I’ve started the year with quotes about the importance of writing, to the individual and to our world. Keep on doing your creative work, even if it’s only 5 minutes a day. You need to do it; we need you to do it.
“We do not write because we must; we always have a choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life. With words we experience our deepest understandings of what it means to be intimate. We communicate to connect, to know community.”
― bell hooks (American author, 1952-2021), Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work (1999)
This is the time of year when many people plan to start a book or a story or a screenplay, some for the umptieth time, some for the first. It’s also the time of year when resolve flags and we think “what was I thinking, imagining I could do this?”
So I want to revisit one common piece of advice, “write every day.” In fact, some people say that’s a rule, maybe even the only rule.
It’s good advice. I certainly heard it when I was starting, twenty-five years ago. (Hand to forehead.) But it didn’t fit my life back then, and it might not fit yours. Let me tell you this: Consistency is what counts, even more than the length of your writing sessions.
I was a single woman lawyer, newly divorced, working in a small litigation firm about a 35 mile drive from home each way. We were handling cases bigger firms wouldn’t touch, which meant long hours and late nights. The internet was on the horizon, but still a ways off, so communication and research required time in the office and our law library. Laptops were just emerging – I didn’t have one – so writing, whether for the firm or myself, meant sitting at a desk. During one stretch, I was able to take Fridays off, and that’s when I wrote. The rest of the week, I might be able to jot down a few notes or read craft books and magazines, but I didn’t have the mental energy to write. On those Fridays, though, I made my coffee, went to my home office, and turned on the computer. Switched on the desk lamp. (I still have it – the one in the picture, with the green shade.) My three dogs loved spending the day on my office floor, taking a break or two for a walk. (The cat didn’t care.) But most importantly, my muse – my creative drive – always joined us. It was as if she knew that when I showed up, she needed to be ready.
We wrote an entire manuscript that way, my border collies and me, on Fridays and the occasional Saturday morning. Then we wrote a second, and a third. They didn’t get published, but they got me an agent and a good amount of editorial interest. They were my practice novels, not just because I was trying out my skills, trying on the craft, but because I was developing my writing practice.
It was that writing practice – that consistent showing up, ready to work – that eventually got me to the point of thirteen published books, with two more novels coming out this year. When I’ve let that consistency waver, the work has wobbled, and so has my confidence and sense of myself.
Merriam-Webster’s defines practice as “1 a: CARRY OUT; APPLY b: to do or perform often, customarily or habitually c: to be professionally engaged in 2 a: to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient b: to train by repeated exercises”
There you have it. Fifteen minutes a day with your lunch in hand. An hour every morning if you’re bent that way. Fridays. Whatever it is, do it “customarily, habitually” “to become proficient. Don’t go more than a week between sessions – I am not sure a muse, no matter how loyal, can keep track of every other Thursday afternoon or the first Saturday of the month. After all, they need to “perform or work at repeatedly,” just like us.
Do what you can, when you can, as often as you can. May the muse be with you.
“Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas. Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments. One of the best paths to sharper thinking is frequent writing.”
“If you are going to bring something new into your world this year, find the field you will marry, as the poet marries language, as the artist marries color and texture, as the chef marries taste and aroma, as the swimmer marries the water.”
“Writers depend on ideas. Whether we’re planners or pantsers, every sentence, paragraph, and scene embodies an idea. It’s inevitable that at some point, you simply will not know what happens next. You’ll be stuck and forced to brainstorm.”
That’s the opening paragraph of my article, “What Happens Next? 9 tried-and-true brainstorming strategies for fiction writers” in the February 2022 issue of The Writer, available now. I hope you’ll take a look and try some of my suggestions, worked out through my own experience, research into creativity, and conversations with other writers.
(And lest you think the subtitle a bit cliched, I promise you, I didn’t write it!)
On another topic, are you Team Prologue or Team Just Start the First Chapter? In this blog post, To Prologue or Not to Prologue, at Suite T, the Southern Writers blog, I discuss the uses and abuses of the prologue and give examples from crime fiction and other novels.
“Poetry can hold contradictions, can hold grief that’s too heavy to bear, can hold questions, usually by asking more questions. I don’t know that poetry answers anything, but it certainly makes a place for the unanswerable to live in a way that can be even beautiful and satisfactory. … “I’ve always seen poets as truth tellers. We have an obligation to speak of what we see. Even if the truth is difficult to bear for others or for us, it’s important. That’s why you always see poets at the forefront or somewhere near any social rights, social justice movement. You’ll find the poet speaking out because that’s what that’s part of the charge of being a poet.”
Whether you make New Year’s resolutions, set goals, or eschew the whole idea, I am confident that you have hopes and dreams for the year to come. And if you’re reading this — first, thank you, and second, there’s a good chance you are following your creative urges, through writing, painting, gardening, cooking, or some other form of creative work and communication. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to think about what you’d like to accomplish artistically in the coming year. I’m not talking solely about manuscripts written or paintings completed, though I do find it useful to line out specific projects I plan to give my attention to, always subject to change. What I hope you’ll focus on for just a bit is what your creativity means to you and how you can best fulfill it. It’s an interior process, a spiritual one for many of us, part of our purpose in being in this world. It doesn’t require galleries or stages or publishers or sales to be important, even necessary.
As Joseph Campbell said, in what I’ve often called my personal motto, “Never underestimate the value to the Universe of the fully realized life.”
May your creative journey in this coming year bring you peace, joy, and personal fulfillment. May it light the dark corners and feed your spirit. Only then can it shed light for the rest of us or feed our spirits. I look forward to continuing on this journey together.