Workaday Writer: The Importance of Routine
By Michelle Barker
The Routines of Famous Writers
Stories abound of famous authors who have adopted weird and exotic writing routines. Mark Twain wrote while lying down in bed. Nabokov wrote all his work on index cards. Dan Brown believes hanging upside down is a cure for writer’s block. Victor Hugo wrote naked.
Some, like Hemingway, swear by early morning writing, while others can only write at night. Some use pen and paper; others use a computer. Some can only work while listening to music or surrounded by the bustle of a café; others require silence.
Experiment to Find Your Way
The first takeaway from this is that there is no single right way to write. There is only your way, and in order to find your way, you’ll probably have to experiment to see what works best for you.
The second point is that no matter how you work, you still have to show up on a regular basis. The idea behind a routine is not that lighting a candle before you work will be the magic trick that makes you a better writer. It’s that if you light a candle every day before you start working, it becomes the signal to your brain and body that now is the time to sit down at your desk and get started. That’s what a routine helps you do: it is a ritualized action that gets baked into your day so that you don’t have to spend any time thinking about whether you feel like doing it or would rather go have coffee with friends.
In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about her two-hour early morning workout that begins with calling a taxi to get her to the gym. The important part is not the workout; it’s the phone call. Once she’s made that call, she knows she’s going to the gym. It has become such a pattern in her life that she wastes no time debating it. There’s no emotion connected to it. It’s the thing she does every morning, period.
Writers need a similar ritual. Whether it’s making coffee, sharpening pencils, or invoking the muse, whatever you can commit to on a daily basis, whatever will get you to your desk, is just fine.
A Writing Routine Creates Discipline
Discipline is key to a writing career. Especially when you consider that, unless you have a contract with a publisher and they’re expecting new work from you, no one else cares if you write your novel. That means it’s up to you to find a way to get the job done. Having a routine, whatever it is, is the easiest way to create discipline.
You can trick yourself in any way that appeals to you. Dedicate specific time every day to being at your desk. Tell yourself you’ll arrive at seven a.m., rain or shine, regardless of how you slept, regardless of what you might feel like doing instead. Write it into your agenda. Set a timer to go off. Create deadlines for yourself and reward yourself if you meet them…and maybe punish yourself if you don’t. There are several commitment apps online that will happily mete out various punishments if you don’t achieve your writing goals—anything from playing scary noises, to enforcing monetary penalties, to erasing your entire draft (eek). Whatever works.
And know that the first few months will be the hardest. You’ll try to negotiate yourself out of showing up. You’ll say you’re too tired, you have a headache, you’ll promise to do double the time tomorrow. You’ll make excuses and tell yourself you have nothing to say anyway. You’ll talk yourself out of the importance of doing it every day. The mind is slippery. It doesn’t like new habits, especially healthy ones, and it will do almost anything to weasel its way out of them.
Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Set a reasonable target for your writing routine
Apparently it takes sixty-six days (not twenty-one, as previously thought) to form a new habit. And of course, it’s easier if you make it manageable. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to write for four hours a day if you’ve never even done it for twenty minutes. You’ll just set yourself up for failure.
And don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Life happens. We get sick. Cars break down. Whatever. Dust yourself off and restart the next day.
The more often you show up, the easier it gets. Repetition is your best friend here. Even if you think the work you’re doing is no good (usually that’s not true), keep showing up. You earn the good days by putting in the hard ones.
Eventually, you’ll discover the magic of the ritual. And when your novel is published and someone asks the question, “How do you show up to the page every day?” you’ll have an answer that will be entirely your own.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.