BY ERIN ENTRADA KELLY
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Years ago, I was a young journalist sitting in Ernest Gaines’ living room. He had just been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His Lafayette home was well-organized, tidy, and succinct. So was Mr. Gaines. The first thing he said was “you’re late.”
Despite our rocky start, I sat across from him with young writerly fascination. This man—son of sharecroppers, Stanford fellow, Nobel Prize nominee—had written A Gathering of Old Men, Lesson Before Dying, and now he sat before me, a wide-eyed, somewhat naïve journalist who had a stack of unfinished novels in her closet and a million more in her head.
I asked the question that is too-often asked: “What’s your writing routine?”
I’d been struggling with my own routine for years. Namely, that I didn’t have one. I hoped Mr. Gaines would say something like, “Oh, I just write when the spirit moves me,” since that’s what I did and no one else seemed to be doing it. Instead he told me that he set aside the same set of hours each day to write. The routine was disciplined. Controlled.
This is why I’ll never finish those novels, I thought. I have no routine.
It took me years to realize that not having a routine was my routine. I wrote when I felt compelled to write, which was often. When I tried to stick to a schedule, I worried more over the passing minutes than the story. But when I wrote only when compelled, the words were there. It might be 10 at night or 5 in the morning. It could be a Saturday or Tuesday. I may write for five days in a row and then not write for three. I wrote, though. Not all the words may have been good, but they were there.
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The reason I didn’t finish novels in those years had nothing to do with my lack of routine. It was because I was telling the wrong story. It wasn’t when I was writing (or not-writing), it was what I was writing (or not-writing).
We’re not all Ernest Gaines. Some of us are less organized, less tidy. As writers, we are as diverse as our stories. I wouldn’t write a publishable word if I had to schedule my writing sessions, and I know there are many writers out there—maybe even you—who wouldn’t write a thing if you didn’t.
We all select our words differently. And thank god for that.
Are you a routine-less writer? If so, consider these tips.
- Never stop writing—even if in your head. When you’re not writing with pen and paper, write with brain and imagination. Mull over your creative ideas. If you don’t have any creative ideas, look for them. They’re all around you. Example: When I’m at the grocery store, I take a nonchalant glance at what the person behind me is buying. Then I create a whole life for them in my head. Then I look at what I’m buying and wonder what kind of story I’m telling. Basically, do some people watching. People are weird, fascinating creatures.
- When creative lightning strikes, be ready. Carry a journal or notebook at all times.
- Be productive. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. One feeds into the other.
- Don’t out-talk your ideas. Routine-less writers are prone to share their Great Ideas with anyone who will listen—husband, wife, partner, co-workers, critique group, professors, so on. I’ve found that it’s better to share less and plan more. Instead of talking your idea to death, write it down. Work out the kinks. Make it yours. Don’t let the idea play itself out before you’ve even had a chance to sit with it.
- Find your own footing. For a long time I thought there was something wrong with my approach because I didn’t follow the same routine as other writers. You’ll hear a lot of advice—write every day, write at least 100 words a day, wake up early, stay up late, utilize the weekends—but ultimately you have to do what works for you.
Erin Entrada Kelly‘s debut novel BLACKBIRD FLY from HarperCollins/Greenwillow is available now. She has published more than 30 short stories in publications worldwide, including Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was a finalist for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction and twice-nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2011, she was a Martha's Vineyard Writer in Residence. Find her on Twitter @erinkellytweets,Facebook, and erinentradakelly.com.