Making Habits

I’m mucking out old files. This includes old stories, really bad poems, and sheafs of paper from writing workshops. A little over six years ago I spent my evenings and weekends enmeshed in writing in some form – writing stories, writing reviews of other novice’s stories.

In a short version of things I’ve written before: six years ago I deliberately chose to set creative writing aside to go back to school, but then I also had a baby, making summers just as fraught and exhausting as fall-winter-spring, despite the lack of required reading and academic writing. All and any time to write was sucked up under the heading “Life”. He’s bigger now, not so all-consuming, yet – as you’ve seen – I still struggle to write. In the school semester I’m just too busy. Now, in summer, I still am not writing in the way that I used to. I seem to be out of the habit.

(Not that I’m losing spark or ignoring writing. I have stories and poems developing – eventually I will finish them. I wrote a post about my submissions process. It’s finished; you will never read it. Be grateful.)

Cleaning out my old files leads me, of course, to reviewing all the things I did in the years before my writing time became focused and efficient1. I thought I’d share the ways I’ve approached writing over the years, things that once helped me define and develop my habits. These are by no means all the ways to establish writing habits, simply the ones I’ve done, successfully and not.

Project-based. Some writers work best when they take the project they are interested in and break it down in stages to work on. For a novel, this might be spending week 1 outlining, week 2 writing character interviews/spec sheets, week X-X drafting, etc. Essentially, each writing session begins and ends with a very specific task that relates to the project. I’ve done this, but for me it’s really only effective on academic writing. (And even there I skip outlining.) In creative work I’ve learned I’m a drafter. I can do all the character development pages in the world, but when I sit down to write the story is where I learn who the characters are and what they want.

Spontaneous. The when inspiration hits then write method. It’s fun, exciting, and – to be honest – completely unhelpful with instilling a writing habit. Inspiration sputters out as quick as it ignites. Rather like an inexpertly lit campfire, isn’t it? I’ve tried this method, of course; but find I want to be the expert, the one who keeps the flames going. I don’t tell inspiration to take flaming lessons, but do tell it to have patience.

Timed write. That’s truthfully how this post began.2 The last post I wrote was by the bits-n-pieces method, which started spontaneous then became forced. Again, you will never read that one and you are happier for it.
Timed write goes a couple ways. It can be a short, intense writing session in which you set a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Anything. Everything. Quickly. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the internal editor and loosen up the creative unconscious. Yet I tend to use it more along the in-class essay way. I take myself away from home, pick a topic, set a chunk of time—½ hour or an hour—and write about that topic. Even if the writing’s not terribly focused at first, I have long enough to free-write until I find the heart of the topic. At the end of the chunk of time, I type it into my computer (if I was writing on notebook paper) and edit down to the important points. When it comes to short stories, this method has been doing jack for me

“Morning pages.” I don’t remember which writer advanced this, though one of our editors may remember. Essentially, it’s a first-thing in the writing period technique in which the writer sets down everything and anything that comes to mind for 3 pages. Like timed write, it’s a way to clear out the mental clutter in order to allow the creative subconscious room to stretch. The sweet thing about it is you can do this while a kid is running around the house and jumping on you. It might be a bit less effective that way though.

Writing classes. I work well – really well – with a deadline. I found myself most productive when I took a writing class that required three stories in three months. Of course, I had time to write three of my own and review many other stories from classmates. But also as a class, the time needed to do the work was now psychologically just as important and the time needed to do the dishes / laundry, etc.

What would you add? What have you tried, successfully or not?


1meaning that when I sat down to write, I wrote; I made progress on the project I intended to make progress on; I completed drafts. In no way does “focused and efficient” mean one sitting completed a draft, or that a draft was a finished piece.
2It’s been slightly less than one hour since I sat down. Technically, I could keep on writing, but all the didn’t-do’s are creeping back into my brain. Timed writes, I find, push them out for the period of time I declared I get to write. That said, it has a serious flaw in habit-building. It’s impossible to do when you don’t know if you will have ½ hour before the family wakes up. Not to mention, in my house, if I wake up at 5:30 in order to write, my son – if not both son and husband — is up and active 2 minutes after I get my thoughts in order.

3 thoughts on “Making Habits

  1. Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way is the reference you are looking for concerning the concept of Morning Pages.

    I think the best thing that has worked for me is not so much a method, but more like a mindset. I allow myself to be imperfect. I don’t try to compose the next short story or post that will dazzle audiences. That type of pressure is undeserved and unproductive. I don’t write every day of the week, but I try to do so at least five times a week. This gives me the latitude for life to intervene when necessary.

    Personally, I have begun to really enjoy the short story genre, using writing prompts to help stimulate my mind in new directions. Except, I don’t read a prompt and begin writing right away. I read the prompt and let my imagination chew on it for a little while before putting words on a page.

    There are probably as many ways to be successful with one’s writing practice as there are writers in the world. We are all unique and have our own way of creating the magic that flows out of our imagination and on to the page. Thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas and best wishes for an inspired day filled with creativity 😉

  2. Jessica, I think the best way to be an efficient writer is to know yourself, and you clearly do.

    The most intense period I ever had for writing was the space between growing kids – my sons became independent – and declining parents – my parents became dependent. I won’t detail this, but we sandwich fillers understand. As for what does work for me: having time, stealing time, making time, using time effectively. If I’m in front of my computer, I can write and make it worthwhile. It is something I treasure and a skill I work to perfect. As I can tell, you do too.

  3. Dave & Sharon — so true. We need to know ourselves as writers in order to make writing a habit and use our time, however limited, as effectively as possible. Thanks for reading and sharing your ways.

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