Routine/no routine in writing

The other day, a friend and former student, Lane, wrote me to ask about my writing habits and my routines:

I’ve noticed that you have been keeping yourself particularly busy lately, with all of your writings, classes and such. [. . .] I wanted to ask you this: how do you make time for yourself to write without making it seem like a chore? [. . .] Simple hobbies take time, spending time with loved ones takes time…I guess, where are you finding your inspiration to sit down every day and just write? I’m struggling to find mine, and I don’t want how busy I am to be an excuse for me not doing something I know I’m supposed to do.

Oh, man.

At the time, I was actually in the midst of grading essays, so I didn’t have time to sit down and write Lane back. But this question is so fundamental, so essential, that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I knew I’d never finish my grading with this in the back of my head. So I started drafting a quick response just to get ideas down.

Nine hundred words later, I realized I was really writing this blog post — so I wrote Lane for permission to turn an email into an essay, and here we are.

Here’s the usual advice: set a schedule. Make a habit. Write every day.

That’s good advice. But I don’t follow it.

Faux Tat
Better than a napkin; worse than a notebook.

I used to feel very desperate about my writing. I’d have to do it as soon as it came to me, and I’d have to do it all at once, and if I was doing something else, I’d worry I’d never get back to it, or that I wasn’t doing enough of it. I’d write ideas on the backs of receipts in grocery store parking lots; I’d pull over on the side of the road and write the endings of unwritten novels on the envelopes of insurance papers and car titles from the glove box. If my hands were full, I’d dictate things to anyone standing around and make them write it for me. I’d recite sentences in my head over and over, at the expense of anything else, until I could get somewhere with pen and paper, or somewhere with a computer.

This was writing practically every day, but it wasn’t a writing habit. It was writing freneticism, born not of a sense of passion but from a sense of desperation. I subscribed to the young-writer’s fantasy that writing has to be “inspired,” and that when inspiration strikes, all else must get the hell out of the way because the writing had to happen right then or not at all.

Of course, I’d read all the advice about setting routines and making time for your writing. But I didn’t buy it. I didn’t like schedules, routines, hours in the chair. That sounded too much like work, as if I had to clock in for my writing time, wait for the buzzer, and then clock out again. I’d worked jobs like that, feeding the old-fashioned punchcard into the machine (yes, they still had those when I was working jobs like that), and if I knew one thing, it’s that punching a clock wasn’t art.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to step away from teaching and write full time for a while, and I realized that I no longer had to squeeze in the writing in whatever minutes or hours I could force into my day — I had whole days over a whole weeks and months to fill with the written word. And the expanse of time was suddenly daunting. What would I do with all that time? I finally understood the importance of setting a schedule and sticking to it. I finally understood that writing is work, and that isn’t a bad thing.

For roughly 18 precious months, I got to say that writing was my job. I even dressed accordingly: no writerly clichés of bathrobe and whisky at 11 am for me — I woke up when my wife woke up, I saw her off to work, and then I put on work slacks and a blazer and I sat at my desk with a cup of coffee and I got to work.

I clocked in, so to speak.

I wrote through lunch. I ate a sandwich and read a for an hour. I wrote into the afternoon, then took another break, walked around a bit, cleared my head, then sat back in the chair. When it came to 5 pm, I clocked out and started making dinner.

Every day. Routine.

Clock Work Man
Writing is SERIOUS, y’all.

I worried at first that the writing itself would become routine, that it would feel as dry and as forced as it felt at first. But I worked through that, and the work I did in that period ultimately felt amazing. I finished a story collection I’d been working on for years. I wrote the first draft of Hagridden, my novel that’s getting published next year. I revised a novella. I began and finished a score of short stories. I fleshed out this blog and started another.

It was the most creatively productive period of my life.

When I moved to Oregon and went back to teaching (which I missed terribly and was thrilled to return to), I worried I’d lose my routine, and I was right — I did lose my routine. But that didn’t mean I lost my passion for writing or my ability to do the work. I just had to set a different schedule and work it around my other work. But this time, there wasn’t the desperation. In its place was the confidence that came from experience: I know I could get the work done, and, more importantly, I discovered that the work would always be there waiting for me the next day, or the day after that.

My writer friend Todd McNamee published a book this past year. He’s also a dharma friend — we took refuge together at my Buddhist center — and when I interviewed him about his book for this blog, we spent a lot of time talking about both our writing practices and our meditation practices. He talked about alternating between the two, writing and sitting in the same physical space and just switching gears from time to time. “I can definitely go through periods where all I do is write, and I definitely go through periods where all I do is sit, but neither one of those is very useful to me. When I’m doing one, I feel guilty that I’m not doing the other. So I do one, but I always tell the other one, Don’t worry, I’ll get to you in a second.”

It’s the “Don’t worry” part that’s key. I think my biggest hangup over the idea of schedules and routines back when I was first writing wasn’t really in the clocking in and out, in the rigidity of it — it was in my lack of faith in my own self-discipline. I worried that if I ever fell out of my routine, I’d never get it back. But that’s not the case at all.

People like to say you never forget how to ride a bike, but the riding ability you retain isn’t in the bike. It’s in you, in your muscle memory. If you haven’t ridden in years, you might be a little shaky getting back on the bike, but your body knows what to do. I’ve discovered that for me, writing is the same way. If I’m away from it for a long time, it takes a little bit of wobbling to get my balance again, but my mind knows what to do. The muscles in the hands remember. The words are there. The work will come — it will always come.

I get into the habit and I fall out of the habit, depending largely on my teaching and editing schedule, and if I have to put it off for a while, I don’t let myself feel guilty about it. Guilt is a disease for a writer — it’s one of the biggest doors through which that fallacy, “writers block,” can enter.

English: Portrait of Matsuo Basho

There’s a saying in Zen Buddhism that you should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re very busy, in which case you should sit for an hour.

I don’t practice Zen, and I’m a terribly undisciplined person — in sitting meditation, in writing, in teaching. But I feel that this axiom isn’t about discipline, really. It’s about recognizing the things that are most important and prioritizing them, and it’s about recognizing that our mental and emotional health are always the most important things in our lives. We can ignore them and still get a lot done — we can pay the bills and figure the grades and run the errands and clean the house and rake the leaves and attend the meetings and do the shopping — but we can’t sustain it. Sooner or later, we burn out.

But if we pay attention to ourselves, we can recognize when we need to spend some of what little time we have on ourselves and the things that make us happy, and by giving those passions their due — by letting ourselves be happy — we can actually have the mental and physical energy to get more of those menial tasks done over the long run.

So, my friend/student Lane asks me how I make myself write every day, and the honest answer is, I don’t. The past few months have been the busiest few months I’ve had in a long while, and it’s been hard to find ways for the writing to fit in with the rest of what I do. Sometimes it comes in an afternoon when I’m supposed to be grading essays but a story idea has taken over. Sometimes it comes while I’m commuting an hour to one of my campuses and I have to dictate a novel chapter into my phone. Sometimes it comes on a Sunday afternoon when my plate is clear and I have time to sit down and do the work. And sometimes it doesn’t come at all, because I simply don’t have time.

In fact, my writing habits haven’t really changed all that much since I was starting out. I still scribble on receipts or pull over on the side of the road. I still squeeze in the writing whenever and wherever I can.

I can be extremely regimented about my writing when I have time to be.
I can be extremely regimented about my writing when I have time to be.

What has changed is the attitude. It’s the understanding that it’s okay if I don’t write today, because I can write tomorrow. And it’s also the understanding that it’s okay if I have to stay up late to grade a stack of essays or edit a magazine, because I had to finish writing a chapter — the writing was more important in that moment.

And it’s understanding that I do know how to set a writing routine. That period a few years ago when I was able to write full time was invaluable. I feel like for all my youthful years of dabbling and academic years of graduate workshops, I didn’t really learn to write until I did it eight hours a day wearing a blazer and sitting at a desk. That lesson was profound and profoundly necessary.

And now that I know how to do that, I also know not to panic when the writing isn’t happening, because when I get the opportunity to come back to the writing — a research trip, a writing retreat, NaNoWriMo, a winter break — I can establish whatever routine works best in that window of time and I can get down to the real work of writing.

So I don’t think it’s really a matter of making time for the work you love — not in any forcible way. I think it’s much more peaceful than that. It’s about accepting the time when you have it, and when you don’t have time, it’s about having confidence that the work will be there waiting for you. You’ll get to it.

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