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?