Creating a Writing Habit that Works: Muses, Magic and Faith
Any writer who has ever had to stare down the blank page knows that it is a frightening experience. There is always the possibility that the words won’t come; that there is no story to be told. Throw in a busy life with a day job, kids or whatever else you might do and it makes for tough times when trying to establish a writing routine.
What some writers might not realize is that they are in good company. Everyone from Margaret Atwood to David Foster Wallace has had some difficulty establishing a routine. Some authors might choose to believe that their creative genius stems from an invisible muse or that it is best to wait for inspiration to strike, but in reality, cultivating a strong writing habit is the best way to find success. How, then, do writers develop a solid routine if not with the help of a muse?
Give Yourself the Time of Day
A lot of writing books talk about picking a static writing schedule and sticking to it, rather than waiting for “the muse” to strike. While it is true that writers who write seriously give themselves office hours, it is equally important to consider which hours work best for your own lifestyle. Over time, writers develop their own schedules and habits, but what matters most is the act of writing that makes you a success. Whether that means writing from 10 PM to 3 AM like Michael Chabon, or from 4 AM to 7 AM like Toni Morrison, setting up a schedule means taking your writing seriously. Of course, learning to be flexible and writing whenever there is a spare moment in the day can also be a great way to keep writing daily.
In Naming the World, Bret Anthony Johnston writes: “I don’t believe in talent. Nor do I put faith in the idea of inspiration, the muse, or the muse’s shadowy and malicious twin, writer’s block. …It’s a calling, an act of courage, and act of faith.”
The myth of the muse stems from the notion that writers are not fully responsible for the work that is created. Certainly it is easier to blame an invisible muse if a draft doesn’t seem good enough. Of course, if a writer puts all of his or her faith in the muse, it is a whole lot easier to justify not writing at all when there is no inspiration. Choosing to sit down at the writing desk each day with whatever time we have is an act of faith in our writing, and isn’t faith a kind of magic?
Set Achievable Goals
Starting small is an excellent way to build up confidence and accomplish a big goal. Writing a novel in scenes over a number of months can be extremely effective, especially when there is a local writing group who might hold you accountable. Using daily story starters such as Sarah Selecky’s ten-minute writing prompts or free-writing for a set amount of time is good practice for essential writing skills, but it also provides opportunities to stumble across those moments of “genius”.
Some authors, such as Samuel Archibald, think constantly about their stories until they have a spare moment to write. Others carry around notebooks to write down ideas as they come. Even Ernest Hemingway kept a log book in his office where he could record how many pages he had written each day. How best to set goals and keep track of them varies depending on the writer.
The more often one writes, the less pressure there is to write something “brilliant”. It is amazing how easy it can be to sit down at the writing desk when the pressure to create the next masterpiece has been lifted. Setting a daily no-pressure writing time allows the creative juices to flow more easily; this is where the “magic” happens. Creating systems for generating ideas is a good way to cultivate creativity and in turn, meet writing goals.
Don’t Forget to Have a Life
It might sound counterintuitive to creating a good writing habit, but spending time with family, meeting friends or even going for a walk can help a writer to stay on track. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to have a limited amount of time to get that writing done. Toni Morrison once commented that she “didn’t have time to whine” as a single mother with a job; she either wrote in the time she was allotted or she did not.
Stephen King wrote about his own struggles with managing his writing and home life in his memoir, On Writing. He says, “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
However one manages to find a good writing-life balance, a vital aspect of establishing a writing habit means being honest with oneself. Blocking off seven hours of solid writing time might be ideal, but not always realistic for all writers’ schedules. It is easy to get discouraged if you deny yourself all other aspects of life. Although you might get a lot of writing done, being kind to yourself and knowing when to take a break makes returning to the writing desk enjoyable as well as productive.
Be Your Own Muse
In her 2009 TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbertson discusses her own fears about writing. Namely, after her colossal success with Eat, Pray, Love, she was stuck on the idea that her best work was behind her. What she discovered was that the best way to triumph over her fears of writing “the worst book ever” was to just write. She says, “I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”
Show up and give everything to the story, whether or not it is brilliant. Don’t worry about what the muse has to offer. Great ideas emerge from scene work and explorative writing. Some might argue that this is the “muse”. Quite possibly, it is also just the fruit of hard work.
Creating a good writing routine isn’t always easy, but it is possible. As writers, we feed our muses through careful thought and time. If writing creatively is a dialogue with the wider literary community, then the best way to nourish the muse and entice it to return is to engage in those discussions and above all, show up. So. Sit down at your writing desk. Pick up your pen. Face the blank page with courage. Don’t worry. The muse is already there. Or, as Bret Anthony Johnston says, “The act of writing is itself the muse.”
Bret Anthony Johnston. Naming the World. New York: Random House. 2007.
Ellis, Samantha. “Do We Need Another Fantasy Novel? It Seems We Do.” The Guardian. 22 December, 2002. Online.
Gilbertson, Elizabeth. “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” TED talk. 2009.
Stodola, Sarah. Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. New York: Amazon Publishing. 2015.
King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner. 2000.
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