Let’s face it, being a writer is hard. But it is also rewarding. What keeps me coming back more than anything else, is getting into that magical “flow” state when I’m fully emotionally engaged in the story. The words almost seem to write themselves, and the hours fly by.
However, sometimes, these experiences are sometimes few and far between. How can we hope to attain “flow” when most days it’s a struggle just to find the motivation to even sit down and write for a few minutes?
The answer is not to sit back and wait to feel motivated. You will wait for a long time. But it’s not sustainable, to sit down and force yourself to write, slog through a few hundred words, and then call it a day. Sometimes, this will be necessary, and discipline is certainly part of the process. But mere joyless discipline is not why we became writers, and it will not likely be enough to sustain us through inevitable difficult periods.
So what to do instead?
If we can’t do without motivation, and we can’t wait for it to come to us, we have to create it. But not by sheer willpower, rather, we create the conditions under which motivation will come to us. And we do this by layering associations, or “triggers” that will get us into the writing mindset as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It seems odd that something as humdrum as routine can create creative passion and energy, but there it is. Much of human behavior is guided by our routines and habits. Like ruts created in a road, each time we do something, we create associations in the brain that teach us what to expect. This is why sleep experts say to keep the bed only for sleeping (says the person who does almost everything in bed), that way getting into bed will prime the mind for sleep.
To harness this effect, we create a short routine we do prior to writing that will guide us into being “in the mood” to write. If we simply try to go from doing something else to writing, our mind is still engaged in our previous task, and it will take time and effort to switch over to writing. This creates the expectation that writing is difficult, and resulting in a mental hurdle that will take more effort to overcome next time. Instead, we make an enjoyable pre-writing routine that will allow us to shift into the writing mindset, and build momentum of positive associations.
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Okay, so what routine do we create then?
I’m going to share with you the routine that I do, but doing the routine in a specific way is not as important as having a consistent routine that you feel positive about. The principles behind the routine are more important. The routine should: provide a mental break from whatever you were doing, be consistent, and be rewarding.
The first part is transitional, moving our mind away from whatever we were doing before so we can focus on something new. It’s hard to focus on your writing if your mind is still trying to work on problems from work, or your to-do list, or how little Timmy is doing in school. I like to get up and stretch for a bit, or go around and check on how my houseplants are doing. You may like to do a short mindfulness meditation, and focus on nothing but your breath for a minute, or do yoga. The key is to leave whatever you were doing behind, it’s much easier to start your brain on a new task from this headspace.
The next part is to actually enter your physical writing space. Try to find a consistent time and place to write each day. I won’t pretend that I write absolutely every day. For most of us, that’s not realistic, and nor is is strictly necessary. However, it does have to be often enough that you build a routine. You’ll want to have as many of the same elements as possible, to build Pavlovian associations between your intended “triggers” and your writing time. Some people have specific clothes they wear only when writing.
The third key is for the routine to be rewarding. If you pick writing clothes, pick clothes that are comfortable and that you really like. I also like to reward myself with a cup of tea when sitting down to write, and the act of making the tea can also serve as part of the transitional phase when I leave the rest of the world behind and prepare to write. Choose a setting to write in that is enjoyable for you. Some people like absolute quiet to work, others like the bustle of a coffee shop. It is also important that this setting be as free of distractions as possible. The writing space is a no-internet zone! If you write on a computer, set it and any other devices you have with you to airplane mode so you will not be disturbed or to be tempted to check social media or email.
It may be a bit complicated to set up a new routine at first, but once it is established it will become self-reinforcing and sitting down to write will become as automatic as brushing your teeth in the morning or getting a cup of coffee. Or at least, significantly easier than it was before. Before I established a writing routine, I thought 500 words was good day’s work. Now I aim for 1000, and on really good days, sometimes I can go as high as 3000.
Of course, your results may vary. If you only have half an hour to squeeze in a writing time, it will be more difficult to produce massive amounts of words. Still, I firmly believe that a consistent and enjoyable writing routine will help you get the most out of whatever time you’ve got to write.
Natasha Ruhwald is a writer, library technician, and author of the dark fantasy novel, Black Dog of the Sea. A disillusioned millennial, she escapes from an increasingly baffling world by creating a fantasy world of her own even stranger, but much more magical, than the one she inhabits. Her work will appear in an upcoming edition Street’s Night Terrors anthology. You can visit her online at www.natasharuhwald.ca .