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Writing Ritual and Routine

When asked, most writing teachers and established authors will say that you have to make time to write every day. No matter what, you need to form a routine around your work, protect your writing time, and put some words down every day– even if they're bad. I've tried to do that so many times and all it does is end up making me feel like a failure. No matter how hard I try, life just simply does not lend itself to that kind of time for me. Even without having children or a very demanding job, I find myself constantly busy taking care of something. Yet, if I'm going to make it as an author, I know I have to get better at making time for my writing. So instead of writing every day, I created a constructive compromise to set aside writing time every week. Being a part of my writing group helps a lot. It's easier to do something when you're being held accountable by someone in the same boat. I imagine that's what it's like when you have an agent or editor pushing you to get pages in on time. I try to set aside Sunday for writing, but even that doesn't always work. My family does big dinners on Sundays and so sometimes I miss group. (See, something is always getting in the way.)

"In the way" sounds bad. Like, life is "getting in the way," but without life would I have anything worthwhile to write about? Would I have any inspiration for my books, or would my characters sound as real if I didn't engage with life and the people "getting in the way" of my writing? There's the need to find a balance or compromise around our craft and establish a workable routine around it. I need to live my life, to go out into the world and engage. Then I have to set aside time every week to write about it. Planning in advance helps me maintain that balance. I live by my planner, finding hours between commitments to set my mind on writing.

Once I choose my time to write, I fall back on my writing habits to activate that creative spark when I need it. Kind of like how they used to tell kids to eat mints while studying and then if you eat a mint during the test it'll make it easier to remember things? (Was that just my SAT study course?) If I do the same routine every time I write, eventually just going through those motions gets my mind in the right place for writing.

It took a long time to find out what works for me and gives me the highest success rate of being productive. In college, a teacher encouraged us to try writing in the morning for a few days and then try it at night and see which was better. Then to try writing with music and then in absolute silence, and see which gave me more focus. This trial and error method to find the most effective writing environment led me to my own experimentation of what rituals gave me the highest production rate when writing. After years, I've finally found something that works for me most of the time, but like with everything, it isn't guaranteed to get words on the page.

The first thing I do when creating my writing space is possibly the most cliche of all– light a candle. I know, at times I'm just a basic bitch. I'm well aware, but there is something about the idea of fire and watching the flame waver from the ceiling fan that helps my mind be at ease. Right now I'm burning a candle I bought at AWP. It was supposed to be matched with a poetry book, but was a bad supporter and only bought the candle. It's from White Stag Publishing and it smells like Bath and Bodywork's mahogany teakwood scent. I take a deep breath and use the scent of the candle and extinguished match to clear out everything else in my mind. Sometimes, when I'm searching for a word or a phrase, I'll take the discarded match from the candle's lid and relight it, watching the flame wiggle closer to my fingers, encouraging me to have some urgency in what I'm working on. It makes my husband wildly uncomfortable, but he doesn't enjoy fire the way I do. (That sounds way worse than I meant it.) Looking into the flame, or relighting the match and holding the flame just helps reset my thoughts.

I tend to distract easily as my mind wanders from story to something out the window. Especially when editing, I'm too eager to be distracted by my dog, my phone, or anything on the internet. What I've discovered I have to do when trying to call upon my creative angels is turn my phone on work mode. It's a feature in settings where the only notifications I get are calls or texts. I hate to turn my phone off because my anxiety will inevitably get the better of me (the worry that something horrible has happened to a loved one and I can't be reached) but work mode makes it so I just can't access my apps. Sure, I could just turn this setting off, but having to do that extra step before getting on Instagram or Twitter most often stops me.

The last thing I do to set my writing space is get a little drink. I know you're probably expecting something more along the lines of Hemingway ("write drunk, edit sober") but most of the time it's the green tea lemonade I got at Starbucks that morning. If I'm writing in the afternoon, I'll make myself a fresh tea, or a glass of apple juice– just anything sugary. Really anything besides water. A sweet little treat to zap my taste buds when I'm growing listless in my creative pursuits.


Digression: Sometimes I worry that I'm getting too bogged down in the details when writing these blogs. I worry that I dig so much into the minutia of my process that it becomes boring or alienating to the reader. All of this is simply to say that it's important to try out a bunch of different things until you find what clicks for you. Work in all different settings and at different times and discover what sparks your workflow. When we're younger our time is dictated for us. We're told when to go to school, when to eat, when to sleep, but as an adult, we have to find out what works best for us. Even though we're still living in a structured society with work and social engagements, finding those moments to break out and work on our craft are precious and the sooner we can get to work, the better off we are. Discovering your rituals is like establishing a cheat code to unlock your creative mind.


The little writing rituals are in place to get my mind in the right headspace. I know there are some people who have to go to a public coffee shop to write. There are some people who need the activity around them to feel a creative spark. This ritual works for me. With my candle, a quiet phone, and my drink, I feel ready to spend a good long while writing. Each of these things functions like a timer in their own way, letting me know how much time has passed since I started writing and how much longer I should keep at it.

When I go into my writing sessions I don't have a word or page count in mind. I know a lot of people find that helpful and it sometimes motivates them to work faster, but I find it just stresses me out. Instead, I like to work with a time goal in mind. "I have two hours to get this done." Then I kind of see where I am and how I feel after two hours. Sometimes I feel completely defeated and call it quits, but sometimes I take a little break and then come back to it for another hour. Using time as my measure prevents the feeling of failure if I don't hit my word count.

Last week I talked about the idea of "setting the table" when you end a writing session. Taking a moment to jot down a few lines about what happens next takes away that feeling of starting over from square one when you come back to the project. I don't have to spend time reading over a few pages from the last session, I can jump right back into the story. Getting into this simple habit has helped so much because it puts a full stop to the urge to edit as I draft. Being able to read those few lines and know what direction I'm headed in is like getting a boost off the starting line in Mario Cart. It's the extra push needed to start strong and finish strong instead of wallowing in the weeds of the previous session's pages. I can't afford to waste time when I finally get a second to write. If I'm not able to push forward in the story, I feel like it's all been a waste.

You'll notice a common thread here– the fear of failure. It can be a powerful motivator for some, but when mixed with chronic anxiety, it isn't helpful for me. Finding all these little workarounds in my writing routine is necessary for me to get work done and maintain some sense of confidence in my work. Writing and publishing are an uphill battle and if we can find a way to block out the distractions of life, while still embracing life, we're more likely to make it up that hill. So, go and try a bunch of stuff to establish your routine and create your rituals. Light a candle, play some music, sit in different places in your house until you get the most creative vibes. Give yourself reasonable goals to accomplish, and a little kick-start if you can. Then be patient with yourself, because we all know how hard it is to stick to a routine sometimes.

Got my sweet lil' treat from Starbucks

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