Just like athletes, musicians, and performers, writing improves with practice. Often, writing improves ONLY with practice. Are you practicing? Are you cultivating a writing practice? If so, you have seen for yourself how keeping your writing muscle limber has improved your prose.
Well. I’m a little red-faced today. The crime scene series will continue. As soon as I find it. Don’t worry, I have backups of backups. I just transferred everything to a new computer this week and apparently missed a few files. Embarrassing! And entirely my fault.
But it got me to thinking.
I like excuses. They seem to provide lubricant for slipping out of situations in which I am at fault. However, I try hard not to make excuses because, really, who cares? They don’t change the failure, right? They can’t undo a missing post, a lost opportunity, or a broken promise. Excuses might appease and reduce the fallout, but doesn’t let us own our mistakes and face them.
For that, we need to take responsibility.
As writers, aren’t excuses just easier?
- I was too busy to write today.
- The boss needed me so I couldn’t write.
- The kids are sick so I was too tired to write.
- I just wasn’t feeling it today. Maybe tomorrow.
Who are we appeasing? Ourselves, of course. We don’t want to acknowledge our failure or our lack of commitment. It’s easier to excuse ourselves to ourselves than admit we blew it.
What would it look like if we take responsibility instead?
- I chose to spend my time elsewhere.
- I elected to focus on something else.
- I decided not to write while the kids napped.
- I didn’t care enough to sit down and start.
It might sound a little harsh, but it’s honest, right? And it also requires us to own up to our choices rather than hide behind circumstances or other people.
Life does sometimes get in the way. That’s just a fact. But taking responsibility rather than making excuses gives a much better picture of our writing life and a much better gauge of our resistance.
Do you make excuses for not writing? I still do, even as I want to take responsibility instead. How do you feel after you tell yourself an excuse? A little relieved? A little dirty? I do, and ashamed besides.
How does it feel different to take responsibility? For me it feels a bit grim, but also honest, like a hard look in the mirror. Sometimes it’s clear there wasn’t much I could do. Most of the time, what’s clear is that I was lazy, uncommitted, or scared. Then I get a little mad. Taking responsibility has gotten me back out of bed to do my daily writing because I don’t want to see myself as a person who can’t fulfill her commitments.
For the next week or two, listen to what you tell yourself. Examine the excuses and rephrase them as taking responsibility. If you need help, call your accountability partner (or get one). Holding myself accountable to another person who wouldn’t accept excuses was how I began to understand the whole subject in the first place.
If you struggle to get your writing done, ditch the excuses, take responsibility, and get a little mad.
Which positive outcomes might we find by moving from excuses to responsibility?
A writing practice (or creative practice of any sort–I use the words interchangeably) involves intentionally setting aside regular time—a routine—for creative work. Forming the habit of showing up takes away the idea that one must feel ready to create or “be in the mood.”
Isn’t it better to be in the mood?
Plenty of writers, especially early on, feel they must be in the mood or have the urge before they can sit down and write. While that’s nice to have, it’s not necessary. Writing isn’t just an art, it’s a craft, and craftsmen work at their craft regularly. Creative work is fostered by routine (and often results in inspiration or the right mood). No more asking yourself “should I write today?” If you set aside the time, you write. It may not be stellar work, but that will come.
A creative practice is like meditation or exercise. There’s resistance. There’s the excuse of no time. But regular routine breaks down the resistance until your practice is just an ingrained part of your life. Your mind and body learn to switch gears more readily as well.
Can I only write when scheduled?
We may write outside of our scheduled time as well, and that’s fine. The creative work happens both inside and outside of routine, but the busier your life is, the more a routine will help you to get words on the page.
Think of a writing practice as “showing up” to do the work. Think of it as a mindful way to honor your creative side and your desire to write. Self-care. Personal development. It is all of these things.
Where did this idea come from?
I was first exposed to the idea of a writing practice by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones. The principles were restated and reinforced by Julia Cameron in The Right to Write. Since then, I’ve run across the term in every art form as well as yoga, prayer, exercise, and more. One explanation I heard was “a practice is intention.” And that’s also true. If you are interested in creating a writing life for yourself, I recommend both of these books along with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
For many of us, writing is a lifestyle as much as a calling or passion. We didn’t get there overnight. We created a writing practice and stuck with it. We became practitioners.
So how do I develop a writing practice?
- Write routinely. I’m a proponent of daily writing, but everyone is different. Whether it’s Sunday afternoon, fifteen minutes before work, or thirty minutes after the kids are in bed, make it regular and stick with it. (And start on time. The dishes and other things will wait.)
- If you aren’t working on a project, use a writing prompt, write an essay, do a character sketch. Use various writing exercises if you like, from timed writing to stream-of-consciousness writing.
- Tell yourself that you are worth it until you believe it. Honoring your creative drive is healthy, not selfish.
- Get an accountability partner. Tell a trusted friend what you are doing and ask them to both encourage you and check in to see how you are doing with your practice.
- If you naturally rebel against structure, keep your routine fluid. Perhaps set a quota to meet on a weekly basis or plan thirty minutes sometime before bed. It’s less ideal but I have confidence you will grow into a routine that suits you.
Why do I need a creative practice?
The moodiest, unhappiest people I’ve ever met were artists of one sort or another who were not making time for their art. I was this person for half a year. Creativity is an integral part of who we are. Ignoring it is akin to depriving our senses. If you are already creating regularly, that’s great! Keep it up. If you aren’t, develop your own practice. If you need help, let me know and I will come alongside you until you are under way.
Do you cultivate a writing practice? If so, how has it helped you creatively? If not, can you see yourself starting one?
I’ll just come right out and say I’m happy to see the back end of 2015. Here’s to a good 2016!
So, you know my often expressed views that discipline and routine are what get words on the page? Let’s just say I now have a deep compassion and more insight for writers who struggle with both. With 30+ years of experience, I never thought it would happen to me, but humble pie is good for the soul, right? Or is that digestion…
I’ve thought about hiding the near collapse of my writing life, but it wouldn’t be right. We’ve always been honest with you and won’t change now. Besides, if my recent lessons and experience can help even one person, I’ll be glad I swallowed my pride instead of putting on a mask.
Though it’s been a busy, disruptive year, the primary way I spent my free time was indulging in voracious research, some of which you’ll soon see. There’s an overview series on the elements of a crime scene coming up as well as a series on how the dead can speak to investigators through their remains (don’t worry, I’ll give warnings before the squeamish bits). Other upcoming posts deal with elements of romance (a touch of which belongs in every genre), suspense, and how to get your characters to talk to you.
And that’s just me. Michelle, Amanda, Chris, and I will be posting on a different schedule this year, but are working to bring you interesting and useful information. Mostly, we’re just happy to be back. We’ve missed you!