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