It was my MFA thesis that convinced me a consistent writing routine is crucial to producing work. The concept for my novella came at the end of my second year, right under the wire to submit to my thesis advisor. I had one year to complete the project. There was no way I was getting it done without writing a few hundred words everyday.
But when? I was a busy grad student! I was studying creative writing with little time to actually write. Fortunately, summer was approaching and my load of responsibilities would lighten. Gut check time. Summer was the golden opportunity to make a serious dent in my project.
At that time, I lived with four other women in a two-bedroom house, so if I wanted peace and quiet to write, I’d have to write late in the evening or early in the morning. I chose the latter.
I woke up at 5:00 a.m., before anyone else was stirring, and set a goal of 500 words a day. By 6:30, my 500 words were done. After a few days, I wrote past the 500 mark if things were flowing. By fall, I’d written the first draft of a 145-page novella.
I was shook. I’d never written a piece of fiction longer than 30 pages before! My novella needed a lot of work, but as Anne Lamott says, it was a “down draft.” It was a “shitty first draft,” but the words were down. A gear shifted in my brain: 500 words a day for one summer. That’s all it took to write a novella draft.
Every other piece of writing advice seems to be a version of, “Write every day!” I’m not sure new writers really “get this” until we actually write every day at the same time. It’s easier to wait for inspiration to hit––that gush like a waterfall overhead and every nerve is flushed with the desire to write. It’s the best feeling. It’s what we live for. But experienced writers know: if you want to get work done, waiting for the waterfall is a precarious existence.
After my master’s thesis, I abandoned the 500-word routine. Maybe I was exhausted from a large project and didn’t have anything in mind to work on next. Maybe this is why the prolific Anthony Trollope––who wrote for three hours every day consistently, even with a full-time job––put the last period on the last sentence of a novel, pulled the paper out of the typewriter, and began the next novel until three hours were up. Finishing one project can torpedo your next one. Routine keeps you going.
But why is a consistent writing routine effective?
You know that sitting down to a blank page after time away is painful. It’s an old cliche, but there’s evidence that the mere act of beginning is the most difficult part of any process. It’s even harder to start again if you had a past routine and then stopped.
There’s endless chatter in your head. Endless deprecations from the logical part of your brain that wants you to believe:
- That good idea you had at the beach yesterday? It sucks. Don’t write it.
- You can’t even remember your brilliant idea anyway. It’s cliche and stupid and writing it down is a waste of time.
- Let’s go do the laundry. Laundry is more important.
In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter to these voices: “Radio Station KFKD.” This is one of the most apt metaphors for the mental chatter we hear when we sit down to write. Go read the chapter. In fact, read the whole damn book if you haven’t already. You’ll want to underline everything.
Julia Cameron calls the voices “The Censor:”
“We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as truth.”
So how do we turn the dial down on KFKD and The Censor? Lamott says, “Sometimes ritual quiets the racket.” Julia Cameron swears by the ritual of morning pages.
Ritual. Routine. The act of sitting down at the same time, in the same place, every day, and writing.
“Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in,” Lamott says.
If you’ve read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, you know the majority of great artists cultivated, in their own way, some form of routine to combat the noise of KFKD radio and The Censor.
Many writers swear by routine and ritual––even weird ones. Thomas Wolfe stood naked in front of a mirror, examining himself before he sat down to write. In bed, Patricia Highsmith created a cocoon of cigarettes, doughnuts, a cup of coffee, and a bowl of sugar––a “womb of her own,” she called it. She enveloped herself in all things indulgent so she could focus her willpower on the writing.
Ritual and routine, it turns out, helps your brain quiet decision making. When you sit down to write at 4 a.m., 2 p.m., 9 p.m. or whenever for ten days in a row, I bet it’ll be harder to skip day 11. If anything, it will be easier than day one to get your butt in the chair.
So what does your writing routine look like? What are your quirky rituals? Or, what is the weirdest artist ritual you’ve ever heard? Keep the conversation going in the comments.
Currey, Mason. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way. TarcherPerigee, 1992.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor, 1995.