When and Why to Break Your Routine

Trip to Siesta Key, Florida 2014
Trip to Siesta Key, Florida 2014

Routine is important. All the great writers say so. “Write every day” is perhaps the most common piece of writing advice given by writers to other writers, and I trust this advice. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird,

You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. … But you cannot will this to h

appen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started (6-7).

The simple truth is, writing is hard, but making it a part of your everyday routine makes it easier. Sort of.

So why would you ever break from this routine?

For some people, maybe you never should. I, on the other hand, have always been a proponent of the old adage, “everything in moderation.” Even in my writing life, and even with the things I’m passionate about. Why? Let me share with you my biggest secret: I’m not someone who enjoys being busy.

I heard you gasp. But busy-ness is the cornerstone of our society! I feel slothful just mentioning my aversion to being busy. So imagine my relief when I read Tim Kreider’s piece on “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” As he says,

The space and idleness that quietness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration–it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Maybe this is all just my big excuse for not blogging while on vacation in Florida last week. But you know what? I’m gonna go with it. My week on the beach gave me the space I needed to breathe in life, to read some good books, and to get my mind back in a place where I can do good work.

On the beach last week
On the beach last week

Finding Your Rhythm: First, Throw Grammar Out the Window

I have a friend who’s a drummer. Everywhere we go, he’s always tapping out a rhythm–on the steering wheel in his truck, on the table of a pizza joint, on the inside of my palm as we walk down the street. Rhythm is a part of his everyday life; he feels it in everything he does, and that’s what makes him a great musician and songwriter.

But rhythm isn’t only important in songwriting–all writing is made up of syllables and stresses, long and short sounds, pauses and flow. I know I’ve read emails from coworkers which make me feel like a wooden soldier marching along, stiff-legged and jerky, because the words are strung together so haphazardly. Of course, it might be you’re trying to make the reader feel like they’re a passenger in a car driven by a brake-happy old lady. The point is to be aware of the rhythm your words create. You’re creating a mood for the reader, whether you’re aware of it or not, based on how your writing carries them along.

I think one of the hangups which can cause writers to break their flow and rhythm is feeling the need to stick closely to grammar rules. Not splitting infinitives, for example. Who made that rule? Why does it matter? If your meaning is understood, isn’t the language doing its job–communicating ideas to others?

I have to admit, I can be a stickler for grammar at times. No one wants to wade through a mess of grammar mistakes when they’re reading. The key, I think, is to understand grammar rules first, and then to not be afraid to break them when needed–whether for the sake of meaning, flow, rhythm, or story. (See what I did there? Splitting that infinitive? Heck yeah I did it.)

So, go study up on your grammar–then throw it all out the window and write something with rhythm.

Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?

This summer, I decided it was time to re-read Harry Potter. I just finished the 7th and final book yesterday, and while reading, I learned something–something which disturbed me at first. Now, I’ve read the HP series many, many times before–I think this was only my third time to read the final book, but I’m sure I’ve read the first few books at least 8+ times, mainly because of my slightly obsessive tendency to re-read the entire series every time a new book came out. But this last time through, I was (I like to think) a much more mature writer, and it shocked and saddened me that I didn’t find JKR’s writing as incredibly flawless as I used to believe it was. I felt a bit like Harry himself realizing that the people he so admired–his dad, Sirius, Dumbledore–are human after all.

HPend

Despite my small misgivings about some of the writing, I still consumed those books voraciously. After finishing the seventh book, I felt the same sense of loss which I had felt after reading it the first time–the loss you feel when you put down a good book and wish it didn’t have to end. J.K. Rowling is not an impeccable writer. But she is a superb storyteller. And though the two are connected, they are not the same.

It is possible to write well without telling a story. We’ve all read articles or stories or even long Facebook posts which are well-written from a technical standpoint, but which leave us wondering–what’s your point? Where is the narrative? What story are you trying to get across here?

The fact is, our everyday lives are full of stories. It’s how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. People who are bad at telling jokes are usually bad because they aren’t natural storytellers–they jumble the components together and don’t fully understand the need for suspense or timing. Storytellers, on the other hand, can feel the pulse of a story; they understand its rhythm, the way it rises and falls and builds towards something.

Great writing, a sense of language and structure, deepens and strengthens a great story–but a great story can also get pretty far on its own, I think. What about you? Have you read great stories which weren’t written particularly well, or read great writing which didn’t tell a story?

The Tools of the Trade

Like any good artist, a writer has a set of tools for creating. And, like artists, writers’ preferences for said tools vary greatly person to person. I’ve come to realize lately just how important my writing tools are to helping me write. I don’t just mean the literal act of translating thoughts into the written word–though they are, of course, essential for doing just that. But my choice of writing tools can help me jump that first hurdle of actually wanting to sit down to write, which in itself is my own biggest obstacle to writing. Once I start writing, I’m fine–it’s that initial push, putting that first word down, that is the real struggle.

So, tools. While in Portland, Oregon visiting friends this summer, we stopped off at the iconic Powell’s Books, a bookstore the size of a city block where, I think, most writers and readers could easily spend hours (days, weeks…) just browsing the shelves. While there, I decided to pick up a journal, both as a memento from the trip and because I’ve been meaning to start journaling daily again. I found a beautiful little journal with a leather cover and fell in love:

owl journal

(I love owls, so the recent fad of everything-owl has left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s super easy to find cute stuff featuring owls. On the other hand, it’s not particularly unique. Oh, well.)

I love everything about this journal–from the look of the cover to the feel of the paper. And, bonus, the leather cover is removable, so when I fill up this journal I can just swap it out for another.

Now that I had a journal I loved, I needed a good pen. (I typically prefer pens to pencils when writing.) I really like this Pilot Precise V5 which I picked up who-knows-where.

photo (8)

Because I love the physical act of writing in this journal now, I’ve found it much easier to convince myself to write in it daily. I’m still looking for a website or piece of software which makes writing on the computer just as enticing. Any suggestions?

 

 

Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Major in Creative Writing as a Writer

Studying abroad in Greece as an undergrad history & anthro major
Studying abroad in Greece as an undergrad history & anthro major

Despite the fact that I had always had a passion for writing, I didn’t major in creative writing as an undergraduate. At the time, my reasons for not choosing creative writing as a major were of the practical sort–I was trying to avoid the inevitable question of “What are you going to do with that?”

Instead, I double-majored in anthropology and history with an intent of going into archaeology. By the time I graduated, though, I had come full-circle to realize that, though I loved those subjects deeply, I didn’t necessarily want to practice them in a career. Mainly, I didn’t like doing the kind of writing that historians and archaeologists do.

As a graduate student, I ended up in an English M.A. program, and took my first-ever creative writing courses. It was an almost spiritual relief to write for those courses. No more footnotes, citations, carefully-structured arguments with supporting statements–unless I wanted those, of course. But I didn’t. I wanted to write about the world that I saw, and the worlds that others saw. I wanted to dive into new characters and walk around in their shoes and look at things through their eyes. I wanted to play with language, to throw words up in the air and watch them fall down onto the page like autumn leaves.

Creative writing was a welcome change of direction from the academic writing I had been doing for so long. But I’m glad that I did that academic writing first. I’m glad I didn’t major in creative writing as an undergrad.

Why?

Because my history and anthropology courses have given me something to write about. They provided me with new perspectives and new knowledge. They provided me with methods for research and analysis. Had I majored in creative writing, perhaps I would be a better wordsmith. But, ultimately, I don’t think my writing would be as good–simply because all I would have to write about (besides my own experiences) would be writing itself.

This is not to say you shouldn’t major in creative writing. It’s more to say–explore the world around you. Have interests outside of writing, and pursue those interests. They will only make you a better writer.

What do you think? Did you major in creative writing, or another subject?

For the Love of Flash

I am a novel girl. I love–and often need–to get lost in a narrative. Cathy Day, whom I took two courses with for my M.A., refers to this as the continuous fictional dream.  It’s that feeling you get when  you really, truly, fall into a book. When the characters become kindred spirits. When you reach the last page and look up with glazed eyes and wonder–what now? How do I go on living my life after that?

So, naturally, when I began taking creative writing courses during my Master’s program, I assumed I would be drawn to long-form fiction. My past writing had always been attempts at novels. Keyword–attempts. I never got much past the first thirty pages or so before losing steam. Life got in the way, or doubt crept into the margins, or something. For whatever reason, I would toss aside the notebook or stop opening the Word document where that little infant novel resided. Hmm–maybe I shouldn’t have kids.

After all those failed attempts at long form writing, I fell into a summer course centered around flash. Every week for five weeks we had to write a piece which could not exceed 750 words. Wait, this is a thing? Mind=blown.

Flash is a bit like poetry. I’ve never considered myself a poet, but after writing in the flash form, I definitely started to appreciate the poet’s work more. Working on something that small, you really get to dig into the language. For me, the process goes like this:

1. Carve out this huge shapeless chunk of rough stone. Don’t worry about the shape.

2. Start chiseling. Cut away the excess. Identify the meat of the story, the kernel you want to express, and remove everything else.

3. Cut the facets. You’re still cutting, trimming away all the extra bits, but now you’re doing it with a laser instead of a pickaxe.

4. Polish. Rub down the edges and hold it to the light. That kernel of truth should shine through every side as it turns.

I think I may return to long form writing eventually, but for now, flash is just so… shiny. How do you write? Long or short? Has it changed for you?

Writing Quiet

It’s been pretty well-discussed that waiting for the muse to hit you is not the best way to be a productive writer. When we create the time and space to write, writing happens. But I’ve found that just blocking off a two-hour window on my calendar isn’t necessarily the same thing.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to have my most interesting, reflective, and exciting flashes of creative thought when I’m in solitude. In my car driving to work in the morning, in the shower on a Saturday morning, taking a walk through the woods. Solitude and quiet–true quiet–forces our awareness of ourselves to the surface. We fully realize what’s inside, what’s outside, and how our inner and outer worlds come together when we are alone. It’s a frightening and inspiring experience, to feel truly alone, and to hear nothing but the sound of nature, or of water running down the shower drain, or of tires rolling across pavement. It makes us aware of ourselves even as it takes us out of ourselves.

When I don’t carve out space and time in my schedule to truly feel alone, in solitude and quiet, I feel less creative. I lose the inclination to write, and in so doing, I lose my deepest understanding of myself. I begin to lose touch with the things that make me feel like me.

I’m inclined to say I’m not entirely alone in this feeling; in his post on “The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People,” Leo Babauta collected some quotes on the virtues of solitude from creative people. Take Einstein, for example:

“On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

This particular quote reminded me of my first week of college–my first time living in the same room with someone who wasn’t family. A few days after moving into the dorm, it was a particularly hot, sticky afternoon. I turned on the oscillating fan, flung myself on my bed, and proceeded to stare up at the ceiling–an action I didn’t think twice about. After a few minutes, my roommate was perplexed.

“What are you doing?” she asked. When I responded that I wasn’t doing anything, she scoffed.

“How can you just do nothing?”

Easily, I thought. But her words made me feel guilty, unproductive, and dull–like I should always be doing something, even if that something is just listening to music or painting my nails. Doing nothing was unacceptable.

I carried that little incident with me for a long time, because my roommate’s response to “doing nothing” had been such a strongly negative one. I had never before seen anything wrong with sitting in silence, and coming across someone who found it strange was jarring to my worldview.

Working at a Quaker college, even though I myself am not Quaker, has deepened my appreciation of silence and solitude. Worship, for traditional Quakers, involves a great deal of silence–silence which is only broken when someone in the congregation feels called to speak. I can’t begin to explain how deeply I identify with that practice–taking the time to truly listen to our inner selves, to the Spirit that’s within each of us. For me, it’s a necessity, but a hard one to come by sometimes in our constantly connected, clamoring world.

What about you? When and where do you find creativity in your life, and how do you connect with it?