The Write Time: 6 Strategies to Make Your Writing Schedule Sacred

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The truth is chilling: Only a small percentage of those who graduate from MFA writing programs actually keep writing. Many give up their creative pursuits immediately after getting their diploma. Others write for a few years, but are so bruised by repeated rejection that they abandon the dream. If these are the people who devoted tens of thousands of dollars, along with a half-dozen years of school, to writing—what sort of odds does that give the rest of the writing community?

Writing regularly is hard; the blank page is intimidating. How can we keep ourselves writing each day? How can we make sure that the time we've set aside to write remains sacred? Here are a few strategies I've developed over the years.

Make Your Writing Time Legitimate

Writing becomes a vital nutrient in our social ecosystems. Your work matters, so stop treating it as "fake."

It's easy to say that your writing is the optional part of your life. It must be kicked to the curb when "real" tasks, like cleaning the kitchen or finishing your TPS reports, come up.

The problem is that tasks tend to expand to fill the time available for them. The "real" work is the work that gets done. The gym gets cut out and we get fat. Writing gets cut out and we come to realize that we haven't written a single sentence in a creative piece for weeks, months, or even years.

Your writing counts. It's an important part of who you are. Beyond that, it's an important part of human culture. Writing becomes a vital nutrient in our social ecosystems. Your work matters, so stop treating it as "fake." Schedule it in the same way you schedule appointments and work tasks.

Invest in Your Writing Ritual

In my article on how you can fall in love with writing again, I discuss the importance of ritualizing your writing. My own ritual is to make myself a cup of tea, load up an instrumental soundtrack, then pull up my current project. By that point, my brain has comfortably tuned itself in for the writing it anticipates.

What I encourage is developing your own rituals that involve things that you already enjoy. From there, a simple investment in your rituals can have a profound impact. It doesn't matter that no one actually needs 16 different flavors of tea (my current total): Buying new flavors is how I get myself excited about the ritual surrounding my writing. Likewise, I regularly invest in instrumental soundtracks (most recently work by Lindsey Stirling) because it makes me excited to get going.

Unplug Your Distractions

I discuss this topic extensively in my article on how disconnecting can help us become more productive writers. I've been using Cold Turkey, and honestly, I've been stunned by how much more productive I am. Since I can block off the sites I know will wind up distracting me, I can keep my research resources but seal off my productivity leaks.

But it's not just about the internet. Turn off your cell phone. Close your door. If you're working in a home office and have kids or a spouse to distract you, talk to them about how important it is that you devote time to writing—and put up a sign that lets your family know it's your writing hour.

Start a War

Peer pressure is a way to adopt the role of writer in social settings that reaffirm this portion of your identity.

Each year in November, participants in NaNoWriMo try to draft a full novel in one month. To get themselves to continue working, they use peer pressure. The fact that you have a profile that displays your current word count on the NaNo site is only one factor. Many NaNo writers get together for "write-ins," while others take advantage of virtual space by scheduling a time to participate in live chat sessions.

The most effective tool in those chat sessions is "word wars." These wars start at regular intervals and have participants writing as much as they can during a specified duration. It becomes a collective, competitive free-write.

You can see similar sorts of peer pressure with workshopping groups. Simply knowing that you're going to be sharing your work, and that there's a group of people who will be disappointed if you fall short, makes it easier to dive into the craft.

By getting connected with a community of writers that you report to regularly, who have an expectation that you will produce, and who you can "compete" with, you're far more likely to do the actual work. This sort of peer pressure is a way to adopt the role of writer in social settings that reaffirm this portion of your identity.

Create a Writing Space

I have an ergonomic keyboard, a chair with extra lumbar support, audiophilic speakers, a clean desk, and organized drawers. My walls have humorous posters about commonly misspelled words, how to use semicolons, and when to use i.e. or e.g. in a sentence. I do this because I want to make myself comfortable, but also because I want to remind myself that writing is what this space is for.

Everyone works well in a different environment. Whatever it is that keeps you going, and however much you have available to invest, the important thing here is spending time and effort to improve your writing space—and ensuring that it really is "writing space" for you. By investing in the elements of your space that help you write more comfortably, you're making your writing feel more valuable by taking advantage of justification bias: "If I invested in it, it must be valuable!"

"Where there's a will..."

If you want to be a writer, the sole requirement is that you write.

There are people who will tell you that all you need to be a writer is the will to write. There are those who say that real writers could write anywhere, at any time, just because it's so much a part of who they are. Charles Bukowski is famed for claiming that a real writer doesn't need anything at all. He tells writers, "if you have to sit there and rewrite it again and again, don't do it." Says that, "unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it."

Charles Bukowski published his first novel when he was nearly fifty. He spent far more years not writing than actually doing the work. He was a desperate alcoholic. And this is the guy we think has it figured out when it comes to staying productive as a writer? Bukowski is an impressive craftsman, but the absolutist notion that writing is all about "drive" leads to the sort of self-sabotage we witness in Bukowski's multi-decade "breaks" from his craft.

If you want to be a writer, the sole requirement is that you write. And if you want to write, you have to create an environment and set of habits that make writing feel like the natural thing to do—not requiring a deluge of willpower and drive. Anything that requires that sort of psychic exertion can't be done every day, and real writing isn't the sort that happens in tidal-wave crashes a few times a year. Real writing is found in the day-in, day-out practice of a craft we can come to love in the same way we love a home, a spouse, or even our own familiar bones.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

JC Piech's picture
JC Piech from England is reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest March 20, 2013 - 8:14am

Great article. There's some really helpful tips here, thanks!

I think I disagree with your point here though:

 

If these are the people who devoted tens of thousands of dollars, along with a half-dozen years of school, to writing—what sort of odds does that give the rest of the writing community?

I think writers who haven't been to college often have to work much harder. The number of writing staff jobs I've wanted to apply for, only to find out they only want applications from graduates. I've been writing for 11 years, but that doesn't seem to count for as much. So writers without the privilege of college education are probably more likely to get over themselves and deal with the bruises to their egos from rejections. They're writing because they have to prove that they're good, they can't just say 'Oh, I've got a diploma in whatever'. 

That's a generalisation of course, but that's my take on it.

dufrescm's picture
dufrescm from Wisconsin is reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep March 20, 2013 - 9:27am

I love the "Start a War" section, and I totally agree. But you forgot to mention LR's WAR (in the forums)!  I participated in this past WAR2, and made it to the final 8, and I have never been so productive in my life! It forced me to produce a quality story every two weeks (every week for the people in the Pit bracket). It was FANTASTIC!  For people who read this column but aren't involved in the forums or the workshops - keep your eyes open for the next WAR. It's great!

Larry Nocella's picture
Larry Nocella from USA is reading Loser's Memorial by Larry Nocella March 20, 2013 - 11:32am

Great ideas and right on time for what I needed in my world. Thanks and all the best!

Andrea Badgley's picture
Andrea Badgley from Blacksburg, VA is reading I am about to abandon The Book Thief March 20, 2013 - 12:20pm

"If you want to be a writer, the sole requirement is that you write."  I don't think I can read this enough times.  After reading essays on LitReactor, and Brevity, The Rumpus, and Salon, I always feel like such a poser, thinking "God, I'll never get to that point."  But then I read those words again, "If you want to be a writer, then write," and I am fortified.  Thank you.

lisakay's picture
lisakay from MI is reading The Rich and the Rest of Us and Funny Times March 20, 2013 - 2:36pm

Rob, the only thing I disagree with is your statement about the tea.  Yes, if you're a tea drinker, you need at least 16 flavors.  Have you tried rooibos?

 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks March 21, 2013 - 2:51pm

A great "word war" style thing is Write Club on Twitter. Every Friday night, people get together, write in thirty minute sprints, and report their totals during the 10-15 minute breaks. I set Cold Turkey for the four hours I participate, use Write or Die for my sprints (you can set a time and a word count goal on there, which is fantastic!) and love reporting in my totals and seeing how much it grows.

To get involved, just follow @FriNightWrites and they announce the sprints. It's from 10pm-2am EST, and also an early-afternoon to evening set by the UK club, announcing from the same Twitter.

@INukeYou does stat reporting for us, and it's fucking great -- he relates the total amount of words written by every member together, and the first week I participated, it broke 50k, and now it's almost consistently 100k at LEAST every night.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books March 23, 2013 - 6:24pm

@JC: It's definitely more complex than my statement indicates. Completing an MFA doesn't make you a more committed writer, and it can put you in a position where you're burnt out and can rest into your comfy job. In that regard, maybe an MFA acts against writers. However, it also serves as a way of vetting the writing community. When looking at your "average writer," it's hard to say how committed they are to their craft. Someone who has completed an MFA has, at a minimum, invested those seven years and $100k+ in tuition and living expenses.

So, I don't know. Are those who completed an MFA really more dedicated than everyone else? Or are they just the most financially equipped, most hungry for an MFA-enabled job, and most inducted into the social environment of the ivory tower? There are legitimate arguments to be made against seeing an MFA as a real signifier of commitment. However, it is tangible proof of investing in the craft, and in that regard does seem like a sub-section of the writing community that can be looked to when we want to evaluate "serious writers."

 

@dufrescm: I didn't actually know LR had one going on! That's fantastic. I look forward to participating.

 

@Larry: You're welcome.

 

@Andrea: I'm glad that motivated you. In case it wasn't already clear, I take serious issue with those who follow the Bukowskian way of thinking. A writer is not a prophet, not a mythical creature, not an avatar of some rare deity; a writer is someone who writes. End of story.

There's a poem (can't seem to track down the author or title :/) that says if the athletic community was like the writing community, the institutions would be working hard to tear down all the playground baseball diamonds and tear up every park that's used to play football.  The elitists among us can be terribly short-sighted. To put "writing" up on a pedestal, accessible only by the select few, then the primary result of their elevation is to prevent many great writers from growing into their potential.

 

@Lisa: In fact, I have some rooibos chai on my shelf right now. I often mix it with my white chai. It makes for an excellent cup.

 

@Courtney: Brilliant. Good to know. I've followed and look forward to participating.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 24, 2013 - 10:31am

Regarding writing spaces: I always wrote on my couch, sitting beside my husband, at night. He recently cleared off the desk in our room for me, though. We put up a tack board on which hang funny pictures drawn by my kiddo, and the cover of my first novel. Also, lots of zombies and action figures (I'm a fidgety thinker). I am more productive here than anywhere, truth be told...just don't tell him that. Sometimes I do still like my couch-writing time. 

 

Point being....like you said, make your writing space YOURS, and you'd be amazed at how much it helps. :D

 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books June 9, 2013 - 9:55pm

@Leah: I still like writing in coffee shops, on couches, while cuddling (that's a skill worth mastering!), or in a variety of other less productive environments. There's no need to restrict those experiences. They offer worthwhile benefits. It's just ... productivity isn't one of them. Y'know?

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle April 2, 2013 - 4:55pm

Great article and helpful tips in the comment thread. Thanks, guys!

Shannon Barber's picture
Shannon Barber from Seattle is reading Paradoxia: A Predators Diary by Lydia Lunch April 8, 2013 - 1:57pm

The one big thing that helped me was making a ritual. I have a very long work day/commute but I've found that since I restrict myself to certain hours I get way more done in the long run. I still write catch as catch can while at work or on the bus etc but that carving out of hours to work has been pretty invaluable to me.

Dwaun Marshall's picture
Dwaun Marshall December 20, 2014 - 4:11pm

I will be finding time to write, in the morning, at the start of 12-midnight some days. That's just a way for me ton curve around the daily grind.