H Is for Habits

Habit: “A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” or “customary manner or practice.”

When you’re not sure where to start, head for the dictionary. 😉 Those come from the American Heritage Dictionary. There are other “habits,” but I’m not thinking of nun’s habits or riding habits or habits involving narcotics.

Habits are the patterns and practices that can help you create the space that makes your writing possible. Needless to say, they can also create spaces in which writing is difficult if not impossible, so if you’re having a hard time getting down to work, day after day after day, it’s worth taking a hard look at what habits may be getting in the way.

I once wrote a whole poem of ways to avoid writing. I can’t remember any of it, but I’m pretty sure that doing the dishes and vacuuming were in it. The ways to avoid writing are myriad. I can even use writing to avoid writing.

My #1 habit in the sense of “customary manner or practice” is write every day. This started when I was working on my novel. I’d never completed anything longer than 40 pages before. I was desperately afraid I was going to choke. You know where the cartoon character runs straight off a cliff and for a moment is suspended in midair above a chasm, feet still running? That was me.

I made a New Year’s resolution, one of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. The resolution was that I would write every day until I had a complete draft. I didn’t specify how many words I would write, or how many hours — only that I would write every day.

I have a candle burning while I write.

Some days, I swear, it would be five minutes to midnight when I sat down at the computer and opened the Word file. That was enough. I’d tweak the last paragraph I’d written and then write another paragraph or two. Just opening the file was enough to reassure me that it hadn’t turned to crap the moment my back was turned. What I’d already written would tell me what to do next.

Ordinarily mornings are my best writing time, especially for first-drafting. In the morning I’m fresh and optimistic. As the day goes on, my mind fills up with distractions, interruptions, and reasons not to write. Editing I can do at other times.

My worst habit, of the “recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” type, is Spider solitaire. Decades ago I played it with real cards, then some fiend decided to bundle it with Windows and I was doomed. If the writing stalls, suddenly Spider is open on my screen and I’m playing another game without knowing how I got there. I am almost certainly powerless over Spider solitaire. I don’t think my life has become unmanageable — yet — but I may be fooling myself.

F Is for Freewriting

Freewriting is like brainstorming for one, though you can do it in the company of others. A writers’ group I once belonged to started each meeting with freewriting. We took turns picking a prompt, usually a word, phrase, or the beginning of a sentence, and a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. One person set the timer and off we went.

We all wrote in longhand, on yellow pads or in whatever notebook we’d brought with us. The only rule was Keep writing. Put pen or pencil to paper and keep your hand moving till the bell rings.

You didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but all of us almost invariably did. Our stuff was amazing — funny, profound, startling, poignant — but what amazed me most was what I’d managed to put on paper in 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting at the computer it might take me an hour or more to write a paragraph I was satisfied with. Most of that hour would be spent staring at the screen with my hands nowhere near the keyboard.

That writers’ group experience and the “morning pages” I did while following Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way sold me on writing in longhand.

Maybe it’s because I was an editor as well as a writer, but I could look at a rough draft — my own or someone else’s — and my mind would be full of ideas of things to try: swap those two paragraphs, delete that sentence, expand this a bit, try this word instead of that one. A blank page, however, would provoke unease that could quickly escalate to procrastination, paralysis, and writer’s block.

Something similar often happened when I got stuck in the middle of something. It was like coming to the brink of a very high cliff. Seeing no way to proceed, I’d turn back and give up. Small wonder, then, that I wasn’t able to break the 40-page barrier: anything under that I could do, and pretty well, but I hadn’t been able to complete a novel, because novels are a lot longer than 40 pages. Some writers are able to jump into a novel or other book-length work and keep going till they finish. Not me. I’d get stuck, and because I didn’t have a deadline — no one was waiting for it — I’d give up.

Freewriting got me unstuck. I’d take pen and paper, leave my desk, and go somewhere else. When I was living close enough, I could walk into town, buy coffee and a muffin, grab an empty seat, and write. Often I’d give myself a prompt: “I can’t write this scene because . . .” or “[Character A] walks into the kitchen and sees . . .” The words would pour out. It might take a few minutes before the nugget would appear, the clue to my way forward, but it always would appear. Gradually I developed a deep faith in freewriting, and in writing in longhand.

Some writers freewrite their whole first drafts: no outline, no roadmap, no notes. If writers really can be divided into planners and (seat-of-the-)pantsers, they’re the pantsers. Most of us are probably a bit of both, depending on the project. Whichever, freewriting is a handy tool no matter how you use it: to warm up, to play, to get unstuck, or to write whole drafts.

J Is for Journey

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

That’s Ursula K. Le Guin in “Talking About Writing” which you can find in her Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979). I don’t write fantasy, but I’ve read a lot of it, which may explain why fantasy elements keep sneaking into my real-time fiction.

It may also explain why for me writing is a journey, especially writing fiction, and everything Le Guin says about fantasy applies. The journey I’ve been on for three years now started with a dog running through the woods and a girl sitting on a playground swing. As I wrote my way toward them, I began to understand who they were and how they were connected.

I also ventured deep and deeper into my own subconscious, or memory, or imagination, whatever it is, and found images and questions that preoccupied me in the past but that I’d set aside. Rescue — both rescuing and being rescued — was a big one. In my novel in progress, the rescue of the dog turned out to be pretty easy. The rescue of the girl is still working itself out. I’m still not 100% sure of what she needs to be rescued from, but it’s a lot clearer — and more unsettling — than it was when I started. So are the stories and motivations of the would-be rescuers.

One of my mantras is “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” It will, but the catch is that you have to keep doing it. My hunch is that a fair amount of what’s called “writer’s block” stems from the cautious mind’s fear of those subconscious places where reason has to relinquish control. The fear is totally justified because, as Le Guin wrote, the journey will change you.

It may change you in ways you don’t expect and can’t control, that may sharpen or blur your vision enough to unsettle your view of the world. It’s a wild magic, writing.

As the letter J drew closer in my passage through the alphabet, I couldn’t decide between “journey” and “journal.” The two words had to be closely related, I thought, and so they are: both stem from the Latin word for “day,” diurnis, by way of the Anglo-French. If you know any French, or even if you don’t, the “jour-” in “journey” and “journal” probably suggests jour, the French word for “day.”

“Journey,” it seems, originally suggested a day’s travel. Now a journey can take much longer, especially if you’re working on a book-length work, but breaking it down into days isn’t a bad idea. The journey may indeed lead into dangerous places, but the closer you get, the less scary they seem — because you’re getting braver with every step you take, every word you write.

The journey continues.