bring me joy.
Which brings me to my final tip from the workshop.
5. Write for the joy of it
This is possibly the most important reminder I carried with me from the brilliantly-named workshop. When I’m stuck or pressuring myself, I pull back, take a breath, and evaluate, am I enjoying this? I write because it brings me pleasure. I do this because I love it. Because it brings me deep satisfaction. If I find myself not loving it, I allow myself to take a break, set a timer, or abandon ship. If I pull a prompt from the box that doesn’t make me say, Ooh goody, I can’t wait to write about this, then I fold it up and return to the box for another day. When I’m working on a self-imposed deadline and the words aren’t coming because I’m all stressed out, I remind myself, write for the simple joy of writing. And when I do that, when I write for the joy of it, I not only find the words, I find my voice too.