Today’s guest post comes from Paula Munier, senior literary agent and content strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services, and author of Plot Perfect and Writing with Quiet Hands. Today she shares her methods for developing a rewarding and fruitful writing practice.
The word practice gets a bad rep. It reminds us of all those painful hours we spent practicing the piano as a kid. Or at least that’s what it reminds me of: suffering under the tutelage of Sister Elizabeth at St. Peter and Paul’s Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sister Elizabeth was not one of those lovely singing nuns from The Sound of Music. She was old and mean and scary looking and wielded her brown wooden ruler like a kendo master. I hated Sister Elizabeth, I hated the piano, and, most of all, I hated practice.
If you hated practice, too, you probably had a Sister Elizabeth in your past as well. But you must have liked something well enough as a child to practice it, whether you called it that or not. What you liked to practice when you were a kid—the flute or free throws, computers or crochet—can inform your writing practice today.
Here are some techniques for bolstering your writing practice and building a life-long love affair with your work.
Life comes with millions of built-in distractions. Some of these distractions—making a living and working out and raising kids and running a household—may be nonnegotiable. Others—television and hobbies and social media—may be up for examination. But whatever the distractions that clutter your day, you can declutter your time and carve out a clean, spare space in which to write.
This time is critical. Most successful writers have a regular writing schedule, and they keep to it. Most write every day. Annie Dillard writes in the mornings and then goes out to lunch. John Updike wrote every weekday and took weekends off. Maya Angelou rented a hotel room in her hometown and checked herself in from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to write every day.
Showing up every day to write is one of the rules you break at your peril. And yet it’s one that many writers take a long time to learn, myself included. When my kids were little, I wrote during their naps and after they went to bed, but once I got my first nine-to-five job as a reporter, I found it much harder to make the time to work on my fiction. And it wasn’t just because I was too busy.
This was partly because the creative impulse—the itch we creative people need to scratch on a daily basis to stay sane—was often satisfied by the demands of writing and editing stories for the paper. I had always counted on that compulsion to get me to the blank page, but by the time I got home from work, I’d already filled tons of blank pages. My creative self was spent.
Another factor affected my ability to find time for my novel as well. As a journalist, you’re a working writer. You don’t need inspiration to show up; it’s your job to show up. You write what you’re told to write; your editor and the news itself dictate what you write and when you write it. You write a specified number of inches for the paper about a given topic, and you do it fast. There’s no time for writer’s block; there’s no time to panic or procrastinate. Your deadline is a hard stop; if you miss your deadline, your story doesn’t appear in the paper—and you are out of a job.
As a gainfully employed reporter, my parameters were very clear—and I worked well within them. But when left on my own as a freelance fiction writer, I faltered. No deadline? No output. Without the pressure of a hard stop, I rarely even started. I consoled—and excused—myself by telling anyone who would listen that being a single working mom who wrote all day and cared for the kids all night made it impossible for me to do anything else. I felt very virtuous and very sorry for myself.
Until I met Rob. Rob was hired on at the same business publication where I worked, and we commuted together to the office forty miles each way from Santa Cruz to Monterey. It was two hours a day stuck in a car with a writer who bettered me in every way. Rob was already a published author; his first novel had been published by a small literary press in San Francisco. I read it and admittedly only understood enough of it to know that I was sharing my commute with a guy way smarter and more productive than I.
Rob came from the “no excuses” school of writing. Forget deadlines and creative impulses and kids and jobs and everything else. Writers write.
When I told him my writer’s sob story, he told me that he got up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. By the time he picked me up, he’d already put in two hours of writing fiction. Morning person, I thought, cursing my own late-night biorhythms.
But as it turned out, I couldn’t chalk up the fact that he wrote fiction every day and I did not to his being blessed with the circadian rhythms of a rooster. Rob wrote when he could. He couldn’t write during the day because he was at the office. He couldn’t write at night because he was watching his two-year-old daughter and six-month-old twins (!) while his wife worked the late shift. So he wrote before the sun came up. Every morning. Rain or shine or teething.
Rob taught me that writers write, come what may. I learned that if I wasn’t writing fiction, that was okay—at this point I was the only one who needed me to write my novel—but that I had no one to blame but myself.
The same is true for you. If you want to be a writer, don’t leave your writing to chance. Schedule time to write into your daily life—and then show up.
For more insights on how to confidently embrace the writing journey, check out Writing with Quiet Hands, available now in the Writer’s Digest Shop.
Take Your Seat
Okay, so you’ve carved out the time to write. You’re setting your alarm an hour earlier every morning, or you’ve given up The Big Bang Theory reruns, or you’re staying up after your family has gone to bed to write because, as Elizabeth Jolley says, “I am not needed in their dreams.”
You’ve got the time. Now what? Now you sit down and write.
This is where the trouble often starts. You sit down at your dining room table, whose surface now holds only your computer, ready to write. Then you get up because your butt hurts and you’d forgotten how uncomfortable your dining room chairs are and you couldn’t possibly sit here and create for any length of time. Or you sit down on your couch, cross-legged, your laptop balanced on your knees, ready to write. Then you get up because your stomach growls and you realize that you’re hungry and you know the synapses in your brain won’t fire properly without sufficient protein. Or you sit at your desk during your office’s official lunch hour, door closed, ready to write. Then you get up because your colleague knocks on the door to remind you that it’s the boss’s birthday and everyone’s taking her out to lunch, and while you could miss it, you are up for that promotion and as you’re not successful enough as a writer quite yet to quit your day job, you’d better make nice and go.
Another day’s writing avoided.
Taking your seat—even when you’ve made the time—can prove more difficult than you anticipated. But it’s usually simply getting started that is tough. We aren’t talking about a true writer’s block here; we’ll go into that later in chapter thirteen. We’re talking the low-grade unease that hits us whenever we sit down to write, the performance anxiety that afflicts all performers, from surgeons to actors.
More than 80 percent of professional actors admit to suffering stage fright at least once during their careers, according to a study by Fielding Graduate University. Surgeons rarely admit to anything resembling fear, but Dr. Charlie Brown, an expert in performance psychology, says that it’s “not uncommon for surgeons and physicians to use beta-blockers to treat symptoms of anxiety associated with performance.”
Actors face public humiliation when they set foot on the stage; surgeons face life and death itself when they step into the operating theater. Yet the show—and the operation—must go on. We do our writing alone, and the only lives at stake are those of imaginary people. But there’s something we can learn from actors and surgeons—and that something has to do with ritual.
Ritual can help you get through those first lines, those first cuts, those first words. The physical, mental, and emotional aspects of ritual prepare you to launch into your performance.
Place is the physical aspect of ritual. The actor has the theater; merely treading the boards invites the spotlight. The surgeon has the operating theater; he presides over the operating table in a performance that can mean the life or death of his patient. For writers, where we write is important, in that it needs to be a place that we associate with writing, a space consecrated to our art. Writing is a sacred act—and so you must create a sacred space in which to do it. Dedicate a studio, a spare room, even a corner of your den to your work—and equip it with the tools and talismans that will inspire you to write every day. If you can’t—or won’t—work at home, then try the west wing of your local library or the corner table by the window in your favorite coffee shop.
Regalia comprise the mental aspect of ritual. These are the trappings that allow you to get into character and prepare for your performance. The actor applies makeup and dons a costume and warms up her voice and body. The surgeon reviews the X-rays and MRIs and CAT scans, puts on his scrubs, and washes his hands and arms for a full five minutes, during which time he visualizes the procedure he is about to perform. For writers, regalia may take the form of pajamas or sweatpants or a suit and tie, a review of the previous day’s work, a pot of tea or a can of soda or a bottle of water, twenty minutes of meditation or a three-mile run—whatever helps you assert the writer in you.
Tools represent the emotional aspect of ritual. These are the weapons you bring to the fight, the talismans that give you the courage to act once the battle cry goes up. For the actor, the overture plays, the curtain rises, the audience quiets, and she steps into the spotlight and breaks the hush with her first line. The surgeon enters the operating theater, consults with his colleagues, inspects his sterile instruments, checks the patient on the table, chooses a scalpel, and, accompanied by the music of his choice (or silence) and under the glare of the surgical lights, he makes the first cut. For writers, the tools of the trade that ease the transition from blank page to work in progress are a matter of personal taste and productivity. Write on paper or tablets, with pen or pencil or stylus, with music on or television off—whatever allows you to make that first mark.
Sleep, Creep, Leap
There’s an old adage in gardening: Sleep, creep, leap. This typically refers to the growth pattern of newly planted perennials, provided they are nourished with sun and water and nutrients: The first year the plant will “sleep,” the second year the plant will “creep,” and the third year the plant will “leap.”
As your writing practice deepens over time, you will grow as a writer—in much the same way as a well-nourished perennial. You’ll take your seat, and you’ll write. You may think you are getting nowhere, but as you keep at it, and your pages pile up, you are literally growing yourself as a writer.
At first, this development may be unnoticeable—that’s the sleep part. But before you know it, you’ll find your prose creeping along toward good and then leaping right into great. Growth rates vary for writers just as they vary for plants, but whether your “sleep, creep, leap” development takes three months, three years, or three decades will depend on what you learn as you explore the many places your practice may take you and how quickly you apply that knowledge to your work in progress.