Writing As Habit

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Photo by via M I T C H Ǝ L L Flickr

Embrace discipline, ditch the theatrics and turn your creativity into a habit.

“I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker

About a year and a half ago, I committed to something scary. While I’d done it a million times before, it was far from second nature. I had years of experience, plenty of hours devoted to the task, and yet…and yet…I was truly and genuinely frightened to proceed.

I told myself to “get a grip,” took a deep breath, and plunged right in, reminding myself that my fear would never again reach this peak – that it was all a downhill glide once I got on the right path.

I donned my bathing suit, braved the fit forms and uncurious stares of the college-student-gauntlet set before me, and just jumped in. The water temperature of the university’s pool took my breath away and within a few minutes, I was gasping, my face red with effort. The chlorine burned my eyes and my lungs; still, I kept on swimming.

I stopped every 50 yards for a much-needed break, focusing on the atmosphere around me – the splash of small waves against the gutters, the buzz of thirsty bees pausing for a sip, the slap of fins on white tile walls. From my vantage point at the end of the lane, I could see the water polo team at its drills and smell the freshly cut grass of the soccer field. Seagulls and crows called out overhead, and in the distance clouds raced along the edges of the Santa Ynez Mountains. I was out of shape and maybe even out of my depth, but I felt grateful. I knew I was privileged to have access to the pool, to be granted time to swim in its cool waters, and I gave thanks.

Now, eighteen months later, what once required a grand leap of faith is almost humdrum in its predictability. Every week, I spend most lunch hours in the grip of a familiar dance: driving to the pool, changing into my suit, grabbing a lane, logging the laps, and then repeating my first steps until I land, dripping and exhausted, back at my desk. I do not even give it a moment’s thought; the whole process has become second nature.

There are many variations of the adage that talent matters little when not paired with persistence, and my experiences over the last several months have proved to me that small, incremental steps really can take you all the way to your goals and beyond.

I’m now 60 pounds lighter, and though I still sometimes cast a sideways glance at the slim, graceful figures that flit in and out of my peripheral vision, I no longer need to steel myself with a pep talk every time I step out of the locker room. When I skip it, I’m restless and grumpy. Even bad days in the pool beat pleasant days spent entirely on dry land. I crave the pool’s embrace, still delighted by the novel sensation of weightlessness after years staggering under my own weight.

A few days ago, while I struggled to maintain my cool behind a slow driver apparently deeply committed to the speed limit, I began thinking about my progress in the pool. I can easily knock out a (slow) mile, and look forward to weekends when I can extend my session and log even more distance. My flip turns are tighter and smoother, and while my form is far from perfect, every day I work on it a little bit more, gaining confidence with each achievement. 

Looking back on my awkward, self-conscious start, I found myself amazed at my transformation, not just physically but emotionally. Where once I’d worry about going to the pool, worry while I was there, and worry some more after my workout, I now just take it all in stride. Swimming is as natural as brushing my teeth or making my morning coffee.

I began to wonder if my writing could undergo a similar transition. Could writing every day become standard procedure, just like my daily swims? If so, what would that mean for my productivity and my overall goals?

In a post over at Copyblogger, writer Pamela Wilson puts forth a persuasive argument for melding writing with habit.

“The fastest way to become a proficient content creator,” she advises, “is to make writing a part of your daily routine.”

“When you write habitually, you open up a channel that allows the ideas in your head to more easily become a physical expression of those ideas,” she continues. “You go from thoughts to words on the page faster.”

When facing writer’s block, many aspiring authors are encouraged to “prime the pump.” Through regular writing – the theory goes – you can lubricate your thoughts and loosen your subconscious so that connecting on the page becomes an easy, fluid dance.

“It’s a happy circular pattern of, ‘Doing more, which leads to doing better, which leads to doing more,” explains Wilson. “Your writing improves. And because you’re better at writing, you enjoy it more. And because you enjoy it more, you write more often.”

When I began this blogging adventure, I chose “The Daily Creative Writer” for my moniker because I believed the best way increase my writing output was to attempt some sort of creative expression on a daily basis. I started out strong, but over time, my goals changed, and I began to feel that quality took precedence over quantity. 

I’m not sure that was the right choice, but I do think curating content for the blog makes sense. You surely don’t want to read any half-baked thought that seeps out my brain, and I certainly don’t feel any compulsion to bore readers with mundane musings shared for no other reason than to keep up appearances.

Nevertheless, I’m afraid I’ve used considerate content creation as a kind of crutch – a rationalization I pull out to make myself feel better on the days, weeks and months that pass without any creative output. I am still a “morning pages” fanatic, but over the years, I’ve found that though freewriting helps me emotionally prepare for my day, it doesn’t necessarily prompt me to increase my output.

Which brings me back to swimming… 

While I’ve always yearned for an active lifestyle, in truth I’m a slave to Newton’s Laws of Motion – I will stay at rest whenever possible, and movement usually happens reactively rather than proactively. On the other hand, once I start moving I can usually get pretty far on momentum alone. Once my discipline kicks in, I will continue on my chosen path indefinitely (or until life throws up the usual roadblocks – we all know it’s never smooth sailing past the age of say, seven or eight). Getting started is hard, but patterns and customs can weave into your daily life much more quickly and easily than you probably realize.

In the book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life, author Robert Maurer discusses Kaizen, the ability to circumvent all the usual fears and doubts that stall even the most sincere efforts by completing a series of tiny tasks. Like Wilson’s circular pattern, Kaizen builds on past success, so the brain comes to accept and actively seek out change instead of panicking in fear. With Kaizen, weight loss can be achieved one bite at a time and whole exercise regimes can be built simply by standing during television commercials.

Every year near January 1st, a gazillion news articles appear with advice on how to follow your New Year’s resolutions. Aspiring exercisers, for example, are often encouraged to start by merely changing into workout clothes. Pulling on those running shorts and lacing up those shoes is a type of Kaizen, a small feat completed successfully that calms the brain, making the next step (crossing that gym threshold) easier to accomplish.

Over time, these incremental forward movements push us towards our objectives – sometimes even propelling us beyond the goalposts. When I returned to swimming after a decades-long absence, I didn’t focus on how far I could get on one breath or how fast I could complete 100 yards. Instead, I inched along; first by putting on that suit and eventually one 25-yard stretch at a time.

If you run a Google search for “priming the pump” or “writing warm-ups,” your results will yield hundreds of blog posts with tips and tricks to get the ball rolling. That first step can seem imposing and unyielding. It can be tempting to build up the significance of beginning. 

Don’t fall into that trap! 

I suspect many attempts are doomed before they begin simply because we put so much weight on starting. Once we clear that first hurdle we collapse in a grateful heap, content that we’ve at least tried and confident the universe will now grab the wheel.

The universe is not your designated driver.

Turning on that ignition is not enough, you still have to turn the wheel, throttle the clutch, and watch the brake. That’s where discipline and resilience come into play. Consider your daily commute. On your way to school, work or errands, you encounter a dozen complications – the aforementioned slow drivers, or a traffic jam…maybe a busted stoplight or an unannounced bike race. 

When confronted with these problems, you don’t turn the car around and head home. You certainly don’t put it in neutral and pull the parking brake (well…metaphorically anyway). What you do is maneuver around the obstacles, find a different route, maybe even call your boss and let her know you’re delayed, but you keep on your journey, not only because you’re required to do so, but because your commute is entrenched in your lifestyle.

So how can you maintain momentum when you begin a new writing project? How do you discipline yourself to write every day?

It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a big deal. You simply start and then continue.

It’s not impossible, but if you build it up in your head, it’ll be much harder to follow through. Instead, shrug at anything that gets in your way and just keep writing. Be flexible about how and when you do it, but don’t let yourself off the hook. If you want to write, then write. It’s not that complicated. Just get it done.

As British playwright Brian Clark advises in “10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer,”

Write.
Write more.
Write even more.
Write even more than that.
Write when you don’t want to.
Write when you do.
Write when you have something to say.
Write when you don’t.
Write every day.
Keep writing.

 

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