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habits, creativity, & small treats

I’ve been setting my alarm an hour or two earlier every day to carve out more writing time. Five days into my new habit, it’s hard to say whether I’m motivated more by word count or by the promise of coffee.

As Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.”

I’d heard that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but a quick Internet search refuted the whole 21 days claim. Still, I thought I remembered a specific number of hours-to-proficiency. Here it is (from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success): “for true expertise: ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.”

As long as I stick to my morning writing routine, I should produce something really good 27 years from now.

Looking through a few books on writerly habits, the best ideas I’ve found are probably these 3W’s: waking up early, walking, and word count. For today’s writers I might add: avoiding that other www.

Mason Currey asks in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work—“How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

And when that isn’t actually a choice, how best to nurture a creative writing life?

In a recent interview in the Georgia Review, Julie Riddle said, “If I wrote when I felt like it—when I felt mentally sharp, energized and inspired—I would rarely write. I’ve learned that if I sit down each day and just start, regardless of how I feel, good things will happen.”

Good things will happen.

I’m feeling hopeful about the potential of writing before sunrise after reading about so many morning writers: Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, William Stafford, Wallace Stegner. I’d like to see a display of all the books written while other people were sleeping.

It’s encouraging to remember that slow and steady progress is exactly that—progress.

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, but she points out that even if all she keeps from a full day of writing is a single page, single pages add up over the years.

Gertrude Stein thought half an hour a day was enough writing time. Flannery O’Connor’s routine was to write for three hours daily with the goal of three good pages. Henry Miller wrote for two or three hours each morning, as did Willa Cather and W.B. Yeats. Yeats, a slow writer, said he never did more than five or six good lines a day.

After time and discipline, walking was most often mentioned as a complementary writing habit. Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Yeats, Charles Dickens, and William Wordsworth all relied on walks to enrich their creativity. Wallace Stevens composed poetry walking to and from work and often walked through his lunch hour as well.

As an added incentive, studies show that spending even twenty minutes outside in good weather (what does that mean in Alaska?) leads to better working memory and moods.

I find that once I’ve started an essay, I carry it with me—revising in the car or the shower or at work. I think about it when I exercise too, that just happens less often.

“Once your unconscious mind has really begun to focus on a given project…things that fit your project seem to pop up everywhere you look. Suddenly, the world seems to overflow with what you need,” writes Stephen Koch, in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

He also writes about the value of a daily word quota—calling it the next best thing to an enforceable deadline.

Somerset Maugham set himself a daily requirement of about 1,000 words. Steven King suggests at least 2,000. Mary Karr makes herself to write a page and half or to work for six hours, whichever comes first. Tom Wolfe set his quota at ten pages a day, triple spaced. If he finished in three hours, he could call it a day. “If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” Wolfe said.

Here’s the thing. To write November’s weekly posts, I haven’t been taking walks. I’m not a fast writer; when I have a deadline I usually choose to trade that time for obsessive revising. I may never set a word quota. For now, it’s enough to force myself out of bed and down to the glow of the laptop on the kitchen table.

My new morning writing habit may not lead to a finished essay before 2014, but it does ease the ache of not writing. As we enter the darkest month of the year and this season of giving thanks, it helps me start the day in a spirit of gratitude—for words, for an hour of quiet, and for a cup of strong coffee.

small things

Lost teeth like little pearls, pockets full of rocks and a forgotten butterscotch, smudged handprints on the windows, knee-high hugs—all of this smallness I will miss, certainly, when my wild little boys one day bend down to hug me, mornings their knees bang table legs as they pour gallons of milk into cereal bowls.

Navigating the dark house at night, we unearth mines of marbles and matchbox cars. Smallness defines these years—years of demands howled or sweetly pleaded. Years when all distractions can be justified, because they need me more than the empty page, though I’m sometimes surprised at how easily work and motherhood elbow writing into narrow spaces, by the weight of so many small things.

In Ellen Gilchrist’s essay, “The Middle Way,” she wishes “the young women of our fortunate world find ways to balance their lives. I hope they learn to rejoice and wait.”

Though I try to sustain Gilchrist’s view, I sometimes swing toward Tillie Olsen’s mourning “the thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot,” and letting “writing die over and over again in me.”

I know I’m not alone in this, I’ve seen the standing-room-only crowds at AWP panels of parent-writers.

Hemingway pretty much summed it up when he said, “I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write, I feel like shit.”

I cope with that feeling by piecing together, and making peace with, small windows of writing time.

Bill Roorbach writes, “You can get a lot done in the ten minutes a pile of Legos buys you with your three-year-old. You can still think while changing a diaper. You can still take a note or two for future reference before collapsing in a heap…But normal times, no baby at your breast, no death in the family: Call your writing work. Claim all the odd minutes that are built into even the busiest days for writing.”

At last summer’s Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference, keynote speaker Naomi Shihab Nye reminded us that writing is a portable art. “Don’t wait for the weekend,” she said, “use all small increments.”

Keeping notebooks is one way of easing the feeling of letting words slip by.

In The Muses Among Us, Kim Stafford writes about the value of carrying a notebook to capture observations, dialogue, and stories. “I make the hearing and recording of them my mission as a writer,” says Stafford, “dreams get away if we don’t tell them, or write them down. Thoughts do the same. The writer’s greatest chance may be devotion to the passing fragment. It is small, but it is pure, and it may hold a compact infinity. You heard it for a reason.”

Entire books and essays can emerge from a small, deliberate practice. So can peace of mind.

When I was working on Gaining Daylight, the essay “Fifteen Times over the Bridge,” began as a quick daily walk that became a conscious act of observation and written reflection that helped the whole day feel less fragmented.

I just read The Forest Unseen, by biologist David Haskell. He spent a year watching a one-square-meter of old-growth forest in Tennessee, comparing the project to Tibetan monks creating a mandala—both are a way of seeking “the universal within the infinitesimally small.”

I see a similar pursuit in short-form genres like flash fiction and nonfiction. Anthologies of nonfiction pieces under 2,000 words like Short Takes or In Brief show us that oftentimes, brevity encourages creativity.

And there’s haiku, the definition of which sounds strikingly like life with small children: it “leaves no time to explain an experience” and instead “conveys an experience directly without commentary.”

I’ve seen the power of haiku described as the act of witnessing, of offering resistance to “the remorseless powers of forgetfulness.”

And isn’t that what troubles me when I’m not writing? The feeling that amid all this happy, exhausting chaos, I’m missing or forgetting what I should be capturing in words?

As I was looking for examples of beauty in small pieces, I opened Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison to this:

Treasure what you find

already in your pocket, friend.

On a hike last Sunday, Liam found an owl pellet in the dry grass on the peak. He carried the soft black handful carefully home. Later, head bowed at the kitchen table, he sorted vole bones small even for his nimble fingers, finding a tiny skull with teeth the size of splinters, while I marveled at the wonder of worlds in miniature, the owl and its meal, the boy and his curiosity, and what can be made of a day, what can and can’t be saved with words.

Six reading tips for writers (another guest blog post for 49 Writers)


“I leaf through now one book, now another, without order, and without plan, by disconnected fragments,” wrote Michel de Montaigne, father of the essay, claiming, “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.”

Last week I made a similar admission, wondering if my hurried, compulsive reading habits make me less effective when it comes to reading like a writer.

I vowed to read more deliberately, then proceeded to research for this blog post the way I usually do—a frenzied skimming of fourteen library books on reading plus a few more from my own bookshelves, going through sheets of sticky notes the way our four-year-old does when he gets ahold of them. Here are a few ideas worth remembering:

Slow down  

In Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them, Francine Prose recommends close reading, comparing the technique to watching someone dance and later, secretly trying out a few steps in your own room. “Skimming just won’t suffice if we hope to extract one fraction…of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language.”

Her advice is to “stop at every word to ask yourself what sort of information each word—each word choice—is conveying.”

That sounds a little tedious, but maybe close reading could help temper the writer’s despair brought on by reading something so good you’re crushed you didn’t think of it and convinced you never will. Instead of envying the lyrical beauty of Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds, I could reread the book and ask of each page—why this white space, why this phrase, why did she build the passage this way?

Read like a carpenter, that’s my new motto.

Read widely

In The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp suggests that we can mine more out of every book by “reading fat…not only reading, say, a novel, but reading related texts surrounding the novel, which may be books by the writer’s contemporaries, or commentaries on the novel, or a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters.”

I think this kind of connect-the-dots curiosity comes naturally to most writers. After Phillip Lopate published half a dozen autobiographical books in several genres, he felt he’d used up the material of his past. So he chose the New York waterfront as his next subject, taking frequent walks there and reading everything he could find related to the shoreline—history, literature, marine biology, urban planning—to create his next essay collection.

For memoirists, immersive reading can add “social, political, geographical, and cultural context,” says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. “In order to ground your story in the world that surrounded it, you will have to be willing to extend your examined life beyond the purely personal.”

Read to emulate

When you recognize a weakness in your writing, seek out works by authors who write in the same vein, only brilliantly. Then try not to get too depressed. I’ve heard of writers physically copying out sections to get the feel of a writer’s style.

When I struggled with voice during my MFA program, I studied writers whose voices I loved—George Saunders, Mary Roach, David Sedaris, Brian Doyle. As I read I noted when they appeared on the page, how they translated information and presented their observations, and then I tried applying their techniques to my writing. I also wished I was funnier.

Read to borrow

 To study the art of borrowing from science and natural history, I like reading essays by Annie Dillard and Anne Fadiman. For such writing, research and note taking are a way of stockpiling details and sentences that might someday provide the seed of a story idea, the perfect epigraph, or a needed metaphor.

“What a good artist understands is that…All creative work builds on what came before,” writes Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist.

The poet Stephen Dunn uses notes from his reading as a source of inspiration. “I like being surrounded by snippets of pithy thoughts or beautifully balanced sentences. I often imitate or depart from them as a way of beginning a poem.”

Read like your readers

Insight and feedback from a trusted reader can be incredibly valuable—revealing what you left out because it was familiar to you, or the questions you’ve avoided answering. Having readers may be the most helpful feature of an MFA program.

Roland Barthes said that as we read, we rewrite the text of the work within the text of our lives. It’s sometimes surprising and humbling to learn what readers bring and take from your writing.

Believing that there is a reader who needs your book can give you courage to write bravely, and to keep writing through the self-doubt we’re all familiar with.

It’s why, when I read something that I love, I try to send a note or an email, knowing how heartening it can be to hear from a reader. Last week I found a great, new-to-me Alaska blog: Hooked, thanks to a message from Tele Aadsen about the 49 Writers post.

Read craft books, even if they can’t deliver the secret to success

As a teacher, I appreciate craft books for writing prompts and lesson ideas. I’ve also found that reading craft books outside our genres can be useful when a piece isn’t working. Screenplay manuals can help with pacing and dialogue. Fiction writing techniques can improve plot or character development in nonfiction stories as well. And a poet’s toolbox might lead to better description and word choice.

I’ve heard craft books disparaged for being too formulaic or too encouraging. But I take hope wherever I find it, even in triumph-over-repeated-failure stories like Steven King’s wall of rejection letters, or Alexander Fuller’s story of sending her agent a 9th novel (after 8 others had been rejected) and hearing back that maybe writing was a waste of Fuller’s time, and representing Fuller was a waste of the agent’s time. Fuller sat down and wrote the bestselling memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, which sold to publishers within days.

Sometimes I read craft books just for such stories. And I read for truths like this one:

“If you accept that writing is hard work, and that’s what it feels like while you’re writing, then everything is just as it should be. Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement…

The difficulty of writing isn’t a sign of failure. It’s simply the nature of the work itself.”

-Verlyn Klinkenborg

It’s good to be reminded that writing is about persevering. The wonder of reading—because there is magic in opening a copy of your first book, in falling for a writer’s work, in holding the worn favorite of a late parent or of a child, now grown—is only magnified by a writer’s knowledge of how much faith and tenacity brought that book into the world.