writing habits

Still Writing

desk 2It’s a fine line we writers walk, the line between wanting to be a writer and actually doing the work of it. As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written. Sometimes, sitting at my writing desk in the mornings, trying to restrain my itchy fingers from clicking on the Facebook icon one more time, I sigh in frustration. Where is that inspiration they kept promising me would come if I showed up faithfully every day? I want to go downstairs and make myself a cup of coffee. I really should put in a load of laundry. And there is, of course, Facebook and Twitter to check.

Instead, I pick up Still Writing, Dani Shapiro’s new book. I open it up and read:

It’s so easy to forget what matters. When I begin the day centered, with equanimity, I find that I am quite unshakable. But if I start off in that slippery, discomfiting way, I am easily thrown off course - and once off course there, I stay. And so I know that my job is to cultivate a mind that catches itself.  A mind that watches its own desire to scamper off into the bramble, but instead, guides itself gently back to what needs to be done. This kind of equanimity may not be my nature, but I can at least attempt to make it my habit.

If, as I have said to myself, that for this year at least what matters to me is this writing work I have set out to do, then I must be ever vigilant about guiding my mind back to what needs to be done, shepherding it gently away from the list of distractions all too ready to lasso it and wrestle it to the ground.

I must learn to be still. And write.

This book of Shapiro’s, this small square volume,  sits now always on my writing desk, always at hand. It serves as a guide, when the writing road becomes rocky and my mind has wandered into the bramble. It is my devotional, a dose taken daily even before I touch my finger to the keyboard, before the screen blossoms into life. “The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life,” the book is subtitled, and Perilous it can seem at times, to have chosen a life of words, of weaving expressions smooth as silk from nothing but rowdy thoughts that flit and flicker across the valleys of my mind.

But oh, the Pleasure to be had when mind and fingers work in tandem, when thoughts form as tangible things in tiny icons of black and white, marching steadfastly across the blank page. When words mirror the images in your head, brush them with the glow of painter’s finest bristle, and set them alight for the world to see. When you finally understand that thing that has eaten away at you for most of your sad, sorry life, when the words have worked it around in your head until at last you say “Aha! Of course! That is why I am the way I am!” When you write, and write some more.

When hours go by and -  still - you are writing.

There it is, then, the reason I sit down at this table every morning, the reason I shush the voices that beg me for coffee, that chide me about laundry, that niggle me for news from the Internet.  

Be still! I tell them. Go away with you.

I’m writing.


Still Writing 

Author: Dani Shapiro

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 230

Buy A Copy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble


On Schedule

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.  ~Flannery O'Connor

Four months ago I quit my job. There were many reasons for that decision, but one of the things I hoped to do was to spend more time writing. Within weeks of making that decision to quit working, I learned that my first grandchild was on the way. This pregnancy was a long hoped for event, and one that was very important to me and to our family. Now I would be able to spend more time with him, help my son and daughter in law in this new adventure. So I felt confident that the gods had lined things up nicely for me, and were in fact smiling upon my decision.

Since it's been over 30 years since I cared for an infant, I started doing some reading about the latest thinking on the subject. During those first few months at home, new parents are advised to let the baby take the lead. Don't try putting them on a schedule, let them eat as often as they want. When they cry, pick them up and cuddle them, give them lots of attention and together time.

Indulge their every whim.

That fits quite nicely with my ideas about infant care. And it also mirrors the relationship I've had with my writing in the past four months. I've indulged my muse, let it take the lead with all this new free time. I've been writing whenever I felt like it, and if that meant three hours one day and 20 minutes the next, that's how it played out.

After three or four months, the child rearing experts advise parents to try and develop some semblance of a schedule. The baby is older now, feeling more secure about his place in the family. It won't hurt to let him cry for a few minutes after he wakes up, leave him alone in his crib while you take a quick shower or put in a load of laundry. Figure out a schedule that works for your family, and ease the baby into it.

I think that's probably good advice for my writing life as well.  "You have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do..." O'Connor writes. Because she suffered from a chronic illness, she "only had the energy" to write for two hours per day. "But I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place."

 Forming any kind of habit takes willpower. Part of that willpower involves creating a schedule - the same time and place - and sticking to it. But I also also have to be realistic.  Although I spent seven or eight hours every day at my office job,  I know I'm not ready or able to commit that kind of time to my writing - not yet anyway. I've chosen to dedicate two hours every morning to writing...not internet surfing, not blog reading/commenting, not social networking.


Putting words on the page.

To help me be accountable, I'm putting my blogs on a similar schedule. I'm committing to posting daily, alternating between the three blogs, so there is new content somewhere every day.

Here's to forming good habits for the writing life, and for life in general.

Do you believe in writing habits? Do you have a schedule? What works best for you?