In writing as in any creative endeavour, you have to have a practice that makes the writing happen. In busy, often over-stressed lives, this can be hard to achieve, but if you commit to being a writer then the call from within won’t leave you in peace until you satisfy it.
1. Get into flow
Experiment with what gets you into flow; the state identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which we are so lost in what we are doing that we forget ourselves and create. He put it like this:
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”When this happens time and space fall away. It’s a magical experience and creative people have many ways of entering it.
There are countless ways to get into this state of flow
- It might be through music or silence.
- It might begin with yoga or walking.
- It might emerge from journalling.
- It might follow on from meditation or ocurr after a stimulating exchange of ideas.
Find your cues and use them.
2. Protect your routines
Routines can become stale so they always need to be under review, but with that caveat, the more you execute routines on autopilot, the more you will write.
In Essentialism Greg McKeown notes:
The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. …with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results
And he goes on:
There is another cognitive advantage to routine… Once the mental work shifts to the basal ganglia, mental space is freed up to concentrate on something new. … the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate
A morning routine of journalling, meditation, exercise and healthy eating can set up your day to create.
An evening routine that includes putting away screens at least an hour before sleep, more journalling, reading and good quality sleep sets up the next day.
3. Cultivate helpful habits
A time when you always write makes it a muscle memory over time.
In The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg defines habit as a cue + a routine + a reward. The cue is whatever triggers your brain to go into automatic. It might be a time of day or a slot at the weekend. It might be after a particular activity like taking a walk or a shower or brushing your teeth in the morning.
The cue prompts us to enact the routine behaviour, in this case, writing and then comes the reward. Unhealthy habits like constant phone checking are often linked to constant small dopamine hits, but the reward, or compensation, of good habits varies. Healthy eating leads to better health. Exercise increases strength and suppleness. Regular writing will yield blog posts or chapters for a novel or first drafts of poems…
Duhigg advises that to change a habit you need to make new associations between a cue and the desired outcome. Alternatively, we can create new cues e.g. leave your journal where it’s the first thing you see in the morning and move the phone to another room.
4. Remove distractions
A writing practice requires that you eliminate the small stuff; all those distractions pulling at your attention and stopping you from doing deep work.
Do you keep stopping the work to check social media or emails? Then put the phone in another room. Switch off wifi on your laptop.
Do you find yourself focussing on noises around the house or outside? Put on earphones, even if you are only listening to silence or white noise.
Do whatever it takes to focus on the one thing you want to do.
5. Love your space
Whether you have a room of your own or a corner somewhere, make the space work for you. Make sure you are comfortable — in your skin and in your clothes; in the chair you use or the posture you adopt as you write standing.
If you have the luxury of a dedicated space, make it beautiful and personal, whether with objects that are meaningful to you or with minimalism that works for your aesthetic values. You are going to spend a lot of time in the space: love it.
6. Make your task challenging but attainable
If you set out to write an epic poem the first time you write poetry, you are likely to fail. If you set out to write a novel pretty much like the last one and the one before that, chances are you are going to get bored.
Flow isn’t about either impossibility or staying safely in your comfort zone. We get into flow when the task both engages and stretches us.
7. Start with clarity
If you don’t know where you’re going you will probably end up somewhere else, perhaps going round in ever decreasing circles. Your project is likely to alter and evolve as you work, but start out with at least the big picture and some over-arching goals for it and you will save yourself a lot of frustration.
Writing process is endlessly variable and fascinating but rarely random no matter how quixotic it might look from the outside. But there’s a caveat to this: having a big picture shouldn’t get in the way of admitting the possibilties of play, content spewing and failure, all of which contribute to learning. (See 100 & 11 below).
8. Stay in the moment
Write one scene, draft one poem, complete one blog post with one idea and then the next and then the next… Csikszentmihalyi puts it like this:
You must subordinate the outcome to the immediacy of the moment, But, as the moment takes over, it needs to be sustained by feedback — you have to have a sense of how you’re doing to continue to meet the challenge. Was the shot good? The color on the canvas right?
Flow time is always NOW.
9. Recruit your subconscious
There are times in writing when the solutions don’t come, when we sit down feeling uneasy and don’t find the rhythm that day or that week… Very often this happens when we are over-thinking the writing.
There are many rational processes needed in writing, especially once we are honing and editing. But at the flow stage too much thought can impede the creative rush. At such times chasing an idea too hard can make it vanish into the shadows.
Conscious wrestling is inimical to flow so if it’s not happening, journal about it, ask your subconscious questions, give it some ideas and let your dreams take over.
10. Try the content spew method
If you are feeling stuck, don’t try to write anything good, just write. There’s an anecdote, probably apocryphal, that Leonard Cohen wrote 80 verses for his famous song Hallelujah before narrowing down to a couple of versions. There’s a story that Janet Frame sat typing ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ over and over so that her generous patron would here the typewriter and think she had something to write.
Revising rubbish can be easier than writing gold-dust, at least until we hit a new rhythm. Don’t force, but write anyway. When you turn on a tap in an uninhabited old house the water might come out brown and full of debris for a while, but eventually it will run clear.
Flow can be the same. Quality matters, but it can also emerge from quantity. Cohen didn’t keep 80 verses for Hallelujah and your 250,000 novel might end up as a novella. I once wrote a 120,000 word novel that ended up as a slim 80 prose-poem narrative sequence. I couldn’t have got to the flow without all the over-blown prose en route.
11. Forget the product, go with the process
There’s a time for outcomes, but flow is about process and the joy of that process. Not everything you do in flow will survive later tests, but that doesn’t make it wasted.
When you allow process to take over you are free to play with your writing. You begin to take risks. You begin to experiment in ways that may not work in the long term, but will certainly teach you a great deal.
12. Turn around
The word that is often translated as ‘repentance’ in the Bible is the Greek word, metanioa. It means to turn around, to do an about face and go in another direction.
Routines, habits and eschewing distractions are essential for writing, but so is metanoia. It’s so easy to find our course and then get stuck in it, but to stay on track we usually need to make changes in direction, sometimes slight and sometimes radical. If a navigator sets off in a plane that doesn’t course correct as it travels, the plane will not arrive at its destination.
Steering a course isn’t a matter of setting out on target and then forgetting about any further navigation. The same is true for writing. If we become complacent then our rhythm will degrade into trundling around the same plateau.
You need fresh ideas, fresh inspiration from reading and life. Sometimes you need to entirely change direction to establish a new rhythm for the next, more challenging leg of the journey.
Becoming a Different Story
Thank you for reading becoming a different story — if you want to learn more about working on creativity and the writing life, sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. You can also find out about my forthcoming writing courses at https://janfortune.com/ or email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.