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.
Maybe You Don’t Need to Write Every Day
February 23, 2017 § 41 Comments
By Annie L. Scholl
I’m not sure how I got the message that I had to write every day to be a “real” writer, but I’ll blame it on Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. I read it when it came out in 1992. Cameron suggests a daily practice of “Morning Pages:” Three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing you do first thing in the morning.
To be fair, Cameron makes it clear that your Morning Pages don’t have to be “high art.” You can rant, write your shopping list over and over, whatever you want. She does insist, though, that you fill three pages—every day.
I did Morning Pages religiously—for about a week-and-a-half. Over the years, I’ve tried again and again. Although the daily practice of Morning Pages didn’t stick, the idea that I had to write every day to be successful did. After all, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and Maya Angelou did.
To actually write daily, I knew I had to do it first thing in the morning, before the day got away from me. But to write “at first light,” as Hemingway did, actually requires getting your ass out of bed at first light.
Only one problem with that: I didn’t want to.
Now and then, though, I willed myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. With hands on the keyboard or pen in hand, words mostly landed on the page. “This is easy!” I’d think. “I’ll do this again tomorrow!”
But like the promises I made to myself about getting on the treadmill, “tomorrow” never consistently came.
That year I attended a memoir-writing workshop in Colorado with author Abigail Thomas. After that workshop, I was on fire. Fueled by the workshop and a writing group that grew out of it, I wrote nearly every day—until 2016. One day of not writing turned into another and another—and then I was out of the routine.
Nine months into 2016, my writing software gave me the cold, hard facts: I had worked on my manuscript exactly seven times.
That little voice—the one that said I had to write daily—was now screaming at me. But instead of believing it, I decided to question it: Was it really true that I had to write daily to be a successful writer?
Writers like Khaled Hosseini say yes. In a 2012 interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast, the international best-selling author of The Kite Runner said: “To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
Cue the self-flogging.
One especially grumbly not-writing day, I reached out to author Beth Kephart, who I’d studied memoir writing with last fall.
“Annie, I go months and months without writing,” the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir told me. “And so when I do write, it all feels brand new—again.”
Kephart said she has never had the time to write daily.
“What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page.”
To hell, she said, with writing an hour a day. “Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.”
Buoyed by Kephart’s response, I contacted Abigail Thomas, whose writing workshop had fueled my five-year, near-daily writing practice.
Do you write every day, I asked?
“Not unless I’m already engaged in something, then I write all the time,” said Thomas, whose most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, was published in 2015 by Scribner.
“Mostly I’ve no self-discipline unless I’m already in gear. Then it’s all I do,” she said. “It has nothing to do with discipline then. It’s a hunger.”
Bar Scott, author of the memoir The Present Giver, said she only writes daily “when I’m writing something that I’m on fire about and that my whole body needs and wants to express.”
“When I get like that, whether I’m writing a song, a book or a blog, I write non-stop,” she said.
But most days, Scott doesn’t feel like writing. So she doesn’t.
Kephart’s good friend, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, doesn’t write daily or weekly either.
“I wish I did,” said Rizzuto, whose memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. But instead, she said, “writing comes in waves—in and out.”
Still, Rizzuto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont and conducts writing workshops, recommends her students engage in daily writing practice.
“When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again, or at least not anything as good as what you have written.”
Rizzuto nails what’s been my greatest fear: That if I don’t write every day, the words won’t come when I do sit down. But I’ve learned over the past several months of non-daily writing practice that the words actually do show up. Especially if I don’t chase them down.
Annie Scholl is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Huffington Post, Unity Magazine, Daily Word, and unity.org. A native Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 with her wife, Michelle. Annie is finishing her first memoir. She blogs at www.anniescholl.com.
Media Cleansing for Writers
August 6, 2015 § 14 Comments
A guest post from Gila Lyons:
In our culture of excess, cleanses are the new panacea. Cut out carbs, meat, wheat, plastics, microwaves, gluten, dairy, eggs, and you will glow with radiant health and well-being. There are juice cleanses, raw food cleanses, water fasts, the cabbage soup diet, and now, a media cleanse too.
Media informs, educates, and occasionally enlightens, but it also serve as an escape from one’s own mind, experience, ideas, and creative impulses. A writer’s mind can be refocused and sharpened in the absence of input just like a digestive tract can be reset and rejuvenated by a cleanse or a fast.
For a week this summer, the members of my Artist’s Way class were instructed to deprive ourselves of media – all books, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, and emails were off-limits. I extended the ban to TV, movies, and radio as well. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains, “We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it, and we feel, yes, fried.” The idea is we must periodically cleanse from media to refocus our energy, attention, and insights on our own experience and into our own work. Cameron writes that without distractions, “we are once again thrust into the sensory world” of our own experience, and that reading deprivation “casts us into inner silence” in which we might reorient ourselves to our own inventiveness and inspiration.
I teach writing during the academic year, and I’ve designated this summer solely for my own writing. I’ve cleared my calendar of work and most social engagements and responsibilities to leave swaths of unoccupied time. This is a massive blessing and an unwieldy freedom, one that can result in unprecedented productivity and also an uninterrupted descent into overwhelm, doubt, despair, and isolation.
When writing, especially personal essay and memoir as I am, I dig myself into a deep hole. It’s a necessary seclusion, but the urge to distract myself is huge and strong and relentless. A quick Facebook or email break is a welcome respite from writing’s discomfort and loneliness. Scrolling the newsfeed, my mind is blessedly blank of my own thoughts, filled instead with flashy GIFs, witty memes, compelling cat videos, and bright photos of fish tacos and Margaritas on the beach. It’s like a little hit of anesthesia, a shot of whisky. It takes the sting out of the work, calms my pressured ambition and struggle and need. I feel connected to the world outside my mind and anchored to the people who know me. I receive Facebook ‘likes’ as silent encouragements, acknowledging nods. Go on, we’re here, we see you, you’re not alone.
But I dread realizing I’ve squandered my summer on Facebook once September descends and it’s back to the halls of the college where I teach. As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page.
Quitting Facebook and TV for a week makes obvious sense. But reading? Cameron writes, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” It’s so much easier to read than to write, to consume than to create. Reading can be the prefect procrastination tool for those who need to feel productive. It’s entertaining and it educates, connects, informs, and relates to the craft. It’s an escape hatch, a distraction from the writing process, a numbing agent for intensity and strain. When I read I’m lulled into passive thought by the cadences of someone else’s syntax, they are thinking for me, they’ve done the deep digging, I just have to let my eyes drift across the page and imagine.
In fact, I worried about how I would fall asleep without reading before bed. Reading was my nightcap, my elixir towards oblivion, the transitional activity from lively engagement with the world to being unconscious to it. I can’t just write or create or converse, all my synapses firing, and then close my eyes and drift off. I need a sedative. So I modified the plan, I would allow myself one New Yorker article per night.
After just a day of media deprivation I felt my productivity increasing. Within a few days, pulling back to receive more, creating a vacuum for inspiration to rush into, I had more ideas, finished more essays, and reached out to editors and fellow writers to whom I’d been meaning to respond. I had more energy for my own writing since directing it less towards the work of others. When I needed a break I didn’t scroll down to the bottom of my screen and bring up Gmail or Facebook. I kept going. I read over what I had. I tweaked here and there, or left a chapter alone and worked on another. When I really needed a break, when my mind was overstuffed and sluggishly drunk on its own words, I watered my plants, checked on the progress of my tomatoes and peas, climbed to the top of the hill near my house and ate white mulberries from an old tree.
This is not a habit I want to adopt forever, I don’t think it’s responsible to live in a world in which I avoid books and the newspaper. It’s important to me to be an informed world citizen, and to understand and be moved by the work and experience of others. But I will take something of this week with me, mostly the understanding that consuming media can be used not only to inform and engage with the world, but to ignore and detach from my own.
When this week is over I’m looking forward to delving back into the pile of books next to my bed. I stare at others reading the way a dieter must watch diners sink into a burger – envious and hungry. But sometimes to write well, as to live well, less is more, deprivation leads to abundance, and quitting an addiction, even one as wholesome as reading or as prevalent as Facebook, can untether a blocked mind.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoir. Links to her work can be found at gilalyons.com