Practicing good habits

According to Dorthea Brande in her book Becoming a Writer, writers have two personalities. First is the workaday personality who is in charge of arranging the day so that you have time to write, and who is also in charge of editing and studying craft; and second is the inspired personality—the subconscious, the muse, the dreamer—who is in charge of actually writing.

In order to learn how to write, you have “to train both sides of your character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two” (44).

Reading that was a good reminder because I know I sometimes feel as if I’m working against myself. Brande says that the creative self is often very lazy and if it got its way it would never work, except for when it felt inspired. This is why it’s important to have a strong workaday-self who will say to the creative personality, “Look, I’ve arranged my day to give you this four-hour block of time to write. Whether you decide to show up or not, this body is going to stay here at this desk for the entire four hours. It’s up to you whether you want to come and play or not, but I know that I’ve upheld my part of the deal.”

I first read Dorthea Brande’s book seven years ago when I decided to get serious about writing fiction, but recently picked it up again because still struggle with some of the same things I struggled with when I first began, like showing up consistently. I’ve done a good job arranging my life around writing: I married a man who is supportive of my writing and who has been charitable enough to let me go to graduate school, and I’ve created a comfortable office filled with books I love, which has good lighting and a wide stand-up desk at just the right height. But still, I struggle with getting the words down.

The truth is that writing is a lot like New Years, where you head out to begin your new habits, or break those old ones. For a solid week or two after New Years, you are very good about showing up to the gym, or avoiding sweets, or writing every day, like you said you would in your New Years resolutions. But then your fortitude begins to falter sometime during the third week. You say to yourself, “I don’t feel like it today. How about I skip today and write twice as much tomorrow.” And before you know it, it’s been two weeks since you’ve sat at your writing desk.

I think that this happens to everybody, but it’s important to notice that you’ve slipped and get back in the game as soon as possible. I know that for me, trying to write every day is like New Years day every three weeks.

One of the things Dorthea Brande suggests is noticing what inspires you and what zaps your energy. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to avoid certain things because they suck up my time and keep me away from writing:

  • Only check e-mail or Facebook at the end of the day. The more I’m actually writing, the less interesting those things are.
  • Avoid Netflix. No matter how much I try, I’ll never be able to write and watch Star Trek at the same time.
  • Restrict podcasts to when I’m cleaning the house or driving. I love listening to podcasts (my favorites are This American Life, RadioLab, EscapePod, PseudoPod, PodCastle, Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, and PlanetMoney). But allowing myself to listen to them when I should be writing is a bad idea.
  • Avoid iTunes. Some people can write with music in the background. I can’t. The problem is that I start listening to the lyrics instead of my character’s voices, and it’s best if avoid anything with words. If I truly get bored with silence, I’ll listen to instrumental music. But I know from experience that when everything is working right, I can’t hear anything but the voice of my subconscious.
  • Avoid reading fiction in the mornings. My husband and I like to read while we’re eating breakfast. (Another clue that I married the right man!) For whatever reason, I can set aside a non-fiction book after reading one chapter, but I can’t do that with fiction. If I let myself read a novel during breakfast, pretty soon I’ll find that I’m still reading that book at lunch, and then at dinner, and then my whole writing day has been wasted. The sad truth is that it’s much easier to read fiction than to write fiction.
  • Writing classes and writing instruction do not count as writing. Writing classes and workshops will teach you how to read critically and how to edit what you’ve already written—both very important skills—but it’s unlikely that they will teach you how to get those words down in the first place. I think that most teachers assume that you will have the self-discipline to practice what you are learning after school, but classes are often too full to provide proper accountability. Unless a teacher requires you to turn in twenty pages of new work each week, you’re on your own. (Because of this, I think journalism is a better place for writers to learn good habits than most creative writing programs. I remember one Intro to Journalism class where our teacher gave us 90-minutes to interview the person next to us and write a 500-word story. It’s like teaching someone to swim by pushing them into a lake. Writers need that.)
  • Avoid talking about (or sharing) unfinished work. A brilliant idea for a story is not worth the same as a finished story. Telling people about my brilliant idea is like getting paid for work I haven’t done. (It helps to have a single-sentence response ready for when people ask you what you’re working on. What you are searching for is something brisk, yet non-committal. Responses I’ve given have been, “the daughter of a new age guru,” or “zombies in Hawaii,” or “clones,” or “robots,” or “sentient earthworms.” If the questioner’s eyes glaze over while they say, “oh, that’s interesting,” than you know you’ve hit the right mark. The goal here, isn’t to sell the story, but to get them off your back. Save the elevator pitch for after the story is finished.)
  • Blogging, paper-writing, and journal writing doesn’t count. This is the same as above not taking credit for work you haven’t done. If my goal is to finish a novel, than I shouldn’t get credit for writing that wasn’t part of the novel.

Activities that help me write are:

  • Make a writing date with someone. Every week, a friend and I meet at a cafe and write for three hours. Maybe we spend the first half-hour chit-chatting, but mostly we ignore each other and write. Having one day a week where I know I’m going to be writing makes me more likely to write throughout the week. We have both noticed that we are less productive when we don’t meet for these writing days.
  • Keep your writing space tidy. I get distracted whenever I look around my office and all I see is mess. It helps me focus when I don’t feel a compulsive urge to put things away.
  • Warm up with pen and paper. This has been especially helpful while I’m editing. I sit down with a notebook and fill up a handwritten page with whatever comes to mind. If I’m having trouble focusing, I’ll write whatever comes to mind. But the most useful warm-ups are when I write myself a letter of what I want to get across that day—what my intentions are. That kick-starts my creative brain into thinking about how I can get that message across.
  • Outline. This doesn’t work for everyone, but for me, knowing what my assignment is for the day helps ground me. For whatever reason, my creative self gets frightened and runs away if it doesn’t know what its supposed to be working on.
  • Handwrite the first draft. My first experiences with writing were through handwritten journals, and the tactile feeling of pen and paper unlocks that same feeling of urgency I felt as a kid. There are several reasons I think handwriting helps me write first drafts: 1) I can’t tinker with every sentence; what’s written is written. 2) Because handwriting is slower, I can plan out my next sentence before I write it. 3) It forces me to think linearly since I can’t physically jump to an earlier part of the text and insert something (I occasionally use an asterisk and write on the back of the page when something needs to be inserted). 4) Handwriting gives me permission to make mistakes; because I know there will be at least a second draft when I type the story, I’m not committed to what was handwritten.
  • Ritual. I think that performing something methodical and repetitive can get you in the mood to write because it is relaxing. Having a really complex coffee ritual helps me because first I have to wash the coffee maker, then I have to grind the coffee, place it in the filter, screw it all together, set it on the stove and wait. The motions are repetitive and without variation; they take a certain amount of time and none of the steps can be skipped or compressed. I usually do a freewriting exercise while I’m waiting for the coffee to boil so that when the coffee is done, I can sit and enjoy it while I work on my manuscript.
  • Make your goals about effort, not results. I’ve learned through trial and error that my goals have to be about effort and not about results. I will always disappoint myself if I say that I have to have such-and-such scene finished by June 6th, but I will rarely disappoint myself if I say that I must edit between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., or that I need 1,000 words of new material. It helps me to have something objective that I’m shooting for—a word-count, a page-number, or a certain amount of hours spent editing. I keep a spreadsheet where I track my work in hopes that someday, when I become a professional author, I’ll be able to anticipate how long projects will take me. (If a novel takes x-amount of hours, I’ll need y-amount of money) Also, I don’t know if other writers feel this, but whenever I’m not writing I feel this nagging voice that tells me I should be. Having an acceptable shut-off point allows me to say, “There, I’ve put in a full day’s work and now I deserve to relax.”
  • Bribes and rewards. Maybe it sounds cheap, but cognitive behavioral psychology says that you will get better results if you reward good behavior than if you punish bad behavior. I try to reward a full day of writing with something like TV or a walk or reading fiction. A finished project gets rewarded by having someone read it or mailing it to a published (another reason why not talking about unfinished work is a good idea—being allowed to finally share it is incredibly satisfying). Big projects get bigger rewards, like a fancy dinner or new shoes or an iPad.
  • If all else fails, go on a field trip. If writing in my office feels stagnant, it might be time to try writing someplace else. The kitchen or my living room couch are common destinations, but if those don’t work, I’ll pack up my laptop and head to the local cafe. I try to pick cafes where I don’t have Internet access, and I can see other people working.

These are some of the things I’ve learned work for me. What writing habits work for you?


Works Cited

Brande, Dorthea. Becoming a Writer. 1934. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1981.


About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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