I was recently asked about what has worked for me in building a regular writing practice. So I’ve pulled together some of the components of my writing practice that have been most useful in becoming steadier on my feet – as it turns out, not only in writing but in other aspects of my life too. It’s all connected.
Community: Probably the single most compelling thing I’ve done to get from A to B — from struggling to write three times a week for 5-10 minutes at a time to actually writing (nearly) every day — was to sign up for a contemplative writing program with Miriam Hall through Shambhala online. Our group bonded so tightly that we asked her to continue leading us privately, and we’ve been doing that for nearly a year. This has been my anchor. Everything else follows. Starting with …
Accountability: I make a commitment out loud and in writing when I meet with my group. I’ve also recently upped the ante and joined an online accountability group on facebook (find info about it here). Case in point: I’ve been struggling not just to get a steady writing practice but also to get myself to sit in front of the computer and post things to this blog. I’d keep approach-avoiding it. I can’t remember how many times I’d say, “this week I’m posting,” but in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking, “nah, why would this week be any different – I don’t actually really believe I can do it – do I?” But a few weeks ago, I said to my group out loud, “I will continue to commit to posting once a week on Thursdays until I finally fucking do it.” Then that commitment got written down, and then Wednesday night I wrote “POST!” in big red letters on stick-um and stuck it on my screen where I’d see it immediately on Thursday morning, and where I’d have to physically move it if I wanted to use the computer. That was six weeks ago. I’ve posted every week since then.
What works for me may not work for you: I did a lot of experimenting before I found a pattern that works for me. And you will have to do the same: do what works for you. Your practice won’t be the same as my practice or anybody else’s practice. The way I got it working was to make a commitment for a short time — at first, no more than a week at a time — and then to just notice what happened. Did I meet my commitment? No? What happened? Did I overcommit? Did life get in the way? Did life really get in the way or did I have some choice in the matter? What will I commit to next week and what might I do differently? P.S. What works this week may not work next week. This is infuriating, and it drives me crazy. Which brings me to…
It’s okay to skip a day: Just like with meditation practice, there are days when my mind balks and finds all kinds of reasons not to do writing practice. So when I was figuring out what worked, I would just ease back on my commitment for the following week. Part of my practice now actually includes days off — and they’re hardly ever planned. They’re most often days when I’ve found myself bouncing from one thing to another and putting off writing all day, till suddenly it’s bedtime and I’m “too tired” to write for 10 minutes and where did the day go anyway? I find personally that when I write first thing in the morning — just a 10-minute “where I am now” journal entry, right after a 10-minute morning sit — my day goes much better. If I don’t do it first, I feel like I’m trying to catch up all day. But if that doesn’t happen, I just notice, acknowledge, move on. Tomorrow is another day.
Using a prompt can help: Part of my practice includes writing from a prompt, as we do in the class. Coming up with a good prompt can be a challenge, so I’ve kept all the “recall feedback” I’ve written down since I started doing this. I have an amazing collection of phrases now, any of which would be a fine prompt. You can even use the same prompt on different days, and find you come up with something different every time. Here’s a list of prompts to get you started. (P.S. None of these are from my collection. I know they’re not identifiable, but I’m super-conscious of confidentiality.)
Reading definitely helps: Part of my practice also includes reading. Someone in the class mentioned reading as part of their practice too, and I find it not only a great thing to do but necessary to my own writing process — how can I write if I don’t read? So I try to soak myself in good writing. I’ve also found myself reading from a “writerly” perspective now — as in, I’m starting to pay attention to how writers do things — how they describe sensations in the body and how they describe weather; how they construct dialogue; how they get the characters from one scene to another. In non-fiction, there are parallels — how do they begin and end a chapter, how do they decide what’s important. It’s often not even conscious. But it’s a big shift for me, reading to absorb rather than reading as a critic, which was my academic background.
Kindness, gentle persistence, trust: Saving the best for last, here is the core of everything. I must be kind to myself, or absolutely nothing happens. My writing comes out cramped and, well, just sad. There’s a difference between creating a little pressure cooker by setting a timer that helps me to to focus and persist where I might otherwise give up and creating a BIG pressure cooker with impossible deadlines that cause me to freak out and freeze. No matter how hard I am on myself, being hard on myself doesn’t help me. It just makes my creative self cringe and hide. She needs to be coaxed, not beaten over the head. Only kindness allows me to trust myself. If I don’t meet a deadline and I beat myself up about it, how is my creative self supposed to trust me enough to ever come out again? So the biggest lesson about establishing a steady writing practice was how to be truly gentle with myself without just letting myself off the hook. What worked for establishing a steady meditation practice has also been working for writing practice: not too tight, not too loose. (A great resource is a meditation/dharma talk by Susan Piver that I found in my inbox just as I was writing this post. You can find it here: https://susanpiver.com/video/11-20-17/)
Now, I’d love to hear from you. What sounds familiar? What strategies work for you? What will you try?