Towards a Daily Writing Practice: A Credo
May 23, 2022 § 13 Comments
By Karen Babine
I don’t believe in inspiration anymore.
I believe in compulsion.
I believe in friction. I believe in the energy of phrases pulled from a stranger’s conversation, of ideas that don’t quite match their contexts, a belief in being so aware that you stand next to Alexander Smith and become the world’s amanuensis because you have no choice.
I believe the world is an interesting place.
I believe in doing the work of being a writer, the work of studying at the page of masters to learn their brush strokes, how to mix that particular color of blue. I remember a conversation with the fiction writer Will Weaver and asking him if he had a writing schedule, and he said he did, that he wrote every day, because it would be a shame if the Angel of Fiction showed up and he wasn’t there. We may enjoy it, we may hate it, but what gets us to the page is the compulsion to translate what we see, what we think, what we imagine onto a page that is not suited for such tellings. We never see the iceberg of work that goes into a writer’s sentence, but we know it is there.
Pianists play scales, basketball players shoot free throws, and writers write.
Once, I heard a talk by a scholar of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and this man had combed through archives for the drafts of Heaney’s poem “Punishment.” He went through the changes Heaney had made, not just small-scale word-level changes, but structural changes, stanza changes, scything whole swathes, and planting new ones. And then, on the thirteenth draft, Heaney changed the entire poem into a sonnet, shifting his phrasing into iambic pentameter, confining himself to a rhyme scheme, tightening his fingers around those fourteen lines. Just to see what would happen. In the next draft, the sonnet had given way back to quatrains, where it stayed. But the point is that Seamus Heaney, one we might assume knew what he was doing, still did the dirty work of being a writer. He did not believe in magic, in poetry coming to him. He had to dig for it.
I believe in a writing practice. By that, I mean considering writing in the same mode as yoga practice: it is not something to be achieved. It is to be pursued. With practice, we are able to move our bodies and our pens in new directions not possible yesterday. Writing is a muscle, not magic, after all. If I think of writing as an embodied practice, the movement of my pen on paper, the click of my fingers on a keyboard, how tired my hand is when I’m out of practice, then I’m in a mindset of how my body is in the world is how my body is in the world and that is a place to write from. Because of this, I have long used Julia Cameron’s Writer’s Backpack, which consists of Morning Pages, Walks, and Artist Dates. I have come to believe in starting a day with what is most important to me. If I wait for inspiration, if I wait for a block of several hours to write, there will always be something else to do. If I start the day with writing, I will have always done the work of being a writer before the grocery shopping or lawn mowing or teaching. Because Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks are part of an active writing practice, the work of putting a writer’s body into the world, practicing looking and seeing before we put it on the page, we are doing what I consider the most important work of being a writer: writers are always writing; they are not always typing. For some, Morning Pages might look like 2am Pages, or fitting the work of the mind onto the page in the way that fits best.
I believe in the work of writing, of the writer priming the pump, so that the well is never dry. I believe in carrying a notebook and collecting observations, phrases, angles of light, the shift of air currents and what in the world is that smell??, and I believe that each writing project will create its own process. I believe in leaning into the writerly urge to collect notebooks, to let them stack on the shelf in pristine order, and I believe in that little internal tug that might be fear as I pull one out and put it to use. I believe in this paper-bag-brown Moleskine and I believe in the cheap pen which somehow leads to lovelier handwriting than the expensive pen next to it, because the drag of this pen against this paper is an alchemical combination that feels right.
I believe in the practice of being in the world, my body in the world, and my pen in the world. What I learned on the last project will not help me on the next one, but what I’m learning for the one I have not yet written is that by the time this book tells me what it wants to be, I’ll have everything I need, contained in that notebook. I won’t be starting from scratch, because I’ve done the work.
I broadly interpret Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks (sometimes it’s walking through a farmer’s market or the produce section at the grocery store with a writer’s eye, not just a cook’s) and it’s a good reminder that space is not neutral and the writer’s presence in a space is not neutral either. I believe in the attention of staring at a shelf of dishes you don’t need at the thrift store and letting your mind and sarcasm play against the colors, the ring of crystal you absolutely don’t need, but take home anyway because it’s beautiful. Your mind at work disrupts air currents, molecules, and that is a good place to start writing. Best not to pretend otherwise. Otherwise it’s like the old joke about the guy who prays please, God, help me win the lottery! over and over and finally God yells, “Then buy a ticket!”
Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Waxwing, and Terrain.org, and has twice been listed as a Notable in Best American Essays. Her nonfiction craft essays have appeared in Brevity and LitHub, and are forthcoming in the Writer’s Chronicle and CRAFT, She teaches at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
[…] Towards a Daily Writing Practice: A Credo […]
Love this! Especially about the work Seamus Heaney put into this specific poem and the homage to Julia Cameron. The piece is a lovely reminder of the work we have to do. Thank you!
I loved this so much that I had to copy it and print it out, so I can read it again when I’m feeling adrift because this is the answer.
What Karen Babine wrote about the practice of writing rings true. She expressed so beautifully the need to immerse yourself and all your senses in observation, reflection, and distillation of everyday life. She is a true artist with her pen.
Thank you for this, just what I need this morning as I tackle the revisions of ch. 3 & 4 of the novel that’s on its 4th revise. And for the reminder of Julia Cameron’s “walking in this world.” And, well, all of it. I will share this with fellow practitioners.
This is wonderful, Karen! I like “By that, I mean considering writing in the same mode as yoga practice: it is not something to be achieved. It is to be pursued.”
You are a true daughter of the immortals. Living this life, you are a carver in the only stone we have in our space-time fields of heaven. Long may you wave your pen!
Great Piece. Good reminder to do the work, and the yoga analogy is fantastic. Dr. J (small forward for 76-ers and all-time basketball great) said something like, “being a professional means getting up every day and doing what you love, even when you don’t feel like doing it.”
Brilliant piece of writing!! I’ve been writing short essays of 600 words and following a similar method that you describe. Feel good about doing the ‘write’ thing!!
The work of being a writer is also the minutiae of living. Love this. Sharing on Twitter.
If you are busy in your passion then its always good. Yeah passion can be different different types like someone likes writing, some likes reading and many more. As i read this article it seems that author has writing passion. Thanks for article.