I tell students that it is the job of every writer to determine and shape your own writing practice—how often, when and for how long; where and with what tools and under what circumstances? There are many writers who offer advice about these matters, but I find it’s mostly useless, because each writer needs to figure out what works for you.
Many well-known writers will tell you that you need to write every day, and I respect and understand the powerful discipline of that daily practice. That doesn’t mean I adhere to it. Like most writers, I juggle earning a living; running a household; paying attention to my partner, friends, animal companions and family; attending to other interests and community commitments; self-care and more. There are things I do every single day—meditate, email my mother—but writing is not one of them. There have been particular books or writing projects that I did work on daily, but I can’t claim they got done faster or were any better than books for which my practice was more irregular.
Find the time of the day when your energy is best. For those who have demanding jobs, I often suggest they write first thing in the morning, when they are fresh and before other demands assert their claim on you. One novelist used to get up at 4 a.m. and write for 60-90 minutes before getting ready for work. For others, writing in the early morning would be unthinkable; they’d rather burn the midnight oil. I know parents who schedule their writing around chauffeuring their kids to and from school, game practice, the dentist and playdates. While we’d like to find the optimal time of day and write then, sometimes it’s a matter of finding any available time in a crowded week.
For How Long
I’ve heard writers claim that it’s not even worth it for them to start writing unless they have a 3- or 4- or 6-hour chunk of uninterrupted time. I would never write if I waited for that. My personal attention span is about two hours at a stretch, but I’ve also learned to work in smaller increments. It’s possible to do something even in 15-30 minutes. I once wrote the first draft of a novel in a half-hour a day. For some writers who have a lot of competing demands, shooting for smaller increments of time makes it possible to keep going with their work.
I’d rather not write at home, although I sometimes do. I feel more distracted by all the other facets of life—email and social media and the ringing telephone and my cat jumping into my lap. Other writers seem better able to insulate against those distractions. But neither do I like to write in public, except maybe on an airplane. I know other writers who love to write in coffee shops; a student at Writers At Work used to say she loved “writing out” (like eating out, but literary) but the noise level defeats my concentration.
Some writers have created perfect havens in their home—their desk, their bookshelves, their special candle, their window. I imagine that for myself sometimes, but in reality, my workspace is cluttered with the debris of other work, bills to be paid, unopened mail, unread copies of magazines I hope to get to, things to be filed. I am fortunate to have a workshop space that allows me to have writing dates there.
With What Tools
Other artists sometimes envy writers because the tools of our craft can be inexpensive and portable. Paper and pen—that’s pretty simple, right? But of course, these days one eventually needs to get it into the computer and print it out, and that starts to be more costly. However, most public libraries offer free (if time-limited) access to computers and printers. One fiction writer I know writes on his phone, and I’ve seen plenty of poets stand up at readings and read from their phones.
I have found that my practice changes depending on the book or project I am writing. Some works seem to require that I draft them first by hand, and by that, I mean in actual ink on actual paper. With other projects, it feels okay to draft directly on the computer, but I am aware that for me they are very different kinetic experiences that definitely influence the way my brain is working. The computer is a good tool for me to get ideas down, but if I am trying to woo a voice for or craft the diction of a work, that needs to be done by hand.
When I work on paper, I like to work on lined pads of recycled paper, preferable white, and with an extra-fine point Pilot pen. I need to feel like every sheet is easily disposable; a bound book or something with fancy paper just shuts me down. I’ve known writers who would only write with fountain pens, or who love those bound books, or who haven’t written anything by hand except their signature in ten years. The point is to try things and find out what works best for you.
Under What Circumstances
I know writers who listen to music while they write. I’d rather have quiet. Some like to write outdoors; that’s not my first choice. Some people say they can only write when they are in a certain kind of mood. Some write to avoid other tasks; a poet once told me, “I always write a lot of poems when I’m taking a math class.” Others turn toward those tasks for avoid writing; reports one, “My kitchen is always very clean when I am working on a book.”
My own practice is greatly assisted by proximity to other writers. For decades now I have been making writing dates, wherein another writer and I sit down to work on our individual projects. Solitude is not one of my favorite things about writing, so I appreciate the companionship a writing date offers, as well as the accountability. Also I find that in the company of another artist working on their work, the creative juices multiply exponentially. I have had some incredible breakthroughs in the middle of a writing date. But I know other writers who cherish the solitary time writing provides; nothing could be less appealing to them than having another person in the room while they work.
One poet I know likes to pair writing with exercise; she gets her energy going and then moves to her desk. I teach a workshop, “Meditate/Create,” in which we start with some warm-up stretches, move into meditation, and then turn our attention to writing. Meditation can be a good way to gather focus before a writing session.
Some writers like to start with a warm-up exercise. That might be a few minutes of “fevered writing” (spontaneous writing, writing without intention), it might be the “morning pages” recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way. It might be finding a prompt in a book or a news headline and starting with those words. It might be recopying a passage of your own work to get yourself back into the flow of that project. One novelist tells me she never ends a writing session by concluding a segment or chapter; she always likes to start the next one to give her a little boost for the next day.
When you write for a while, you begin to discover what most stimulates your creativity. It’s part of your job to figure that out, and then see how you can give yourself the most ideal circumstances possible in which to do your work.
Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.