For a while, it felt like I was being asked questions like “How can I write more?” and “How can I start a good writing habit?” at least twice a week.
But I haven’t been asked for as much writing advice in the last half year since I temporarily closed my writers’ group, The Literati Writers, to retool this outlet of my passion work into a new self-guided writing course (it’s coming soon in 2015).
That all changed three weeks ago. I was riding on a bus in the mountains of India after having watched the sunrise over the Himalayan mountains from a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kunjapuri Devi, when Mary, a fellow Rhode Islander and yogi from my hometown yoga studio, asked me how she could start a new journaling practice.
“Just start writing!” I jested. But Mary wasn’t satisfied with that answer.
“I bought myself a nice new journal,” Mary explained to me, “but I still can’t get started. Where do I begin?”
I quickly realized that I had to shake some cobwebs if I wanted to give Mary helpful and practical advice that could get her started.
In the end, the answer is always the same. You need to start today. You need to “just start writing.” But that advice doesn’t actually help someone begin.
It doesn’t help a writer’s personal relationship to writing and his or her creativity. If someone is unhealthy and wants to start living a more healthy lifestyle, you can’t just say, “Start today!” and expect results. It takes work just to dig into a deeper, more personal understanding of what health is, what health isn’t, why we struggle with it and why we struggle to get started with a new creative habit.
It can take hours, weeks, or months of practice to witness the reward.
If that’s the case, where do you begin?
Thanks to Mary’s question on that bus back in India, I’ve decided to give you a handful of techniques, tips and ideas for starting a writing practice as early as today–even over the holiday season.
1) Make the most of your “awakening hour.”
Begin with: Waking up 20 minutes early, and write “stream-of-consciousness” for 20 minutes.
The morning is a special time of day for writing, both on practical and energetic levels. On a practical level, you have the most control over your day in the early morning (at least, theoretically) because if you can wake up just a tad earlier than you need, you can use those precious minutes for your creative habits.
On an energetic level, the morning holds promise, opportunity, rebirth and renewal for the day ahead. Thoreau called the morning the “awakening hour” in Walden and paints a vivid image of the morning time being one where your innate genius blossoms effortlessly–I might add, before the priorities, responsibilities and haste of the day-time rushes into focus.
This technique is what I call “pouring onto the page,” an absolutely vital beginning strategy for those who are determined to start their own writing practice. Pouring onto the page works because:
- You feel like you don’t know what to write or “where to begin”. When you’re mentally-emotionally stagnant, you’re energetically pent up. The words are stuck. You need to get unstuck, and streaming consciousness gets the drip and drizzle of words flowing.
- It’s tough to judge, over-think or criticize yourself when you’re streaming your consciousness. The whole point of streaming your thoughts onto paper is to transcribe and observe, not to edit them or second-guess while you’re writing.
- You actually get some writing done, without knowing where it’s going ahead of time. In other words, you’re practicing how to write from a place of listening, not over-efforting or over-willing it. All forms of art and creation require listening more than efforting.
To understand more about this “pour onto the page” technique and philosophy, read this helpful post from my Reader Mailbag: I Start Writing But Can’t Be Concise. What Should I Do?
2) Ideate throughout the day.
Begin with: Downloading Evernote and jotting ideas, thoughts and inspiration into your phone. Word-process later.
Do new writing ideas strike throughout your workday? If you’re busy or there’s not paper nearby, you’re bound to lose them.
As a writer, I believe that these Aha! moments, whatever triggers them, are moments that we connect to the ethereal and receive a message that is calling for us to share it.
And if we want to take our writing practices more seriously, we need to honor these fleeting moments by capturing the ideas when they come.
I use Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking program and app that syncs all of my essays, future blog posts, meandering ideas and spur-of-the-moment inspiration between all of my mobile devices and my laptop computer, which I primarily use for my writing.
Just as you might buy yourself a new journal for writing by hand, I recommend that all of my writing clients download Evernote (upgrade to Premium for around $60/year if you work offline or while traveling) to write down your ideas whenever you have them. This way, you can capture a thought in 10 to 30 seconds’ worth of effort, and carry on with the duties of your day.
You’ll discover a bevvy of new writing concepts that are ready for you to explore whenever you have the time and energy to do so.
3) Have one good, meaningful conversation today.
Begin with: Getting honest, and saying what scares you. Communicate. Empathize, Relate, Connect.
Writing is a personal practice in communication with the Self. When you’re journaling privately or “pouring onto the page,” you’re writing to witness the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values, axioms, faith and identity embedded within your soul.
If, someday, you feel motivated to share some of your words with others, the practice evolves. You’re no longer communicating with yourself and witnessing your truth, you’re sharing stories, ideas and messages that are meant to help people feel, see themselves and sense a deeper source of connection to others.
That is what communication is: an art of empathy, relatability and connection.
I believe that there is no better way to help yourself become a better communicator than to have one good, deep, meaningful conversation every day.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to yuck it up and have lighthearted chats all the time. But maybe you’re like me in that you’ll occasionally feel that these light social interactions can feel wickedly shallow and superficial, as if everyone at the table is hiding from what they are really feeling or what they really want to say.
I believe that we need to speak our truth more and more. Hiding from it can feel like we’re enslaving ourselves; as if the light of our very essence dims every time we hide.
So, a challenge. I challenge you to say something that scares you. Something you don’t want to admit out loud. “Use the words,“ as my friend Christina once told me, because when you put your voice to your truth, the writing will follow.
4) Read for 20 minutes.
Begin with: Keeping a good book with you every day. Immerse yourself in language.
There are few pastimes better than reading to help jump-start your new writing ritual. By reading, you “breathe life” from your very lips into the words, ideas and stories told by another soul, as Thoreau once said. That’s powerful. By immersing yourself in language in such a way, you support your mind into speaking and communicating with written word.
I’m a notoriously slow reader. I’ve struggled with reading since I was a kid. These days, I take a book with me to the gym, to the yoga studio, leave one in my car and a few scattered on my coffee table.
By immersing yourself in daily or almost-daily reading, you can feel good about the fact that you’re practicing communication and enlivening your familiarity, comfort and connection to language.
If you’re looking for some good books to check out, lately I’m reading a lot of great works inspired by my trip to India, including some on yoga, Hinduism, Hindu mythology and the history of yoga asanas:
- Ganesha Goes to Lunch: Classics from Mystic India (Mandala Classics)
- Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System (Llewellyn’s New Age Series)
- Myths of the Asanas: The Ancient Origins of Yoga
5) Refresh yourself through body movement, breath or nature.
How: Stir creative energy and confidence with yoga, a long walk, anything that gets you off tech.
Me? Recommending yoga? Go figure :)
You might not make the connection at first, but yoga, body movement, breath work and nature are incredibly nurturing to your creative side.
These activities aren’t just niceties. We’re all guilty of forgetting to make the time for health and well-being during our work days, but for me, making the time for yoga, walks in the park and meditation have been hugely supportive of my well-being, mental-emotional health and creative output.
Here’s why. When you’re moving your body, breathing deeply or spending time in nature, you…
- Get into your body and get out of your mind. Being “in body” means that you empower yourself to process, interpret and exist through feel, not thought or ego alone.
- Refresh your energy, attention span and awareness. Somewhere along the line, our culture came to adopt this ideal that working 8 to 10 straight hours per day (save for an hour for lunch) is somehow normal, sustainable or productive. Getting out of your head and into your body (or into nature) can refresh your mental and physical energy and support your overall health and well-being. As your energy is bolstered and mood is lifted, so too is your creative capacity.
- Return to a natural state that ebbs and flows, and isn’t forced. Spending so much time disconnected from nature is actually a far cry from our natural state as human beings. I find that spending time in nature–or, in the cold weather, just more time working out–helps me live better with the natural rhythms of the natural world around us.
6) Aim for a mini goal, not a mega goal.
Begin with: 150 words, 300 words, 500 words. Then, call it a day.
Stephen King said in his book, On Writing, that he strives to write 3,000 words every day.
You and I are not Stephen King. And that’s perfectly fine!
I tried to write 3,000 words per day for a couple weeks when I was living in New York City back in 2012, and made it three days before realizing the inevitable:
Word-count mega-goals are utterly counterproductive to helping you get started on a healthy writing ritual because they are utterly unsustainable.
In fact, I believe that the whole mentality that writers maintain about word-count goals is dangerous and counter-productive. Adding layers of self-induced stress and pressure to our creative habits actually associates something like writing with a fear-trigger in our brains. Taking action from an emotional state of fear triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism, inducing a deficit-oriented thinking, and thus, deficit-minded writing. It’s not sustainable to act on fear, stress and self-induced pressure.
We burn out or we give up. It’s a matter of which comes first.
As human beings, we naturally aspire for ways to stop feeling the fight and the struggle of survival–in life, or as artists.
That’s why so many artists suffer, struggle, stumble and quit.
Stephen King writes about 15 books in a damn year (at least, it feels like it), so it works for him. But if you really want to track progress with word-count goals, set goals that honor your time, space and energy. Start small.
7) Finish with a nightcap.
Begin with: Leaving a journal on your nightstand and sprawl last thoughts of your day onto paper.
My final recommendation is to leave a journal on your nightstand and to make the most of a weary mind: your walls come down, your agenda evaporates, and you just write whatever is on your mind.
Sometimes it’s very vulnerable. Sometimes it’s incoherent. Sometimes it’s brilliant.
Writing just before sleep is a neat way to tap into your writers’ voice because you’re not trying to write, so much as you are just staying awake another few blinks before going to sleep. You may be surprised what you read when you look back the following morning.
Ready, Mary? Now, let’s get started!
Every creative passion takes time.
We need to invest lots of time, effort and energy into these writing passion of ours for them to start giving us the feeling of fulfillment and reward.
Nevertheless, by trying these writing techniques for yourself, I’m more than confident that you’ll be able to start a new writing ritual that will make your creative journey a truly rewarding experience–no matter the challenges.
It is, after all, a journey. And if the journey in life is truly the greatest reward, your creative journey ought to be treated no differently.
You’re already on your creative journey, whether you feel like you’ve actually “started” or not.
It’s already begun. You’re on your journey. Now is the time to acknowledge it, and dive in.
PS — Some of the above links to recommended books are Amazon affiliate links, which entitle me to a small commission should you choose to purchase through those links. But, if you can, please consider supporting a local bookstore instead :)