Creating a Writing Practice that Works

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To cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself.

—John McPhee, Draft No. 4

As my writing hero John McPhee suggests, there is a fence—or if you prefer, a gulch, a canyon, a high concrete barrier, a forest of thorns and brambles—between our everyday lives and our writing lives. In order to create, we have to cross over and live in the writing world for a few minutes or hours every day; this is where we get the work done. Inventing a writing practice that allows me to make this journey as regularly and effectively as possible is my focus for 2019, and I’ve asked some of the Story Grid editors to help by telling me a little about their own creative practices and mindsets. I like McPhee’s idea that figuring out how to get ourselves into writing mode is a matter of invention. Like all inventions, it takes multiple attempts and failures—maybe also a few minor explosions and electrical fires . . .  all worth it in the end, if we come up with a writing practice that works.

This isn’t really a post about productivity—but it’s productivity adjacent. There are plenty of people, including our own Tim Grahl, who have brilliant books and courses about increasing productivity—making sure we are writers who really write, rather than just thinking about writing. But here I’m interested in exploring the ways we can set up a steady, satisfying path to access creativity and do the difficult deep work (with a big hat tip to Cal Newport’s book on the topic) necessary to write the first draft of a fiction or nonfiction project. After all, ’tis the season of resolutions, finding accountability partners, and making ambitious declarations to ourselves, our friends, and the Twitterverse: “January 1st is the first day of the rest of my life!” “I’ve made 19 resolutions for writing and publishing in 2019! “I plan to establish 10 can’t-lose habits for losing weight while launching my book! “I’ve joined 5 meetup groups to jumpstart my author platform while finding my soulmate!  I’m going to make my bed every morning!”

This is basically what I do every January 1, and it’s likely I’ll keep doing it, and I’ll be abandoning all my lists and new habits by January 15.

But when it comes to establishing a writing practice, I’d like to take another approach and invite you to come along with me. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to creativity. We can find our size, shape, and color by trying on several options and being willing to toss a few in the bin if they don’t fit, trying new options as needed.

Let’s ignore the “New Year, New Me!” temptation. Let’s also silence that voice inside us that says we’re aiming toward perfection in our writing, and aim for glorious, messy imperfection instead. Channeling McPhee again, we just have to concentrate on creating a nucleus in our early drafts. “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me,” says McPhee, “Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.”

A good writing practice, I think, is what helps us survive the inevitable nervous frenzy and live to fling and blurt and heave and babble the next day and the next and the next until the draft is done. In Stephen Pressfield‘s terms, our writing practice is what helps us fight Resistance.

If you’re working on your own writing practice, systems, resolutions, and habits for 2019, take a look at the thoughts below. Try a few, discard what doesn’t work, and double-down on those that do work for you. Please feel free to let me know in the comments if there are other ideas you’d like to share about what has worked and hasn’t worked for you in the past and what you’re inspired to do in the future. I’ve slotted the ideas into some basic categories I’m working on in terms of developing my own practice:  Time and Space, Tools, Nourishment, and Focus with Freedom.

IDENTIFY YOUR TIME and SPACE

John McPhee says that the first draft always takes him four times as long as all the subsequent drafts combined. One of the hardest things for any writer is to abandon the urge to write something good the first time around, so one goal of a good writing practice is to open up time and space that can ease some of the anxiety around first drafts. If we know when and where to show up and write, we’ll at least remove one decision that might stand in our way. This is a simplifying strategy Tim Grahl advocates as well.

Finding the right time requires some trial and error, but lots of writers choose to work in the morning either because that time offers the fewest distractions from work, family, and the Internet, or because there’s a freshness and lack of mental clutter in our morning minds. I know from years of working under deadlines that 6-9 a.m. is my best time to focus, and that the second best time for me is mid-day, around noon to 2 or 3. After that, very little “deep work” is likely to get done. You may already have a good sense of your best creative times, as I do, but it’s worth doing a little experimenting to make sure. 

Cementing together your ideal writing times and spaces can be helpful, in something Gretchen Rubin calls the “strategy of pairing.” For example, when I was trying to draft my dissertation 25 years ago, I experienced a period of crippling anxiety about getting the first draft done that nearly derailed me completely. One of the things that helped was finding a small local coffee shop with a back room full of tables used by writers of all kinds. I went there three days a week when it opened, around 6:30 a.m., bought coffee and a muffin, and wrote until the start of the lunch rush, around 11 a.m. I didn’t go there at any other time or for any other purpose. The connection between that place and the early morning hours—with all the smells and sounds, including other writers tapping on keyboards, put me into a writing mindset almost automatically. The pairing worked.

Author, podcaster, and Story Grid editor J. Thorn has a highly ritualized morning practice and a dedicated attic space in his home that’s quiet and removed from the rest of his family. He uses the early morning hours to do deep work. After meditating, he says, “I go straight into working on the first draft of my current Work In Progress. I remove all  Resistance between the beginning of my day and my most important work.”

But early mornings in the attic may not be right for you. Author and Story Grid editor and genre expert Rachelle Ramirez advocates stealing smaller moments whenever and wherever you can throughout the day, a strategy that works  well for people with full-time jobs and families. Author and Story Grid Editor Maya Rushing Walker sometimes writes at her home desk, but often leaves it behind, especially when she’s feeling stuck or anxious. “Research has shown that changing your study location helps your brain to learn,” says Maya. And like Rachelle, she says anyplace will work in a pinch: in the car, on the couch, or out on the deck if the weather is good.

I seem to have lost the coffee shop magic, so I plan to follow Story Grid editor and writer Savannah Gilbo to the library. Savannah finds that public libraries provide a good balance of quiet and little bursts of activity, plus shelves and shelves of inspiration. 

CHOOSE YOUR TOOLS

Having the right tools for your writing practice is crucial, and the choices we make are just as subjective as selecting the right time and space. We need tools that make us feel comfortable and allow us to perform at our best.

Countless writers consider coffee or tea to be essential tools of the trade—part of a ritual of sitting down to work that sets them on the right course. For book coach and Story Grid editor Helena Bouchez, the most helpful tool isn’t coffee or tea, but a little program called [email protected], that she says is amazing for getting her to settle down and start writing.

Maya, Savannah, and fantasy author and Story Grid editor Julie Blair also use music as a tool to put them in the right frame of mind, often tailoring the type of music to the setting or characters in their books. “It has to be rhythmic and repetitive, with no lyrics,” says Julie. “I think it occupies the ‘busy’ layer of my brain. . . . I can really lose myself in the writing process when I’ve got that kind of music on.”

I’d like to try music as part of my new practice. In the past, I’ve actually gotten my ambient noise fix with an app that simulates the low hum of a coffee shop, but I think something a little more inspiring may be in order. Savannah recommends soft classical music in the background.

Savannah, like so many writers I know, also uses Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” method of journaling by hand for a few minutes before beginning each work day.  Savannah says that this helps her get ideas out of her head “so they’re not swirling around getting in the way of my creative writing.” Author, Story Grid editor, and podcaster Anne Hawley also loves the practice of freewriting or journaling in the morning. “Freewriting seems to skim the scum off the pond and let me reach clearer waters underneath,” she says. But this isn’t only scum! “My morning pages are full of material that has wound up in the novel in some form,” she adds.

Of course, the most important tool is what you use to get the words out of your head and onto screen or paper.

Women’s fiction author, podcaster, and Story Grid editor Valerie Francis loves her fountain pens for particular types of writing. “When I’m in the planning stages of a book, or if I’m stuck, I write longhand. The physical act of writing causes thinking,” she says.

Like Valerie, Rachelle writes longhand with pen and paper for her first, or generative, drafts, and uses a keyboard for editing later, which helps keep her writing and editing brains separate. One of her most important pieces of advice is to keep something handy that you can write with at any time, whether it’s paper or a tablet, or a phone. “Keep a notebook in your purse and a pad of paper in your glove compartment,” she advises. “Be willing to slip into a public restroom and dictate an idea into your phone. Don’t assume you will remember what the muse shared in a certain moment. You can’t predict when an idea will arrive, but you can always be ready.”

Setting aside her pens, Valerie sometimes just closes her eyes to shut out the rest of the world and types the scenes she sees playing out in her mind’s eye. “I capture it as best I can,” she says. This is essentially a tool to bypass the critical part of your mind. Anne Hawley uses a different workaround trick: She races. “The only way I’ve ever found to turn off my critical editor’s brain is to race,” she says. “Set a timer and force myself to go-go-go!”

I have a couple of friends right now who are plagued by perfectionism in the extreme, made worse by reading over imperfect words they’ve written on screen or in a notebook. If you have this challenge, try a new tool: dictation. You can find helpful guides to writing via dictation here and here. Many people find it much easier to stop censoring and critiquing themselves if they’re talking to another person or a machine, rather than actually writing.

For years, I’ve been exclusively a keyboard writer, but I’m going to try to do a couple of pages of handwritten journaling in the morning and to write at least a couple of chapters via dictation in January,  to see whether either could work for me. I’d like to find out whether it’s easier to turn my creative mind on if there’s a sensory connection to real paper and ink or my own voice rather than the mocking glow of a screen! We shall see!

TAKE IN NOURISHMENT

We can’t really expect to write at our best if we haven’t provided some nourishment for our writing minds. As much as our bodies need the muffins and coffee or the omelet and orange juice, our minds need to consume art and ideas as fuel in order to produce our own. We all know that we can’t produce good writing if we’re not readers, so part of any writing practice has to include reading widely. For some, reading others’ work before beginning their own is like having a friend sitting beside them, offering encouragement. If you tend to compare yourself too much with the writers you’re reading, though, hold off on your reading until after you’ve written your pages for the day. 

Beyond reading, there are so many other ways writers feed themselves—music, painting, carpentry, baking, dance, photography, astrology, gardening, crocheting—any one or combination of these pursuits will contribute new perspectives, skills, and even vocabulary, to enhance your writing. Maya says it simply: “Surround yourself with beauty in whatever form you can.” She plays the piano and does photography. Story Grid editor and author Rebecca Monterusso loves to paint and create things with her hands. Anne practices astrology as a way of promoting a left-brain/right-brain synthesis that’s good exercise for writing. And it’s a great way to generate character profiles, she says.

For Rachelle, reading almost always inspires writing, even though that’s not usually her intention. On the other hand, listening to music can be frustrating for her, because she finds it hard to translate feelings from music to the written word. Valerie has put most of her other creative endeavors on hold as she’s become focused on writing. She was a musician, painter, and passionate gardener, and I suspect she has an enormous reservoir of ideas leftover from those hobbies, even if she’s not refilling them as much now. Savannah, on the other hand, never stops gathering inspiration:  She builds furniture for her home, weaves, sews, and crochets. J. is a devoted musician whose playing and singing helps sustain him emotionally and as an artist.

Julie and I are both sketchers. Paying close attention to something in order to draw it in detail—a bowl of oranges, a tree branch, my daughter’s face—pulls me away from everything else and makes me feel focused like no other activity. It’s calming and more akin to meditation than anything else. I usually don’t have a purpose in sketching. I sketch because I like the feel of the pen and the paper and the look of the lines. All my sketches are messy first drafts, and I’m content to leave them that way. The nourishment I get from this is a new way of seeing the world around me and the ability to turn off my inner critical voice. Julie Blair, on the other hand, uses art to contribute more directly to her writing. She draws maps and architectural drawings of the places in her own stories to bring them to life in a different way, so her drawings inform and enhance her stories.

Helena says she has always considered herself an artist with skills in visual art, music, and writing. She plays multiple instruments and loves working with her hands. She creates hand-made cards for her friends. All of the skills she has assembled taught her how to see the world in a lot of different ways. But she decided to focus in on the writing because “I want to change hearts and minds for the better in this lifetime, and that’s my original, and thus most effective and facile tool. But she compares her writing to woodworking. “They’re very similar. You start with this piece of wood that could be anything. The difference is that you make a decision with wood, and once it’s cut you’re committed. Thank goodness words are more malleable!”

Maya consumes videos to help her reach the best emotional state for writing particular scenes. “They are really helpful”, she explains. “I’m very visual, and I can often trigger the right emotional state by watching the right music video or movie snippet. For example, I watched the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia numerous times while working on the beginning of a book that involved an impromptu job offer, because the setup of the “ordinary world” for Lawrence is so brilliantly done.”

FIND FOCUS with FREEDOM

A couple of novel-length works have come to me in a big magical download. There’s nothing quite like it. . . . It’s only happened twice. Learning to create the hard way—to dig and hack my way back into that flow state—has been a huge growth experience. I’ve learned to welcome the flow state even in the shortest bursts—to acknowledge and value even a minute of contact with that higher source.

—Anne Hawley, Story Grid Editor and author of Restraint

The ultimate goal of putting together a writing practice that will really work for you is to expand the quality of your creative time, so that you can do your best work—whether you have 15 minutes a day or 4 hours. We’d all like to be in “flow,” or that state when time disappears and we are focused so deeply on our writing that it feels almost effortless.

“When I’m deep in writer brain mode, it’s a fantastic feeling, though I’m barely aware of it when it’s happening,” says Julie. At the end of the writing day, if I have to consciously ‘unhook,’ I know I’ve had a good session, and that feels pretty damn good.”

If you’ve identified the time and the space that works well, chosen the tools that feel most comfortable, and taken in some nourishment in the form of books, music, movies, and art, you will eventually find the focus and freedom we all need to do the deep work of making new art.

If you have a powerful analytical side, you’ll find focus through structure, as Savannah and Valerie do. Savannah says she feels more creative with a strong structure or plan, and writing without a structure in place actually stifles her creativity. “For me, the puzzle-like feel is fun,” she says. Valerie has changed her mindset since starting to study Story Grid. She used to polish chapters as she wrote, but now she saves wordsmithing for later, concentrating only on structure and sketching out scenes with the Five Commandments in the first draft. This means that she does use her analytical editor brain in the first draft, but not in terms of making the language beautiful—just in terms of following and innovating on the inciting incident, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution.

Rachelle finds focus by allowing herself quite a bit of freedom within a minimal structure, and I must admit this approach appeals to me. Rachelle says, “I give myself some wide parameters and then allow myself to write wildly around the cones. For example, I might sit at a coffee shop for two hours and write anything and everything that has to do with my inciting incident, or everything I can imagine about the love interest.” Unlike Valerie, Rachelle only uses the Five Commandments when a scene she is writing is not working and she has to diagnose the problem.

I find that I tend to be more like Maya, who says that it’s been her experience that she cannot be in “editor mode” at all when writing, even though she’s very good at analytical tasks. “I have tried to outline and draft a plan ahead of time, but using analytical frameworks ahead of time is a surefire way for me to kill a creative project. For a first draft, I work in a straight linear fashion, and I go with the feeling as much as I can. There is a little bit of editor-head at work in the sense that I am always aware of having a goal for each scene, and I am building toward major emotional events in the story. I probably have 3-4 tent poles in mind and I write toward those. I’m also free with the delete key. I love the delete key! I know that I can and should write utter drivel in a first draft and that the delete key is my friend.”

All hail the drivel draft! I’m with Maya on that one.

Under the banner of finding focus with freedom, I would include two things that many of the editors and writers swear by: meditation and physical exercise. Valerie, J, and Tim, and most of the other editors have fairly strict exercise routines that provide them with the energy and stamina they need to produce their best work. Sometimes it’s just about going for a walk. Rebecca recalls, “I was trying to get an idea to come to me while writing, but I couldn’t force it. So, instead, I went on a walk and somehow I figured out some major problems in my novel.”

Meditation is one of the most common practices cited by all the editors in describing how they prepare to write. J meditates for 15-20 minutes each morning before sitting down at the keyboard, for example. Rebecca says, “I meditate every day and do a 10-minute free write about a random topic just to get my hand moving. It helps to not care so much about what the words are and just let them come.”

For Valerie, meditation isn’t as interesting as paying close attention to how she’s feeling. “I believe there is an energy flowing to and through us all the time, and we can make of it what we want. This energy is, I believe, The Muse. We can choose to turn it into something negative by doubting and worrying, or we can choose to make something positive out of it by understanding that The Muse is always there and always wanting to help. I create an open channel for creative energy to flow through me.”

Savannah says that she appreciates the value of meditation and recommends it to her clients to develop clarity and focus. She also says that part of the freedom you gain from a strong daily practice is accepting that sometimes you’ll feel burnt out or uninspired. “You will NOT be creative or do your best work when you’re burnt out. There are a million other things to do with your time when that happens: Go do something fun with friends, clean the house, watch a Netflix show. It’s okay to take a few days off from writing and come back. You will feel so much better when you give yourself and your brain a break. Positive visualization (for example, imagining your book on a shelf in a bookstore, or meeting fans at a book signing, or holding your finished first draft) can be really beneficial, too.”

I recently read some essays about writing by Alexander Chee in which he said that one of the things he did as a young student writer was to put his finger on the fiction shelf in every bookstore he visited, making a little space exactly where his future novel would be—right between Michael Chabon and John Cheever. When his teacher, acclaimed writer Annie Dillard, first suggested this, the idea seemed ridiculous. But then he did it, and kept doing it every time he went to a bookstore, until the book existed. It was all about acknowledging his aspirations and using them to focus his mind—a short moment of meditation in support of his life as a writer.

THE PRACTICE IS THE GOAL

We want to reach audiences with our stories. We want to connect, inspire, and educate them. We want to sell books and articles and poems. Those are powerful goals we should honor and pursue. But building our writing practice is also about something else—it’s the thing that has to happen before we see our book on the shelf at Powells or Barnes and Noble. The thing that propels us through the act of creation with our minds and hearts mostly intact.

Here are a few final tips on the writing life from some of the editors:

Valerie suggests: “Study how your mind works. Most people never give it any thought whatsoever (the irony, eh?), but everything is energy. We tap into that energy through our sub-conscious minds and the use of will, reason, imagination, intuition, perception, and memory.”

Maya wants us to escape from technology: “Try a digital detox. Multitasking is not a thing, and phones are designed to addict you. And be willing to go slow. It takes work for your brain to connect things. Writing is the act of getting those connections down on paper, and your brain needs time and rest in order for it to do this work.”

Helena is a believer in sharing her work in the short (500 words or so) essays she writes five days a week for a newsletter that goes just to friends. “The newsletter has been a revelation because I can immediately see what lands with my friends, what makes them respond. The creative act is really an end unto itself for me. You never know what it will conjur. I advise people to follow their bliss!”

Rebecca says ritual is key: “Find a ritual that turns your writing practice into a strong habit. It’s not about waiting for something to come; it’s about making the muse pay attention to you because you’re showing up every day. Even if a writing session results in complete crap, usually something will come out of it and you’ll have a jumping off point for the next time.”

Balance your critical editor brain with soothing conversations with yourself, says Savannah, and I have to agree. If your critical brain says your scene is terrible, respond with: “It’s not set in stone. Let’s figure out how to make it better.” None of us can do this all the time, but it’s something to strive for, which comes back to the idea that we all need a friendly reader in order to do our best work. Sometimes we can provide that friendly, positive voice for ourselves, and sometimes it can come from a writer’s group, an enthusiastic beta reader, or an editor.

In 2019, I look forward to the experimentation, the wrong turns, and the mistakes along the way to creating a good writing practice—and to figuring out how to make it better each month. Let’s go-go-go!

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes . . . find the way to do it.

—John Steinbeck

A FEW BOOKS ON CREATIVITY, RECOMMENDED BY THE STORY GRID EDITORS

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Flow

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

 

 

 

About the Author

Shelley Sperry is an editor, writer, and researcher at Sperry Editorial in Alexandria, Virginia. She used to work at National Geographic, so she thinks every book is better if it has a cool map, a compelling landscape, or a lot of penguins. As an editor, Shelley specializes in nonfiction and historical fiction. She’s currently writing a Story Grid guide to Margaret Atwood’s gripping dystopian story, The Handmaid’s Tale, and co-writing a book about alternative education with her sister.
Comments (6)
Author Shelley Sperry

6 Comments

ANNE HAWLEY says:

This is so, so wonderful, Shelley! If you should decide that making this into an audio-blog is a good idea (IT IS…DO IT…) let me know if I can be of any service in making that happen.

Reply
Shelley Sperry says:

Thank you so much, Anne. I’d love to give audio a try. I’ll hit you up for some advice soon on how you guys are turning your posts into audio, which I get so much out of. There’s something about listening to your voices sharing ideas . . . love it!

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Kristi Garrett says:

I finally found the perfect place to write around my full-time job. I make my breakfast and coffee and get to the parking lot a little over an hour before I have to go into the office (I tried working in the office but coworkers always managed to interrupt). I park in my favorite spot with a view of the ball field, enjoy my breakfast, then open up my laptop and jump right in. I find it very easy to get into the flow once I’ve performed this routine, and getting to work earlier (listening to podcasts on the way) makes my commute easier, too. I must type because years of reporting completely ruined my handwriting. I love the silence of my car and never listen to music while I write. I even use ear plugs on occasion.

Reply
Shelley Sperry says:

I’m 100 percent with you on this one, Kristi. Such a good idea to find that totally protected cocoon of your car, plus breakfast! and to write in the silence of early morning. Yes, to this ritual—and good luck writing in 2019.

Reply
Sandy Day says:

Thanks for writing this post. I’m struggling to find a regular practice. My main issue has been learning to create on a keyboard instead of handwriting. I’m relieved to know I’m not alone. I also needed to do a dive into structure lately. I just read Save the Cat Writes a Novel. It really helped. Now, back to writing! Looking forward to the editing, my favourite part.

Reply
Shelley Sperry says:

Hi Sandy,
I think we all struggle on and off with finding what fits and works best to bring our creativity alive. I know people love the Save the Cat books, so I need to read that one too. Very best of luck as you fine-tune your writing practice in 2019!

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